Asia Pacific voices at Durban 2016 – Interview with Kiran Deshmukh

Kiran Deshmukh, President of the VAMP Collective in India, was one of a number of sex worker representatives from the Asia Pacific who travelled to Durban, South Africa, for the 2016 International Aids Conference.

After long flights home APNSW managed to catch up with Kiran to ask a few questions about IAC 2016 for sharing with the wider APNSW membership.

How does it feel to be back home?

“Even though I have come back home, the thoughts of IAC are still running through my head. In Durban I came to realize the ‘world scenario’ regarding HIV, and how people are living with it. I met so many people at the IAC, and felt that I am not alone or a single person who lives with HIV. Solidarity amongst sex workers was good to see.

What where the highlights of the week?

“The highlight of the week for me was the presentation of VAMP’s work in building a collective to respond to HIV in India.”

Kiran Deshmukh speaks at meeting about collectivisation at IAC 2016
Kiran speaking about the work of VAMP in India at IAC 2016.

“The positive person’s march was good, and the sex workers protest rally for decriminalisation of sex work was very powerful. There is a lot of resistance against criminalisation by sex workers in other countries too – I learned from that.

“The documentary film screening about activists in Durban at the Aids Conference in 2000 and this year 2016 was another highlight. It gave an idea of the long fight for treatment and medicines. Meena Seshu and VAMP’s work was shown too.”

Kiran holds a large Indian flag as protestors prepare to march
Kiran joins protest over drug pricing

I participated in the march protesting against the Indian government about the price of medicines. It is important for us to stay together on the issue of the cost of drugs. South African groups were there in this march and showed their support. In India we are always discussing finding new partners to work on this issue, but this time I could see this support with my own eyes.

"Prostitution makes your heart hard"
Anti sex work protest by local people paid to protest by an NGO

“When the organization called “Doctors for Life” distributed anti sex work pamphlets we responded by confronting them on the street. We told them that Jesus loves ALL human beings! They had a poster that said “Prostitution makes your Heart hard” … so we responded with “Sex work makes your penis hard!!!!” We went with red umbrellas and showed our anger at their protest. Meeting sex workers from over the whole world was the best thing ever.”

"Prostitution makes your penis hard"
Sex workers hold counter-protest against an anti-sex work group

“Judge Cameron’s speech was very good.  He spoke about sex workers and the need to decriminalise sex work, and about the importance of rights in HIV/AIDS response. Along with other activists, I joined him on the stage in a protest to call for better access to medicines for sex workers living with HIV/AIDS, and to prevention for key populations. It was the highlight of my visit.”

Sex workers and other key population groups join Judge Cameron on stage at IAC 2016
Judge Cameron invites sex workers and others to join him on stage

“APNSW and NSWP organized an interview on PrEP, and I gave inputs on why we sex workers oppose PrEP. It is important that APNSW and NSWP are raising this issue to draw attention that when basic medicines are not available, introducing PrEP in poor countries is not useful.

“APNSW organised a discussion between sex workers in the networking zone – to share experiences from different countries. We heard from a sex worker in Australia, a sex worker from Japan, and a transgender sex worker in the USA. I shared how VAMP works to build a collective, and there was a very good discussion between sex workers. I want more sessions like this to be organised for us to learn from each other. Please, organise this in every meeting and workshop!”

Were there any low points?

“In terms of low-points, I needed money for a personal translator and translation of materials in Marathi. The conference should make facilities for non-English speaking participants. Also a briefing for new participants to the conference would help first time people participate more easily.”

What are the most important issues or outcomes from IAC 2016 for sex workers in Asia Pacific?

“Firstly, the demand to decriminalise sex work. More and more people are speaking up for decriminalisation rights – that is one achievement from IAC 2016. We continue the struggle with the laws and policies that affect our lives.

“Secondly, as a positive sex worker, no money for medicines and condoms is bad. This is our major concern for HIV prevention work. We have shared this issue widely at IAC 2016: we still struggle for medicines.

“Thirdly, is violence. All the community members, not just female sex workers but also transgender and male sex workers and MSM at IAC 2106, shared that still we face violence in our lives. That needs to stop.”

Kiran Deshmukh holds a placard saying "Stop AIDS Stop HIV Criminalization"
Kiran joins activists on stage with Judge Cameron

(Thanks to Aarthi Pai for many of the photos on this page.)