U.S. ban unites global sex workers at Indian festival

Thu Jul 26, 2012 7:38am EDT
 
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By Nita Bhalla

KOLKATA, India, July 26 (TrustLaw) - Their eyes lined with black pencil and lips painted red, women in sequined saris line the labyrinth of squalid lanes that make up Sonagachi, one of Asia's largest red light districts in the old quarters of this bustling eastern Indian city.

In front of open sewers, they chat on mobile phones and flirt with customers, who follow them into the dark doorways of decrepit brothels, up winding staircases into tiny rooms with just a bed, television and posters of Hindu gods on the walls.

In the global battle against HIV/AIDS, sex workers like those in Sonagachi are a crucial link in a chain of infection that some 20,000 experts gathered in Washington are debating how to break -- but without having foreign sex workers there.

U.S. travel restrictions on visas for sex workers mean thousands of them have been unable to attend the annual International AIDS Conference (IAC), the world's largest forum to discuss policy on fighting the deadly virus.

In protest, sex workers from around the world have been staging a parallel conference in Kolkata -- a five-day "Sex Worker Freedom Festival" to demand an end to the discrimination many face due to their profession.

"Sex workers are key to all policy decisions on AIDS," says Samarajit Jana from the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), an Indian collective of 65,000 sex workers, and one of the co-organisers of the Kolkata conference.

"It has been proved that if you can succeed in controlling transmission amongst sex workers, you can be rest assured that you will not face an epidemic. They must be part of the discussion."

A study published by the Lancet Journal of Infectious Diseases in March showed that female sex workers' risk of HIV infection is 14 times higher than those of other women, adding this was a "disproportionately high" burden of the disease.   Continued...

 
A participant uses an iPad to take pictures of a rally as part of the week-long sex workers' freedom festival at the Sonagachi red-light area in Kolkata July 24, 2012. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri