When the AIDS money dries up: Red lights flashing for sex workers?
The crisis of AIDS allowed sex workers to organise for their rights. But if AIDS isn't quite that much of a crisis anymore what happens to all those gains? Sex workers at the Sex Workers Freedom Festival in Kolkata face the flip side of success.
“HIV is our garbo (pride),” says Swapna Gayen emphatically. “If it had not come we would not be here. We would have just been lying in the dark getting beaten up. Today we are organised.”
Gayen has been in the trenches of sex work for over a dozen years. Now she is a program director of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), the collective of sex workers that started in Kolkata’s red light district in 1995. DMSC, along with the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, just hosted a six-day Sex Workers Freedom Festival in Kolkata, as a hub of the XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington DC, after the US government refused visas to sex workers.
The Sex Workers Freedom Festival, which had a satellite uplink to sessions in DC, was a bit about thumbing its nose at the American government. “If we were allowed to go, a few of us might have gone. Most of us don’t even have passports,” says Bhagylakshmi from Karnataka. “But so many more of us could come here.”
Delegates from 42 countries showed up making for many photogenic moments – a woman in a kimono doing namaste to a mami with two nose studs and flowers in her graying hair, a Thai man sporting his pink t-shirt with the slogan ‘Anti-human trafficking not anti-sex work’, transgender sex workers in glittering saris writhing to Ooh la la with their African counterparts in satiny dresses, Bigg Boss contestant Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi sashaying down the aisle in a slinky sari.
But if there was a moment that summed up what a long way we have come it was watching the police officers at the venue. They were there to protect sex workers not raid them.
Good cop, bad cop
“We have mostly stopped police raids,” says Gayen. “At one time there was a raid everyday. You could be raped if you went to the police station. I remember how they would shave our heads and parade us. We are much better off here in Kolkata now than many of our foreign friends.”
Nikodemus would agree. With his flowing colourful outfits and a bright headband, the tall Namibian activist became the conference’s Mama Africa. “I have been a sex worker for 32 years,” says Nikodemos. “Four or five years ago the police beat me up, masturbated my private parts, showing that to passing cars. I was locked up in a jail with men. Twenty men raped me in one night. Now I go on television all the time to talk about my rights.”
From Namibia to Kolkata’s Sonagachi change has come on the backs of the mobilisation around HIV and AIDS. The public health crisis allowed for organising to happen around sex workers, men who have sex with men, gay men, drug users, all sections of society the government usually wants to sweep out of sight. HIV was the umbrella but under it DMSC organised against mastaans, put together cooperatives, night schools, agitated for ration cards and protection from eviction. But success has brought its own challenges.
The flip side of success
HIV rates have plateaued in many places, new infections have been falling though it is also rising among subgroups such as drug users . The theme of the conference in DC was an “AIDS-free generation” with vows to eliminate new AIDS infections among children by 2015. “Now the World Bank does not want to invest anymore. Funds are dropping,” says Dr. Sundar Sundararaman. “When you have contained the epidemic, you have to sustain the containment – that becomes the challenge.”
Gayen says she knows that but she isn’t fazed by it. When the PEPFAR regulations in the US tied AIDS funds to an anti-prostitution pledge, DMSC decided they would make do without the money. “Even if there is a HIV vaccine tomorrow that’s OK,” she says. “We have already learned to organize and protest. We will do our work.”
The trafficking jam
But the movement seems trapped in old conversations. On one side there are the anti-traffickers who held a protest outside the conference venue. On the other side are the sex workers who want sex work to be considered work. DMSC has taken on the trafficking challenge head-on by setting up self regulatory boards (six sex workers, four other community members) who review any new person they spot in the sex trade to make sure she is not a minor or there against her will.
“The only people who can stop trafficking are sex workers,” says Gayen. “Anti-trafficking groups should work closely with sex workers,” says Dr. Sundararaman. “That could be a win-win situation.”
But it is hard to move past the old dialectic. If sex work is not treated through the lens of criminality, it’s treated through the prism of pity. “The denial of the visa tells her that in the actual corridors of power, she is still someone who has to be, at best, ‘reformed’ and at worst ‘undesirable’,” says Akhila Sivadas, executive director of Center for Advocacy and Research.
Plastic bags to back of the line
The horror days of stigma might be behind us. John Mathenge, with the group KESWA from Kenya, remembers when his sisters died of AIDS, they were buried, wrapped in plastic bags. Dr. Sundararaman remembers delivering a pregnant HIV-positive sex worker in 1986 with the help of one courageous nurse when no one else wanted to touch her. “I got a splash of her fluid. And the physicians wanted to isolate me,” he says.
Now, says Mathenge, he can get 3,500 sex workers to demonstrate on the streets of Nairobi. They can fight for decriminalisation and reject legalisation which could come with mandatory HIV tests and loss of rights. “We don’t fear,” he says.
But Gayen the sting of stigma has become more subtle. When a sex worker goes to the hospital and says she is from Sonagachi the nurse stiffens. She is made to sit apart and pushed back in the queue and she knows that’s because the doctor wants to examine her last and then toss his gloves.
“No matter how much good work we do at the end of the day we are sex workers,” says Gayen.
The AIDS silo
As AIDS funding dries up, as the Gates Foundation moves on to other challenges, many of these programmes might not die but will get absorbed into lackadaisical government programmes. The bigger fear is that like all government programmes, AIDS will be imprisoned in its own silo – public health. Dr. Sundaraman gives an example. Government doctors understand that a poor person who is HIV positive will need medication twice a day every day for the rest of his life. They might even have the medication available. But in a world where most people forget to finish their seven-day antibiotics course how do you get someone to take buses and trains and come to a government clinic week after week?
You could piggyback on the government’s nutrition programme he says. “The government already has a programme for the anaemic. Tie up with that. Give the HIV patient a protein powder with the HIV pills that will also give her some roughage, protein and improve her energy level. Even better, make her take one to get the other. But that would require the ministry of agriculture or food to talk to the ministry of health.
When a movement matures, when the initial hysteria of the pandemic dies down, it’s time to get more creative because the challenges forced on us by HIV are far from over. States like UP, Bihar, Jharkhand which have been less pro-active around HIV than West Bengal or Tamilnadu are epidemics-in-waiting according to experts even as there is more complacency around HIV. The internet has spawned what Gayen calls “slightly hi-fi call girls” who operate solo and remain outside the reach of the DMSC.
A look around the sprawling conference venue gives a hint of another challenge. The delegates mostly look like veterans. “Look around you,” says Dr. Sundararaman. “You won’t find a 22-25 year old from India. The mean age here is probably 37. Younger sex workers would rather do sex work than come to conferences.”
He hopes this generation will take the message back to the next generation so that there is another generation of leaders waiting in the wings. Even if the brakes are put on HIV infections for now, the world’s oldest profession keeps rolling along.
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