Monday, February 15, 2016
This series concludes with an appeal to consider the voices of the most vulnerable and politically powerless of those living with HIV: sex workers. Katherine Hanssens, Executive Director and Founder of the Center for HIV Law and Policy, has called for the inclusion of sex workers in the national discussion of HIV. Sex workers are stigmatized in ways that are usually not encountered by others living with HIV. The disdain and dismissiveness with which sex workers are treated in both U.S. law and culture compounds when HIV is added to the existing stigma experienced through the gender oppression of sex workers. Sex workers also are often poor and experience abuse, both in their personal relationships as well as professionally. In some cases, sex workers are dealing with addictions, as well.
Effective advocacy efforts must include sex workers. As the Center's website states: "Effective advocacy strategies seek to empower, rather than shame or punish, the sex worker community, and are often most successful when led by sex workers themselves."
One of the greatest health risks to sex workers is the policy of many police departments who arrest those in possession of an arbitrary number of condoms. This policy caused sex workers to reduce the number of condoms they carry and engaging in unprotected sex. The policy leaves sex workers as one of the populations left without significant choice in ways to protect themselves from HIV and other sexually transmitted health conditions. The condom possession is then used to make a case of prostitution.
Missing from the discussion of this policy targeted at an unpopular segment of our society are those targeted. But Human Rights Watch changed the discussion by conducting a 2012 study of the effect on condom restriction on sex workers. Most reported that the policy resulted in their having more unprotected sex presenting a serious health risk for them as well as a public health concern.
In 2014, influenced by the study, the New York City police department ended their condom carrying policy in response to pleas from public health advocates. In large part, changes in police policy resulted from the work of Human Rights Watch. Wer eit not for human rights advocates, criminalization of the marginalized expands, if only because those in the criminal justice system are not thinking holistically. In this case, police policy designed to enhance prosecution neglected the public health needs of the general population.
Organizations such as Human Rights Watch provide a service to the marginalized in providing data in order to effect policy change. The next step is, as Hanssens says, is to bring sex workers into the conversation thereby igniting the cultural shift from dismissing the marginalized to respecting their voices.