Sex workers and their supporters from 21 countries marched on Wednesday through the 16th International AIDS Conference to demand their own place not only at the conference, but in their own societies.
They marched from a gauze-draped bed in the Toronto conference's Stiletto Lounge, one of the exhibits at the meeting, through art displays, exhibits about prisoners with AIDS and around booths offering information to drug users and religious groups.
Sex workers - both men and women - are often subject to a great deal of stigma, exploitation and violence. The industry, although a significant economic sector in many countries, is also generally illegal, a fact that limits sex workers' access to health and other services which might otherwise serve their health and safety needs.
According to UNAIDS, experiences in the field indicate that sex workers are among those most likely to respond positively to HIV prevention programmes.
The report, Sex Work, HIV/AIDS and Human Rights in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, released in 2005 calls for:
"...lawmakers, health authorities, and police to revise policies and practices around sex work, drug use, HIV testing, and migration that trample sex workers’ human rights and restrict their access to healthcare. Sex workers should be decriminalized and involved in all government-organized HIV/AIDS and human rights initiatives, and governments should seriously address social marginalization, economic exclusion, and violence against sex workers. More importantly, programs aimed at reaching sex workers with prevention services need to be expanded."
In this regard, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has called on governments across the globe to stop ignoring sex workers in their HIV/AIDS campaigns.
"We need to put the power to prevent HIV in the hands of women ... whether the woman is a faithful married mother of small children or a sex worker trying to scrape out a living in a slum," said Melinda Gates at the AIDS Conference, in Toronto, Canada.
She stressed that enlisting sex workers in the fight against AIDS would not only help them protect themselves from infection, but also their clients.
Hong Kong sex worker Chiu Hing Fung told the Ottawa Sun through an interpreter who works with the Chinese advocacy group Zi Teng, "If we decriminalize sex work and accept it as normal work, like lawyers and doctors, sex workers will have more bargaining power to ask clients to wear condoms and then HIV rates will decrease."
Anna-Louise Crago of Stella -- a Montreal-based support group for sex workers -- echoed the call saying legalizing the sex trade in Canada would help fight the scourge of HIV/AIDS.
"What criminalization does is put women in situations where they have less control of the work and puts them in isolation where they're cut off from resources with information and (condoms), " she said. "Criminalization is an obstacle to fighting HIV ... if it's recognized as labour, sex workers would be able to work safely."
Crago told the Toronto Star, "Sex workers are part of the solution in the fight against HIV. And sex workers need workers' rights and human rights in order to fight AIDS."
The following is taken from MediaCorpPress.
Sex workers show red light to AIDS at global forum
With the crack of a whip and swish of maracas, dozens of prostitutes from Bangladesh to Brazil and from Cambodia to Canada demanded recognition of their frontline role in the war on AIDS.
"Sex Workers' Rights: Time to Deliver," they chanted Wednesday, as their rowdy protest echoed through the vast Toronto conference centre hosting the world's biggest-ever meeting on a disease which has filled 25 million graves.
With sexy ribbon silhouettes drawn on their tight blue tee-shirts, they drew numbers from more than 20 nations, including Thailand, Brazil, Cambodia, Bangladesh, India and the United States.
An Indian transvestite lent a splash of color in a sari, as protestors shook maracas and blew whistles, while passing from hand to hand a mean-looking leather multi-thonged whip, which sparked hilarity at a security checkpoint.
"People must realize we are doing a job," said Anna-Louise Crago, a founder-member of Stella, the first sex worker association set up in Canada's French-speaking province of Quebec.
"The world needs sex workers to battle AIDS, and we need to be recognized by authorities as crucial to the struggle against HIV," she said.
A Thai woman, who didn't give her name added: "Sex work is work. Sex workers are workers. We need job security, health care."
Their cause won immediate support from top brass of the global AIDS battle, as Mark Wainberg, co-president of the 16th International AIDS conference, happened on the protest, by chance.
Slightly red-faced, the besuited, bespectacled Canadian academic took up their chants, which reverberated through the conference centre hosting 20,000 delegates.
Statistics back up sex workers' claims to be at the epicentre of the epidemic.
According to the agency UNAIDS, the march of the disease in many nations is underpinned by paid-for sex.
In China, it is estimated that sex workers and clients represent 20 percent of those with HIV. In Ethiopia, 73 percent of sex workers are infected, along with 50 percent in South Africa and 31 percent in Ivory Coast.
Demonstrators denounced hassle from governments and police from numerous nations, which they said forced them to operate clandestinely and cut them out official HIV prevention programs.
Canadians among them accused their country's new Conservative government of forcing them out of major cities in clean-up campaigns.
One woman from Mali bemoaned the lack of funding for anti-AIDS programs for sex workers, and all denounced the United States over rules which bar HIV aid from groups that support prostitution.
"Society must accept the existence of sex workers, and we need free condoms," said Awa Dambele, from Bamako, who warned that condoms were expensive in Mali and poverty-stricken prostitutes had to work without them.
Catherine Healy, a sex worker from New Zealand, said the situation for her counterparts had got better.
"The Ministry of Health was one of our first allies -- the ministry funded us to distribute condoms to our peers," she said.
But up until prostitution was decriminalized in her country in 2003 -- police still harassed sex workers, seizing the condoms and hampering effective HIV prevention.
For the Indian transvestite, who refused to be named, the logic was simple: unless sex workers are brought into the fight, AIDS will never be conquered.
"All the governments should give rights to sex workers, all the policies will go down the drain if sex workers don't get their rights."