The Brazilian Network of Prostitutes released a statement on June 7, 2013, in response to the government's recent censorship of a rights based HIV prevention campaign developed by sex workers in partnership with the STD/AIDS Department/Ministry of Health earlier this year. The campaign was launched for International Prostitutes Day (June 2nd), and, just two days later, ordered to be taken offline by the Minister of Health. A sanitised and adulterated campaign was relaunched several days later. Sex worker NGOs quickly mobilised and released statements criticising the government's actions. As the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes noted, "With the government’s decision to first veto and then drastically alter the AIDS campaign supposedly constructed in partnership with prostitutes, we see that they are using this social group to affirm what they desire, thereby ignoring the achievements of the social movement and violating diverse democratic principles".
The full statement from the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes is available here. The following blog post from Laura Murray, sex worker rights advocate, filmmaker, and student based in Brazil, provides more background information about the events that have unfolded in the country over the past week and a link to the entire censored campaign.
Political Prostitutes and Shameful Politicians
Brazil's government was once internationally recognized as a leader in terms of supporting model HIV prevention programs and defending sexual rights. However, the events of the past week provide yet another example that the situation in this country has drastically changed.
On June 4th, Brazil's Minister of Health, Alexandre Padilha, ordered that a poster reading, "I'm happy being a prostitute," be removed from the Department of STD/AIDS's. The poster was one element of a larger campaign entitled Without Shame to Use Condoms launched on International Prostitutes Day (June 2nd). Sex workers developed all of the campaign material, which included posters and videos, during a participatory workshop in March of 2013 that was organized and sponsored by the Ministry of Health. The campaign logo is an anime figure - "Maria Sem Vergonha" (Maria Without Shame)--created for an earlier campaign developed by the Ministry of Health in partnership with the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes in 2002. The original Maria Without Shame campaign was also re-launched on June 2nd (the adhesives are below) and is symbolic of the government's previously celebrated solidarity and human rights based approach to HIV and STI prevention with sex workers.
In his decision to remove the poster, "I’m happy being a prostitute", Minister Padilha alleged that he had not approved the material stating that as long as he is Minister, the government would not produce “this type” of material. Conservative Evangelical groups in Congress quickly mobilized and questioned the campaign, making discriminatory and stigmatory comments and demanding an explanation from the government. By the end of the day, the head of Brazil's Department of STD/AIDS and Viral Hepatitis, Dirceu Grecco, had been removed from his position, and the Minister had requested that the ENTIRE campaign be taken offline. The decision negates the rights of prostitutes to be proud of their work, to speak for themselves and to have access to the kind of health information based on citizenship principles that the Brazilian government itself has championed in the past.
Over the course of the week, others left the Department of STD/AIDS – some fired others voluntarily – and on Thursday evening, June 6th, the Ministry of Health re-launched an altered, sanitized version of the campaign, deleting the posters that discussed violence, citizenship and . Only the posters explicitly mentioning condom use were included, and two new texts where added: one replacing the mention of International Prostitute’s Day with the sentence, “Prostitutes who take care of themselves always use condoms”, and a text staying, “Life is better without AIDS. Get your condoms in health services. Aids still doesn’t have a cure”. The erasure of any mention of rights is symbolic of previous government attempts to erase not only of the discussion of sexual rights, but also of efforts to literally erase and hide populations that are “inconvenient” to current moral agendas, political ambitious for power, and the image that Brazil is attempting to project of itself as a safe, “clean” and “respectable” for the July 2013 visit of the Pope and 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
This was for example the third time that the Minister has censored materials produced for HIV prevention. In early 2012, Padilha censored a campaign designed for Carnaval that featured gay youth --one of the groups where HIV/AIDS has most increased in Brazil--and in March of 2013, the government cancelled the distribution of an educational kit for adolescents that mentioned homosexuality, drugs, and pregnancy.
In this way, the Minister's decision to bow to political pressure is indicative of a politics of fear that favors gains in power over gains in human rights. Dominant political parties are afraid of losing votes from some radical evangelical groups that have gained significant political influence and favor moral beliefs ahead of democratic principles. The most egregious example of this trend is the ascendancy of Pastor Marco Feliciano who, as an outcome of political negotiations, was appointed in March 2013 to the Congressional Human Rights Commission. Feliciano led the charge to condemn the Without Shame to Use Condoms campaign, and, shared via Twitter that the Minister had even called him to apologize for the events.
Unfortunately international coverage has trivialized the government’s decision. Rather than focusing on the human rights violations that this censorship represents and the dangerous conservative turn in Brazilian politics, the international media [add hyperlink: http://newsfeed.time.com/2013/06/06/brazils-happy-prostitute-slogan-gets-a-chilly-reception/] has used this as yet another opportunity to repeat the hype about feared "increases" in “sex tourism” and sexual exploitation of minors during the upcoming 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
Prostitutes, AIDS activists, public health professionals, and researchers mobilized in response to events this week, organizing actions and publishing harsh criticisms. The Brazilian Network of Prostitutes published a brilliant response recognizing what happened as a violation of constitutional rights and prostitute organizations circulated statements and even made their own campaigns. Many activists have called for Minister Padilha to resign and an end to politics guided by moral agendas and political ambitions at the cost of human rights.
In solidarity with these protests, film blog of, A Kiss for Gabriela, about the founder of the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes, Gabriela Leite, published the original campaign as a way to fight censorship, recognize prostitution is a dignified profession and affirm women's rights to express themselves and their desires as they wish, regardless of how their happiness interferes with political and moral agendas. Please check it out, and join the fight by sharing it widely and promoting the visibility of prostitutes’ voices, images and rights!
In most recent developments reported in Davida's newspaper, Beijo da Rua on June 11th, sex workers involved in the campaign will send cease and desist letters to the Ministry of Health, revoking their releases and notifying them that if they do not remove the altered posters with their images, they will sue the government. The Beijo da Rua story quotes Luzarina, who appears in the altered campaign and is also the Coordinator of the Paraiba Prostitutes Association (APROSPB) in João Pessoa, where the workshop to develop the materials was held: "I went one week without working to participate in this workshop, thinking that it would construct something new that would contribute to all of us, and today, I am embarrassed of the result." She continued that, "I am a citizen and whore and I have the right to express my feelings. I am happy being a prostitute."
- Laura Murray, June 7, 2013. Updated: June 11, 2013