Sex workers in Papua New Guinea’s capital city, Port Moresby, have a strong ally in Powes Parkop, the province’s Governor, who has vowed to actively support the decriminalisation of sex work. Currently, homosexuality and sex work is criminalised in Papua New Guinea and both sex workers and Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) face high levels of stigma and discrimination from religious leaders, broader society, police personnel and from family members; however, Mr Parkop recently stated that he is “not concerned by the law” and that he recognises that the “lives and needs of the people should be put ahead of the law.” He also stated that “vulnerable communities, such as MSM and sex workers are at heightened risk of HIV due to stigma and discrimination” and that it is important that Papua New Guinea creates a “safe environment in which communities vulnerable to HIV are able to access the services they are entitled to.”
Mr Parkop said that he acknowledges the importance of “strengthening the relationships between service providers and members of highly marginalised communities.” He further stated that the Papua New Guinea police force need to be sensitised to the rights of sex workers, MSM and the trans* community; however, he recognises that due to the “cultural, religious, political, legislative and social environment in Papua New Guinea”, confronting the institutionalised prejudicial behaviour of police toward marginalised communities will be a challenge. On World AIDS Day, 1 December, 2014, Mr Parkop stated that he made an appeal to Papua New Guinea’s citizens that they support the rights of sex workers, MSM and the trans* community by challenging prejudicial policies and practices in legislative, political and social contexts, and that they understand that one of the most important ways to reduce HIV amongst the population of Papua New Guinea is to ensure that people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) have access to treatment and social support.
In Papua New Guinea, HIV prevalence is currently estimated at 0.7% nationally; however sex workers, MSM and the trans* community are disproportionately impacted upon by the disease. According to UNAIDS data, 19% of female sex workers, 9% of male sex workers and 24% of trans* sex workers are currently living with HIV.
Friends Frangipani, Papua New Guinea’s national peer-led sex worker organisation has been advocating for the decriminalisation of sex work since the organisation’s inception in 2005, and supports the campaign being undertaken by Mr Parkop. Cathy Ketepa, Friends Frangipani’s manager, conceded with many of the issues raised by Mr Parkop. Ms Ketepa said that HIV positive sex workers face double discrimination, due to their profession and HIV status. Ms Ketepa also said that sex workers regularly face violence, abuse and harassment from the police force. According to Ms Ketepa, many sex workers are harassed by police for walking alone in public places at night time and are regularly searched by police. In contrast to best practise safer sex practices, Ms Ketepa added that during police searches of sex workers, condoms are used as evidence that a person is engaging in sex work, “Police do not fulfil their duties by protecting us as members of the public, rather, if they find condoms in our bags, they will verbally or physically abuse us for being sex workers.” In a 2004 raid of Port Moresby’s “3 Mile Road” brothel, which received international press coverage due to the excessive violence perpetrated upon sex workers by state actors, sex workers reported that they were publically paraded through the centre of the city, forced to swallow condoms and sexually assaulted by the police.
Ms Ketepa also expanded upon the issues facing sex workers attempting to access primary health care services saying, “Sex workers are reticent to access health care services due to the judgmental attitudes of staff within these clinics. Sex workers commonly report violations of their confidentiality, particularly in relation to their profession and their sero-status. Although all sex workers face similar issues in terms of stigma and discrimination from service providers, it is trans* sex workers who are the most highly marginalised by health care providers.”
Janelle Fawkes, Chief Executive Officer of Scarlet Alliance, Australia’s national peer-led sex worker organisation, Scarlet Alliance, which has been engaged with Friends Frangipani in a peer-to-peer capacity building initiative since 2005, welcomed the announcement that Mr Parkop would support the decriminalisation of sex work in Papua New Guinea. Ms Fawkes said, “Many sex workers have identified that an effective response to HIV within a sex industry context must include the decriminalisation of sex work. The Lancet’s HIV and Sex Work edition supported this assertion and projected that the decriminalisation of sex work would deliver a 33-46% reduction in HIV, clearly demonstrating the importance of governments to equally prioritise supportive sex industry legal frameworks.”