The Curious Sex Workers’ Guide to the “Anti-Prostitution Pledge”
In 2003, the US government also created what they called PEPFAR, a 15 billion dollar fund to help fight AIDS internationally. Groups receiving PEPFAR money are among those who must sign the pledge.
2. Were sex workers the only group targeted?
No ! We are in good company: others targeted were all women needing to get abortions, drug-users and LGBT people ! In 2003, the United States government said that money could not go to groups or clinics who also offer information or services related to abortion or needle-exchange for drug-users. During this time, American funding for research into the risks of men who have sex with men and transgender women also came under attack.
The Bush administration also required that 1/3 of all HIV-prevention money go to promoting sexual ‘abstinence’ (no sex) and ‘being faithful’ (only sex with your husband or wife in heterosexual marriage) without ever mentioning condoms (this is sometimes called A+B). In 2006, for example, out of all the money spent on HIV-prevention by related to sex in different countries, 56% went to A+B programs and only 44% went to programs that talked about A+B but also mentioned using condoms (sometimes called ABC) or that just promoted condoms.
3. Has the anti-prostitution pledge affected sex workers?
Yes ! It has affected sex workers all over the world, and in particular, it has affected sex workers’ access to life-saving health information, services and spaces to improve their working and living conditions.
Some big NGOs who didn’t want to lose their funding from the US signed the pledge closed down their sex worker projects or drop-ins or stopped supporting sex workers. In Cambodia, a medical clinic by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was closed down. In Bangladesh, drop-ins for sex workers were closed down. In 2005, the US government cut half the funding for PSI, an international NGO because of outrage by American politicians over their peer outreach project to sex workers in Costa Rica.
In East-Asia, some NGOs and clinics signed the pledge and interpreted it to mean that they could not offer health information to male or trans sex workers who came to their service.
Some groups in Asia and Southern Africa signed the pledge saying they “opposed prostitution” but continued their work with sex workers and kept on receiving United States funding. One of these groups has expressed that they are scared that if they publicly defended sex workers’ rights, they could lose all their money.
Some groups refused to sign the pledge. VAMP, a sex workers’ group in India refused to and so had to turn back their funding. Most famously, the government of Brazil refused to sign the pledge and lost 40 million dollars from the U.S. Pedro Chequer, responsible for HIV programs in Brazil said:
“We view prostitutes as partners in the effort [to fight HIV], partners who are efficient and competent. Prostitution exists everywhere in the world, including the United States, and we have a commitment to work with this group and respect them.”
Go Brazil !
In 2005, 3500 sex workers in India formed a human chain to denounce the anti-prostitution pledge. In an interview with IPS, sex worker leader Swapna Gayen said:
'[All the sex workers here] have resolved to put up a fight against any move to deny our rights. Under the anti-prostitution bill passed by the Bush administration, no funding is allowed for NGOs who are working to realise the sex workers' rights and fight for their dignity. This would impact on the HIV/AIDS awareness programme, as health and workers' rights are inter-related.''
(To see read more about their action, go here)
In 2006, at the World Aids Conference in Toronto, 200 sex workers from around the world demonstrated against the anti-prostitution pledge.
(To see photos go here and push “suivant” for the next photos)
4. Does this really affect me?
The most directly affected are sex worker projects or groups who got or get funding from the US government but it also affects groups that would like to get funding but can’t anymore.
All sex workers should be concerned though, out of solidarity for those affected but also because the US government has tried to influence foreign governments and UN bodies with its anti-sex work position. According to the Associated Press, in 2006 the US blocked a World Health Organization resolution for universal access to HIV/AIDS treatment because it opposed the mentioning of needle-exchange, sex workers, drug users and gay men. Then, in 2007, the United States pushed the UN to issue a “Guidance Note on Sex Work and HIV” that was very conservative and focused more on stopping sex work, than stopping HIV.
5. Has anything changed since 2003?
Three large NGOs sued the US government to make them stop requiring the anti-prostitution pledge. These are the Alliance for Open Society International, Pathfinder, and DKT International. In May 2006, a judge decided that the anti-prostitution pledge no longer applied to American groups but- the court decided it still applied to international groups and projects, even those run by American groups.
When President Obama was elected in 2008, he made some changes to PEPFAR. He removed the abstinence and faithfulness requirement, but still directed that these needed to be prioritized over comprehensive prevention (that includes condom-use). He removed the restriction on organizations who give information or services related to abortion…but he kept the anti-prostitution pledge ! Boo !
6. What can I do to protest the Anti-Prostitution Pledge?
You can sign this petition on-line and encourage all those you know to sign it as well.
7. Where can I learn more and follow what happens ?
To watch a short video by sex workers about the impact of the anti-prostitution pledge, go to: http://blip.tv/file/181155
To read a letter opposing the anti-prostitution pledge written by Human Rights Watch and signed by more than 200 organizations, go to:
For more detailed information, see:
Updates to the situation are posted here and on the fabulous website of sex worker activist Carol Leigh:
Next to "Anti-Prostitution Pledge Timeline".