Feature story

Asia-Pacific drive for increased focus on HIV and sex work

20 October 2010

Sex workers, government officials and UN representatives joined the first-ever Asia-Pacific regional consultation on HIV and sex work. Credit: APNSW

HIV transmission via sex work accounts for many new HIV infections  in the Asia-Pacific region. Yet in many countries HIV prevention, treatment and care services for sex workers are lacking. At the first consultation of its kind in the region, sex workers, government officials and United Nations participants emphasized the urgent need for action to increase focus on sex work within national HIV responses.

“I was arrested when the police saw I had condoms.” “Sex workers’ rights are being violated.” “Sex workers are going underground now. We don’t know where they are.”

These are just some of the experiences shared at the first-ever Asia-Pacific consultation on HIV and sex work, held in Pattaya, Thailand, from 12-15 October. Some 150 participants from eight countries* in the region—including sex workers, government officials, representatives from civil society and the United Nations—came together to call for a greater emphasis on ensuring universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support services for sex workers.

Sex workers experience firsthand the effects of laws and harmful enforcement practices that violate their human rights and hamper progress in the HIV response.

Jan Beagle, UNAIDS Deputy-Executive Director, Management and External Relations

Hosted by the Royal Government of Thailand and co-organized by UNAIDS and UNFPA, in collaboration with the Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), meeting participants shared strategies and developed national action plans to be carried forward.

Sex work accounts for a significant number of new HIV infections in the Asia–Pacific region. An estimated 10 million Asian women sell sex to 75 million men who, in turn, have intimate relations with an additional 50 million people. In some countries in the region, HIV prevalence among sex workers is nearly 20%. Meet participants stressed that spending on HIV services is falling, despite evidence of their cost-effective impact and that only about one third of sex workers in the region are able to access HIV prevention programmes.

Khartini Slamah of APNSW moderates a discussion on legal and policy barriers. Credit: APNSW

Meeting participants also pointed to numerous punitive laws and policies that can prevent sex workers from accessing HIV services. “Sex workers experience firsthand the effects of laws and harmful enforcement practices that violate their human rights and hamper progress in the HIV response,” said Jan Beagle, UNAIDS Deputy-Executive Director, Management and External Relations, who attended the consultation. “Listening to sex workers is crucial.”

Participants in the consultation heard how sex workers are frequently subjected to violence and harassment, and often face criminal charges and detention. Participants said enforcement of elements within new anti-trafficking and other related laws in some countries including Cambodia, Fiji and Thailand had exacerbated this situation, citing recent cases where carrying condoms had led to arrests.

“Every day we confront brutal realities—arrest, violence, discrimination,” said Kay Thi Win, Chair of APNSW and programme manager of a successful and long-running outreach programme in Myanmar that is largely run by sex workers or former sex workers. “We want to turn the tide by demanding that initiatives designed ‘for’ us be designed ‘with’ us,” she said.

*Cambodia, China, Fiji, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Thailand