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Delegates to AIDS 2012 were given the opportunity to listen to the latest research on sex workers, their behaviors, and risk of acquiring HIV. Among the topics discussed by a July 25 panel of experts were the barriers to testing for sex workers, the nature of their work environments, and responses to stop the harrassment of sex workers by government or third-party forces, including religious and feminist groups.
The short session also served to debunk some myths about the sex worker population. For instance, Swadhin Mondal and Indrani Gupta of the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi, India, conducted a survey of sex workers to learn whether sex workers were being pushed to engage in sex without condoms in exchange for more money from prospective clients. But, according to Mondal, 72 percent of sex workers in the study were consistent condom users, particularly those who were brothel-based sex workers. In addition, the study seemed to indicate that sex workers received higher premiums for engaging in safe sex with regular clients.
The session also looked at the infrastructure for providing services in certain countries with respect to sex workers, particularly the work of community service organizations and local task forces. One study, from Ukraine, found that non-governmental organizations that contract with local pharmacies to provide medications, condoms and syringes to sex workers and intravenous drug users seem to be effective in reaching marginalized populations an connecting them with appropriate resources to avoid contracting HIV.
But another study, from South Africa, looked at the problems posed by countries accepting PEPFAR funds, which seemed to indicate that PEPFAR’s “anti-prostitution pledge” has forced the gradual phase-out of services once available to sex workers, thereby increasing their isolation and making it harder to access preventative or treatment services.
Moderator Cheryl Overs, of Australia, emphasized to the audience the importance of acknowledging the human rights and dignity of sex workers so they would not be forced to the margins of society. She also said that because sex work is a form of employment, it was likely that the problems associated with the testing and regulation of sex workers were more likely to be resolved through labor laws than through public health initiatives.