Sex Workers Meet in Johannesburg

By Bukeka Mkhosi | June 22nd, 2011

In October 2010, UN women issued a call for proposals to work with three marginalized communities (namely sex workers, women living with HIV and LGBT communities) to develop regional advocacy strategies on HIV and AIDS. OSISA’s HIV and AIDS programme, in partnership with the women’s Rights programme and the Special Initiative on LGBT rights submitted a proposal and were awarded the contract.

In line with the Overall project goal; to build the capacity of the three key groups to develop a regional advocacy and lobbying strategy to address HIV and AIDS in 13 countries namely; Angola, Botswana, Comoros, Lesotho Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, 15 sex workers and 11 allies from 12 countries attended the Sex Workers vulnerable to and living with HIV Advocacy Agenda setting meeting from June 13 – 15, 2011 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The 3-day meeting included presentations, case studies and working groups and aimed at defining the challenges faced by sex workers that increase their vulnerability to HIV and applying this learning to develop an advocacy strategy identifying ways of addressing these challenges and their impact. During the meeting participants were given an opportunity to discuss their lives and work situations. It was agreed that while the vulnerability of sex workers is widely acknowledged and not under debate, and the mechanisms that drive this vulnerability are understood, specific ways in which will address them are not coherent. The laws that oppress sex workers and increase their vulnerability are morality based and not based on evidence or human rights principles. This further entrenches stigma and discrimination and presents some insurmountable barriers to HIV prevention, and treatment. Any agenda on HIV and AIDS for sex workers needs to address both the broader structural issues as well as the specific and more localized challenges.

The sessions were not only informative but empowering for most sex workers. In one participant’s own words, “I feel empowered to go back home and fight for my rights and the rights of other sex workers in my country”.

The meeting also focused on concrete actions. Participants came up with a vision to guide their key recommendations and demanded that;

1. The Law should be protective of vulnerable people rather than being punitive, abusive and enabling of abuse.
2. Sex work must be decriminalized.
3. Laws must be aligned with policy and should also be adequately resourced for effective implementation
4. There needs to be a conducive and supportive legal framework that promotes access to services, to justice and freedom from discrimination, where resources are allocated facility and governments are accountable.

During the closing session of the meeting it was concluded that the ability of sex workers to remain HIV free, or if they are positive to seek adequate treatment and care, is mediated by the chronic absence of power (to influence access to treatment and care, to negotiate condom use etc), the presence of stigma & discrimination, and poverty. These three issues are overlapping and mutually reinforcing and this destructive web limits the choices available to sex workers and further degrades their self determination.

With the underlying issues of power, stigma and poverty, mechanisms for addressing vulnerability of sex workers to HIV should include; Law reform and decriminalization, accountability for human rights abuses, Movement building and sex worker inclusion, empowerment and capacity building, HIV treatment, care and support that is evidence based, Respect for the self determination and agency of sex workers.

A 10 member representative committee was elected from the group comprising of 5 sex workers, 4 allies and 1 regional expert. The main objective of this core group is to finalize the advocacy agenda for sex workers and represent the sex worker sector at the larger platform meeting bringing together all the 3 sectors to be held later in the year.

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