In 2012, the 19th International AIDS Conference was held in Washington, USA. The choice of country was apparently in recognition of the Obama administration’s 2009 policy shift overturning the long standing ban on HIV-positive people entering the United States.
Both the sex worker and drug user communities opposed the choice, arguing they would be excluded from the conference. The USA’s immigration policies still included restrictions on sex workers and drug users entering the country – on the grounds of ‘moral turpitude.’
The International AIDS Society, the body responsible for convening the conference, did not support proposals that the conference be relocated in order to be more inclusive of highly marginalised key populations at risk of HIV/AIDS.
Sex worker activists from the Asia and Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), supported by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), proposed an alternative AIDS Hub in Kolkata, India. This event was called the Kolkata Freedom Festival, and also marked the 20th anniversary of the founding of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC).
DMSC is a sex worker-led network with over 65,000 members, based in the red-light district of Sonagachi, Kolkata. Since it was founded, DMSC has established a bank specifically for sex workers, and a school specifically for the children of sex workers. DMSC has supported the establishment of a peer-led client advocacy group, and have undertaken highly successful peer education campaigns that have resulted in consistent condom use among sex workers rising dramatically from 3% in 1992, to 90% in 1998.
The Kolkata Freedom Festival, which ran from 22 to 26 July 2012, involved sex workers from over 40 countries, engaging in panel discussions, workshops, protests, arts based advocacy, and live video link-up with sex workers at the IAC proper.
Representatives from the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD) also attended the event in solidarity with sex workers. They helped to highlight intersectional issues impacting both the sex worker and drug user communities.
The Kolkata Freedom Festival was initiated and led by sex workers from the Asia and Pacific region. The festival focused on a number of themes primarily highlighting the freedoms we are all entitled as sex workers. These included:
- freedom of movement and to migrate;
- freedom to access quality health services;
- freedom to work and choose occupation;
- freedom to associate and unionise;
- freedom to be protected by the law;
- freedom from abuse and violence;
- and freedom from stigma and discrimination.