A session called “Reclaiming Rights: Sex Workers Speak” was held on the first day of the 12th International Conference on AIDS in the Asia Pacific (ICAAP) in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The conference ran from the 12 -14 of March.
The session was organised by SANGRAM (India) and hosted by the National Network of Sex Workers India (NNSW) and the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW). At this session, sex workers from India, Nepal, Australia, Myanmar and Cambodia talked about how the decriminalisation of sex work and the involvement of sex workers in anti-trafficking initiatives are vital to ensuring their rights.
Mukta from NNSW explained that their organisation is working for the rights of sex workers, full decriminalisation and against violence.
Jules, from Scarlet Alliance explained that decriminalisation was introduced to the Australian state of New South Wales as part of addressing widespread police corruption. She talked about the positive outcomes it has brought for sex workers. She also highlighted the findings from the Lancet edition on Sex Work which found that decriminalisation of sex work reduces HIV and also increases access to care.
Sangita from VAMP, SANGRAM based in Sangli, Maharashtra, India introduced SANGRAM and explained that they work in 5 districts with around 5000 female, male and transgender sex workers and their children in India. She said, “we believe that anyone in sex work or other trade has a right to choose. If women or others in sex work are decriminalised, we are best placed to fight trafficking.”
The effects of the criminalisation of sex work were then discussed in a Cambodian context by Dany. Dany explained that one of the issues they face is that “sex work is not considered work in Cambodia.” Dany then talked about the fact that in some cases the government is trying to reduce HIV by giving condoms to sex workers. At the same time, the police use condoms as evidence of sex work. This then creates a conflict between sex workers and those who implement laws or policies. Dany added that sex workers are considered “worse than criminals and imprisoned without rights.”
“When sex workers question police about arrest, they say the government orders them. When sex workers ask government officers about this, they feign ignorance. So no one is responsible for sex workers rights,” Dany said, “it is great that WNU (Women’s Network for Unity) is representing sex workers, especially during arrest.”
Bijaya of JMMS (Federation of Female Sex Workers in Nepal) spoke about the situation faced by sex workers in Nepal. She told the session that violence perpetrated by police is high. “Due to unclear law and arrest under specific laws, we have no human rights, healthcare access or other services. Daily, we face violence from clients, lovers, health workers, friend, police, hotel or brothel owners.”
Yu yu from AMA, a sex worker-led organisation in Myanmar discussed a study called the Right(s) Evidence Sex Work, Violence and HIV in ASIA: A Multi-Country Qualitative Study. Yu Yu explained, “there is a need for a study on the violence experienced by sex workers. Advocacy is being done for government officers who do not know sex workers’ realities and harass them. The government performs studies on sex workers by supposed experts who do not know about sex workers fully, do not do proper research, do not approach us or take our views. In our study, 1300 male, women transgender and sex workers living with HIV participated.”
More discussion time allowed those present to ask questions and find out more about the work being done in different countries. Many of the issues discussed were found to be common experiences. It was concluded that the work being done must continue as the issues facing sex worker community still remain.