The six-days alternative XIX International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012), dubbed as the Global Hub of the official AIDS 2012, opened with a pre-event gathering of sex workers from over 30 countries who gathered in Swabhumi in vibrant and colourful attires after a short walk through the streets of Salt Lake shouting slogans like 'Sex work is work.' The AIDS 2012 which begins in Washington DC on Sunday 22nd July will have a live digital link with the global sex workers' hub overlapping for a few hours after 6pm. Titled as Sex Workers Freedom Festival, the unique event is being co-hosted by Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) and All Indian Network of Sex Workers (AINSW).
"Travel restrictions are not just during the conference. Sex workers are permanently denied visas to enter US for work or for residence. They cannot join partners who are US residents and so this is a much bigger issue," said Andrew Hunter, president of NSWP.
"Being the most vulnerable population, sex workers wanted to be a part of the US conference to fight the challenge of HIV across the world but were denied visas," said Bharati Dey, co-chair and secretary of DMSC, which represents sex workers in Kolkata. Sonagachi model, where sex workers were in the forefront of HIV prevention has been a successful model in the world and the project is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Community led intervention and scaling up preventive education campaigns among high risk groups such as sex workers, men who have sex with men and injecting drug users, are some of the key strategies used by India to reduce new HIV infection rates in the last 7 years by 40 to 50 per cent.
The Kolkata meeting will deliberate on the "Seven Freedoms" - the right to move, work, have access to healthcare, participate, organise, be free of violence and discrimination -- without which sex workers say they cannot reduce their vulnerability to HIV.
"We hope this conference will make sex workers' voices louder and stronger," said Dr Samarajit Jana, Chair, Global Hub. Held every two years, the International AIDS Conference is returning to the United States for the first time since 1990, after being kept away by laws that barred people living with HIV (PLHIV) from travelling to the country.
"It is time to neutralize the evil within us. We have to be realistic while dealing with the challenges of minor and other trafficking so that these issues do not hurt our work and further criminalize sex work," added Andrew Hunter, president of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP).
Khartini Slamah, who is spearheading the Malaysian Sex Workers movement led the pre-conference meeting. Khartini appreciated the Kolkata Hub as this is the first time that transgender sex workers have been given a platform to speak up and join the wider campaign for safeguarding the rights of all sex workers - female, male and transgender. "Two years back the Vienna Conference took many decisions on the rights of sex workers. But they have yet to be implemented and to do that the communities have to be involved at every level including the decision making level,’’ she concluded.