In 2012, the 19th International AIDS Conference was held in Washington, American, ostensibly in recognition of the Obama administration’s 2009 policy shift in overturning the long standing ban on HIV-positive people entering the United States. Despite opposition from both the sex worker and drug user communities, who argued that the country’s immigration policies still included restrictions on sex workers and drug users entering the country on the grounds of ‘moral turpitude’ sex workers and drug users were still excluded from participating in the conference. The International AIDS Society, the body responsible for convening the conference, did not support proposals that the conference be relocated in order to be more inclusive of highly marginalised key populations at risk of HIV/AIDS.
Sex worker activists from the Asia and Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), supported by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), proposed an alternative AIDS Hub in Kolkata, India. Deemed the Kolkata Freedom Festival, the event also marked the 20th anniversary of the founding of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC). DMSC is a sex worker-led network with over 65,000 members, based in the red-light district of Sonagarchi, Kolkata. Since its inception, DMSC has established a bank specifically for sex workers, a school specifically for the children of sex workers, supported the establishment of a peer-led client advocacy group, and have undertaken highly successful peer education campaigns that have resulted in consistent condom use amongst sex workers raising dramatically from 3% in 1992, to 90% in 1998.
The Kolkata Freedom Festival, which ran 22 to 26 July 2012, involved sex workers from over 40 countries, engaging in panel discussions, workshops, protests, arts based advocacy, and live video link-up with sex workers at the IAC proper. Representatives from the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD) also attended the event in solidarity with sex workers. They helped to highlight intersectional issues impacting both the sex worker and drug user communities.
The Kolkata Freedom Festival was instigated and led by sex workers from the Asia and Pacific region, focused on a number of themes primarily highlighting the freedoms we are all entitled as sex workers. These included: freedom of movement and to migrate; freedom to access quality health services; freedom to work and choose occupation; freedom to associate and unionise; freedom to be protected by the law; freedom from abuse and violence; and freedom from stigma and discrimination.