In-depth: AIDS 2008: PlusNews in Mexico
Blog: Stiletto heels and sewing machines
Sex workers aren't asking for help getting off the streets, but for safer working environments
Mexico City, 8 August 2008 (IRIN) - Female sex workers have emerged from the shadows at this year's AIDS conference in Mexico, strutting their stuff loudly and proudly, demanding consultation in HIV policy, and refusing to be labelled victims.
For the first time ever, a female sex worker addressed a plenary session, and Elena Reynaga, who represents sex workers in Argentina, wasn't asking for help to get the girls off the street; she was asking that they be allowed to work in safe environments where they can make a living without getting killed or beaten.
Women who enter into sex work by choice, she said, were tired of HIV programmes offering them alternative income earners in a bid to get them out of the profession. "We don't want to sew, we don't want to knit, we don't want to cook," she said.
At a stand advocating for the rights of US sex workers in the conference's Global Village, one young Thai woman said she had had it with the stereotypes that came with being an Asian sex worker in the States.
"The idea is that we are all doe-eyed victims of human trafficking who need rescuing, but for many of us that is so far from the truth," she said. "We just want to be recognised as workers like any other."
It's an idea that many feminists and policy makers will find hard to stomach, but according to the sex workers, recognising their right to work would go a long way towards making their work safer.
Relying on morality for guidance on public health issues can be problematic, and the failure of many governments to include sex workers in their national AIDS prevention strategies has increased their HIV risk and the risk they pose to the general population.
According to activists, in places like Kolkata, India, where sex work has been decriminalised and women, men and transgendered people selling sex now have access to public health services, HIV rates among these groups have dropped.
So maybe the best place for sex workers is out of the shadows.