She-roes Visit Washington to Share Victories Working with Women in the Sex Sector

Jamila Taylor on
March 31, 2009 – 7:00am

Jamila Taylor's picture
Does U.S. foreign policy combat HIV and trafficking, or combat women working
in the sex sector?
To spark discussion on this question, the Center for Health and Gender Equity
(CHANGE), with the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at American
University Washington College of Law, sponsored a symposium two weeks ago to
highlight the importance of engaging sex workers in anti-trafficking and
HIV/AIDS efforts, and to demonstrate how anti-prostitution policies and
campaigns such as those supported by the U.S. government undermine the U.S.’s
own policy objectives to end human trafficking and HIV and AIDS. 
Sex work is not the same as trafficking in persons for the purpose of sex,
and the conflating of the two in U.S. policy has resulted in human rights
violations such as “raid and rescues” of women sex workers who were not victims
of trafficking – yet the actions were conducted in the name of anti-trafficking.
U.S. policy over the past decade has contributed significantly to an
anti-sex-worker approach to key health and human rights issues. Both the global AIDS law and trafficking victims protection law (both reauthorized in 2008)
include provisions that prohibit U.S. foreign assistance for nongovernmental
organizations that promote or advocate for the legalization or practice of
prostitution. One major problem with the provision is that the U.S. government
has failed to define what is and is not allowed under the policy, leaving
implementers and country missions to guess about what exactly is prohibited from
U.S. funding.  As a result, programs that ensure the health and rights of
one of the most marginalized populations at greatest risk of contracting HIV are
under threat of losing funding, censor themselves about sex worker rights, or
have shut down due to loss of funds.   
A second provision in the global AIDS policy – yes, it gets worse – is that
in order to receive U.S. funds in the first place the respective NGO must have a
policy explicitly opposing the legalization and practice of
prostitution.  How is that for alienating an already marginalized group of
people who are key to slowing the spread of HIV?  Without access to targeted and
carefully implemented prevention programming
– provided by people they trust
to be looking out for their interests, not U.S. government interests –
sex workers will not have access to the information and services necessary to
enable them to use condoms consistently and correctly with their partners and
The Member of Congress who apparently rode in on a white horse to protect
women and children that have become victims of trafficking seems to have no
concern about the impact of these policies on the health and human rights of sex
workers.  Christopher Smith (R-NJ) is that self-appointed guardian of
women’s morality who has shaped the policies that equate prostitution with sex
trafficking —  although his efforts would not have gone very far without
the help of the Bush administration and the votes of Democrats and Republicans
in the U.S. Congress.   
CHANGE seeks to eliminate this pledge legislatively, yet in the meantime the
Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator should revise its guidance to ensure that
PEPFAR-funded programs aimed at reducing HIV infection among sex workers are not
driven by an anti-prostitution ideology, and are proven to respect and uphold
the human rights of women, men and transgender adult sex workers.   
Despite current U.S. policy, sex workers are organizing to fight trafficking
and HIV, and to reform the very policies that disenfranchise them.  
Four women who work with sex workers shared their stories with the audience at
the symposium.  
Sara Bradford, technical advisor for the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers
in Cambodia, spoke about the impact of Cambodia’s recent anti-prostitution and
anti-trafficking law, which was implemented as a result of U.S. pressure. 
The law has had little impact on trafficking, yet a huge effect on the lives of
sex workers.  Police take sex workers forcibly from the brothels in which
they work and place them in “rehabilitation centers” – in some cases with their
children – where they are given little to eat, no clean water, and are denied
basic health services, including access to ARVs for those living with HIV. 
Women have also been beaten and sexually abused by the police. 
Dr. Shilpa Merchant is the regional director for Population Services
International in Mumbai, India.  Shilpa has worked to provide HIV
prevention services to underserved sex workers and their clients in Mumbai’s
red-light district.  She has been told by stewards of U.S.-funded programs
that providing condoms to sex workers is in fact promoting sex work. 
Despite this, PSI has supported Shilpa in her work with sex workers and provided
sexual and reproductive health services to them and other marginalized and hard
to reach populations. 
Sylvia Mollet is a co-founder of DANAYA SO in Mali.  A big part of
DANAYA SO’s focus is on young women engaged in the sex sector.  Sylvia
spoke movingly about young women who willingly become sex workers for the most
basic needs, like school fees, food, and clean water.  Sylvia even
mentioned a situation where a young woman had exchanged sex for a piece of
bread.  DANAYA SO has worked to emphasize the need to create opportunities
for women and girls so that they may freely choose to remain in the sex sector
or turn to alternative life choices beyond sex work.  The organization has
created special income generation and micro-enterprise opportunities, and
through public-private partnerships with pharmacies and health clinics offer
full-coverage health insurance, including HIV prevention. 
Gabriela Leite is the director of Davida in Brazil.  She is an author,
self-proclaimed retired prostitute, and renowned human rights advocate. 
Gabriela worked as a prostitute for more than ten years and started a movement
in the 1970s as a response to human rights violations against sex workers in her
country.  During her presentation at the symposium, Gabriela highlighted
Brazil’s choice to not accept U.S. HIV/AIDS funding through PEPFAR due to the
inclusion of the Anti-Prostitution Pledge. Davida and the network of sex workers
pride themselves on creating partnerships with government where sex workers are
consulted and collaborated with in the fight against HIV/AIDS.  Because of
this partnership, Gabriela mentioned that the HIV prevalence rate among sex
workers has declined significantly in about a ten-year span.   
It is committed advocates like Sara, Shilpa, Sylvia and Gabriela, and the
women they serve, who are best positioned to identify and assist with
eliminating child exploitation and human trafficking for the purposes of
sex.  Governments should not see the sex sector as something to abolish,
but like the government of Brazil, welcome organizations and networks of sex
workers as partners in eliminating HIV/AIDS, human trafficking and child
For more information about U.S. global AIDS policy and the impact of the
Anti-Prostitution Pledge, please visit

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