Sex Trafficked Girls at High Risk of HIV Infection

Women and girls trafficked into the sex industry in Southeast Asia are at greater risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV than other groups of female sex workers. Titled “Sex Trafficking and STI/HIV in Southeast Asia: Connections between Sexual Exploitation, Violence and Sexual risk”, a new independent regional research study by the Harvard School of Public Health and UNDP, was released at the International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, in Bali, Indonesia.

The study reveals the extent of sexual exploitation, physical, sexual and psychological violence experienced by trafficked women and girls. Trafficking victims, many of them under 17 years of age, are raped, locked up, denied food, water and medical care and/or forced to take narcotics and alcohol. Girls who are trafficked into sex work suffer different levels of sexual risk as compared with non-trafficked sex workers, and are less likely to be reached by HIV prevention programmes. The report includes studies covering Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia.

In Thailand, trafficked Female Sex Workers (FSWs) reported higher number of male clients and greater incidence of anal sex encounters that increased their risk to HIV infection. Women who reported having been trafficked were far less knowledgeable regarding HIV transmission. Trafficked women were three times as likely to experience violence at initiation to sex work as compared to non-trafficked women and girls, as well as being more likely to report recent violence or mistreatment in the context of sex work.

The prevalence of HIV among those trafficked within Indonesia was found to be 5.4%. 1 in 7 trafficking survivors tested for at least one of 4 sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, were infected. 75% of trafficked women and girls experienced sexual violence. Conditions and treatment were oppressive and most survivors were denied all movement, many were forced to use drugs or alcohol. Notably a substantial number experienced trafficking for sexual exploitation at very young ages, with approximately one quarter of survivors trafficked under 15 years of age. Malaysia being the destination for the majority of those trafficked across national borders.

In Cambodia, 73 percent of women and girls who were rescued tested positive for sexually transmitted infections. That number increased to 90 percent among those rescued after less than two months, indicating tremendous exposure to STIs during initiation into sex work. The majority of female sex trafficking survivors identified were under the age of 17 at the time of trafficking. Sexual violence was prevalent, with 1 in 4 reporting forced sex acts in the context of trafficking and sex work.

The study demonstrates that denial of the most basic elements of human dignity, health and wellbeing are associated with the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation. According to Jeff O’ Malley, Director, HIV/AIDS Practice, UNDP, New York, “It calls for a rights-based approach rather than an inappropriate law enforcement approach, which can result in victimising trafficked women, driving sex work underground, and making it even more difficult to reach sex workers and trafficked women to protect their rights and health.”

Mr. Hakan Bjorkman, Country Director, UNDP, Indonesia, said, “Women in the sex industry are already highly at risk of HIV. But women who are sex trafficked experience even more extreme levels of HIV risk, abuse and violence. This screams out for action.”

There is an urgency of creating a space for dialogue across partners, Caitlin Wiesen, Regional HIV/AIDS Team Leader and Programme Coordinator for Asia-Pacific at UNDP Regional Centre in Colombo said, “Partnerships across these communities, that engage Ministries of Justice, Health, Interior, are indispensable to preventing HIV and protecting the rights and health of women who have been trafficked as well as the rights of women in sex work.”

The study calls for an integrated approach to prevent trafficking and HIV in the context of sex work. Dr. Jay Silverman, Director of Violence Against Women Prevention Research at the Harvard School of Public Health and lead author of the study, said “This work further confirms the high risks for HIV infection faced by those coerced or forced into sex work. To confront this reality, anti-trafficking and HIV prevention professionals must work together to develop programs that can both reduce HIV risk among all those involved in sex work and assist women and girls trapped in these settings.”

Ishdeep Kohli-CNS