Police, Sex workers and People Who Use Drugs

Ishdeep Kohli, CNS Correspondent
“While public health officials call sex workers and drug users ‘hard-to-reach populations,’ police have little trouble finding them,” said Daniel Wolfe, Director of the Open Society International Harm Reduction Development Programme.

At the International AIDS Conference 2014, Open Society Foundations launched the report ‘Protect and Serve’. The report presents examples of good practice of police working in collaboration with HIV programmes and how police, sex workers, and people who use drugs are joining forces to improve health and human rights.

Around the world, sex workers and people who use drugs report that police are often a major impediment to accessing health and social services. Common police practices taking condoms as evidence of prostitution, harassing drug users at needle exchange points, or confiscating medications for drug treatment fuel the HIV epidemic by driving sex workers and drug users away from life-saving services.

Emerging partnerships between police, health experts, and community groups are beginning to prove that law enforcement and HIV prevention programmes can work together to save lives while reducing crime. When successfully implemented, these programmes reduce the risk of HIV and drug overdose, and protect the health and human rights of these communities.

Through detailed case studies from Burma, Ghana, India, Kenya, and Kyrgyzstan, this report examines how public health-centred law enforcement can reduce the risk of HIV infections among sex workers and drug users.

“With HIV rates across Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and parts of Africa rising among people who use drugs and sell sex, it is imperative that police recognize the critical role they can play in preventing the transmission of HIV among these criminalized groups,” said Michel Kazatchkine, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

“HIV treatment and prevention measures that we know work to control the epidemic have failed to reach the world’s most vulnerable people. Criminalization and law enforcement are two of the main reasons for this.”

Harm reduction programmes that have been proven to reduce HIV include the distribution of condoms, sterile injecting equipment, the prescription of medicines like methadone, or buprenorphine, as well as measures to divert those in need to health and social services. Instead, the people who use these programmes, frequently face harassment, punishment, and arrest by law enforcement officials.

Professor Nick Crofts, Honorary Professorial Fellow, School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne, and Director of the Centre for Law Enforcement and Public Health says, “So increasingly, around the world, we are bringing police into this fight for human rights, for evidence-based policing practice, for humane policy- all of it aimed at increasing the rights of populations at risk of HIV and decreasing the HIV epidemic.”

Chief Superintendent, Ghana Police Service, Jones Blantri stressed, “The police have a pivotal role to play in the HIV response. If our action as police is seen as antagonizing the national response to bringing down infection rates among these marginalized groups, then it is like we are fighting against the national cause.”

According to Lam Tien Dung, Lieutenant Colonel People’s Police Academy, Vietnam, “We used to think of these people as our targets, but now we see them as our partners. By working with HIV experts to develop strong police practices grounded in public health and human rights, we can help control the spread of HIV among these groups and the general population.”

An increasing number of law enforcement officials are recognizing that they cannot arrest their way out of the HIV epidemic, and that it is possible to rethink policing in ways that maintain public order without undermining public health.

The report comes as almost 10,000 current and former law enforcement officials from over 35 countries have signed the Law Enforcement and HIV Network’s statement of support for harm reduction practices to control HIV among these vulnerable populations.

Ishdeep Kohli, Citizen News Service - CNS 
24 July 2014 
(The author is a CNS correspondent reporting onsite from AIDS 2014)

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