U.S. AIDS Program Should Nix Anti-Sex Work Pledge, Activists Say

The anti-prostitution pledge that international AIDS groups must make to receive U.S. government funding should be eliminated because it discourages sex workers from taking advantage of the programs, advocates said.

Ten groups that advocate for sex workers today in Washington called for an end to the pledge, which was added to a U.S. law for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, an initiative known as Pepfar that was started in 2003 by President George W. Bush.

The pledge places sex workers at higher risk of contracting the disease, and the current Obama administration should drop the policy or stop enforcing it, said Melissa Ditmore, who edits the annual journal Research for Sex Work.

Pepfar has contributed $37 billion since 2003 to efforts that primarily fight HIV and AIDS in developing countries, the largest funding source for such efforts in the world. The pledge attached to that money has led to “the reduction or complete elimination of HIV prevention and treatment services for sex workers in numerous” nations, the 10 groups said in a statement at the start of the weeklong International AIDS Conference.

“It’s counter to all of the evidence of what works with sex workers in HIV prevention,” Ditmore said in an interview. For example, she said, the pledge discourages sex workers from organizing “to prevent infections as a group.”

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS said in guidance updated in April that less than 1 percent of global funding to prevent HIV and AIDS is spent on sex workers, who “experience higher rates of HIV infection than in most other population groups.”

One Love

Miriam Edwards, a former sex worker in Guyana, helped form a group in 2008 called One Love to advocate for decriminalization of prostitution in her country to stymie the spread of AIDS. The group disbanded in 2011, she said, after its leaders were forced to sign the pledge opposing prostitution or repay money received from Pepfar.

Members of the group, most of them sex workers, “decided this is not for us,” Edwards said in an interview.

U.S.-based organizations that receive Pepfar money aren’t bound by the pledge because a federal appeals court ruled last year that it violates the First Amendment. Groups based outside of the nation, the primary targets of Pepfar, are bound by the law, which is scheduled to be reauthorized by Congress in 2013.

“We’re obliged to enforce the law,” Tom Walsh, a spokesman for Pepfar at the U.S. State Department, said in a telephone interview. Despite the pledge, “we have felt able to do what we need to do to meet the needs” of sex workers, he said.

Walsh said he didn’t know whether the Obama administration would seek a repeal of the pledge.

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