Recently on RH Reality Check, I examined
the damaging effects on sex workers of a new law against prostitution
in Cambodia. The perception on the ground is that the law was passed
so that Cambodia could avoid sanctions associated with the US Traffic
in Persons report.
This is not the first time
that sex workers have been sacrificed at the altar of US funding. Anti-trafficking
funding and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)
deny funding to any organization that does not have an explicit policy
against prostitution and sex trafficking. Outwardly, this seems innocuous,
but the restriction has been used in ways that seriously undermine public
health and anti-trafficking efforts in the developing world. Denying
services to sex workers is counter-productive in both areas.
In addition, the terms of the
restriction have been left ambiguous, allowing some self-appointed experts
to act as "police" for the US government in watching aid recipients
for alleged missteps. CHANGE released an updated policy brief detailing the ways in which sex workers have been
adversely affected by this restriction.
These self-appointed enforcers
have chosen to ignore the non-discrimination clause in the regulation
that says that no one should be denied services because of the anti-prostitution pledge. In practice,
application of the restriction is often highly discriminatory. Doctors
in Cambodia used the restriction as grounds for denying information
about HIV transmission to men who have sex with men (MSM). Male sex
workers in Thailand have been evicted from the sole clinic in the nation
dedicated to MSM. Drop-in centers for homeless sex workers in Bangladesh
– the only places where some of these women had access to a toilet
– have been closed.
Restrictions targeting sex
work have not been the only counter-productive consequence of US policy.
The abstinence earmark in PEPFAR, which requires one-third of prevention
funds to go towards abstinence education, has significantly reduced
condom availability in sub-Saharan Africa. In a bizarre twist, abstinence
programs funded through PEPFAR in Uganda have even conducted public
condom burnings. The percentage of Uganda’s population infected with
HIV had previously been in sharp decline as a result of strong prevention
programs, but that trend seems unlikely to continue now.
Taking the Pledge is a 13-minute video featuring interviews
with people who have experienced discrimination and the loss of services
and commodities because of US-imposed restrictions. These stories illustrate
why sex workers and their advocates see little cause for celebration
in recent increases in PEPFAR funding. Instead we worry that continued
imposition of ideologically motivated restrictions will bring not benefits,
but further discrimination against sex workers.
The next administration must
act quickly to repair PEPFAR and anti-trafficking funding policies in order
to assist these vulnerable populations instead of promoting discrimination
Watch Taking the Pledge:
- Mary Beth Hastings, Perpetuating the Prostitution Pledge: Allegiance to Failure