* U.S. bans sex workers from attending AIDS conference
* Sex workers stage summit to highlight discrimination
* Thousands demand rights and decriminalisation of sex work
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
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.
SEX WORK IS ALSO WORK
Over the last five days, almost 1,000 sex workers from India
and 42 other nations including Kenya, Mexico, Uganda, China and
Indonesia been discussing access to drugs, promoting safe sex,
and loopholes in HIV/AIDS policies, as well as interacting with
participants at the Washington conference by video link.
But the festival's main aim is to use the U.S. travel ban to
highlight the wider issue of the discrimination sex workers face
and are demanding the decriminalisation of the trade.
"I chose this work. It's like any other job, but still I
have no rights because society judges me and prevents me from
having recognition," says 36-year-old Sapna Gayan, one of 12,000
sex workers in Sonagachi.
"Police have arrested me, clients have hit me when I ask
them to wear a condom. Sex workers have no freedom to protest
the abuses they face, to move and work freely. We cannot even go
to big meetings where decisions about us are being made."
The United States is hosting the annual IAC for the first
time in 20 years, after President Barack Obama lifted a travel
ban on HIV-positive people in 2009. But immigration policy still
means that those with a history of drug use or prostitution in
the last 10 years are ineligible for visas.
U.S. officials, however, say this is not a blanket ban.
"Each visa decision depends on case-specific circumstances,
and decisions on eligibility and waivers are only determined at
the time of the interview," said an email response from the U.S.
But activists disagree. Few sex workers are given waivers,
and even then, it is for a very short period of stay, they say.
On Tuesday, more than 5,000 sex workers - including heavily
made-up transgenders in wigs and saris and bare-chested African
men - walked through Kolkata's street, carrying banners and
chanting "U.S. government shame on you" and "Sex work is work".
"Sex workers' rights are human rights and the U.S. and the
rest of the world need to see that," said John, a 30-year-old
sex worker from Nairobi. "They can't sit in Washington and speak
for us. We are part of the solution."
(TrustLaw is a global hub for free legal assistance and news and
information on good governance and women's rights run by the
Thomson Reuters Foundation. For more stories, visit
(Additional reporting by Lisa Anderson in Washington; editing
by Ross Colvin and Sanjeev Miglani)