Report Back on the Consultation on HIV/AIDS and Sex Work in Asia and the Pacific

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From October 12-16, 2010 in Pattaya, Thailand, the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), UNAIDS, and UNFPA collaborated on a consultation on HIV/AIDS and sex work in Asia. The meeting brought together UN and Global Fund for HIV Malaria and TB representatives with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and government officials from eight countries. Sex worker activists from Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Fiji, Papua, New Guinea, Cambodia, and China attended to discuss approaches to the HIV/AIDS epidemic throughout Asia.

The meeting created space for NGO workers, and policy makers and sex workers to share information about human rights, health, and law.

Throughout the consultation particular issues arose. These are some of them:

  • The proportion of funding for effective HIV programming with male, female, and transgender sex workers, is not adequate or proportionate to the role of commercial sex in HIV epidemics in Asia and the Pacific.
  • Interventions that are initiated and sustained by sex worker communities are crucial.
  • Lack of access to HIV medications and support for HIV positive sex workers remains inadequate in many places.
  • Discrimination and abuse of HIV positive sex workers must be addressed.
  • The criminal law is a major barrier to good HIV programming, but so too are other laws and conventions that commit governments to eliminating trafficking and sexual exploitation.
  • The conflation of trafficking and sex work and the redefinition of sex work as sexual exploitation or entertainment is eroding countries’ capacity to provide effective HIV services.
  • Violence is the most important issue overall and violence by police outweighs all other violence as a priority for sex workers throughout the region.
  • Mandatory and coerced HIV testing remains a problem throughout the region. It must be stopped.
  • Condom confiscation by police is a widespread problem.

Sex workers drafted a UN style declaration at the meeting called the Pattaya Draft Declaration that outlines what sex workers want. Like a UN document it will be circulated for discussion before it becomes a final declaration.

The consultation was remarkable for its ambitions. To ask police, sex workers, government and UN officials to discuss approaches to HIV in Asia and the Pacific is a big call. Some countries were more successful at this than others and there were many problems to remind us of the power differentials between us all. Some police and government were very hostile and there were various moments that illustrated the kinds of discrimination against sex workers that were being identified at the meeting as a significant barrier to HIV prevention and care. However overall the opportunity for bridge building with the UN and sex worker activists in the region was invaluable and APNSW is confident it will lead to better policy. We also hope sex workers’ chance to interact with the Global Fund will be the start of a process to make better use of that money by ensuring that more of it goes to sex workers at community level to run rights based effective programmes.

The consultation got some coverage in the media as well: IRIN News has a piece about the effect of criminalization and condoms being used as evidence of prostitution on the spread of HIV and  AlertNet/Reuters has an article on the failure of national and UN agency programmes to effectively reach sex workers.