Facebook page of SWAN Twitter page of SWAN Instagram stream Youtube channel of Swannet RSS feeds

site available in english and russian

  • English
  • Russian


Sex workers organizations around the world continued working on review of the UNAIDS Guidance Note. In this article written by Anna-Louise Crago, we are giving a short review of the paper, the controversy it stirred, and the global response and successful advocacy by the sex worker community.

The bad news is that the latest version of a UNAIDS policy on HIV and Sex Work proposes measures that are harmful to sex workers’ health and human rights all around the world. The good news is that at an action-packed UNAIDS meeting this past June, sex worker networks and NGOs mobilized with supportive governments and have forced UNAIDS to go back to the drawing board and redraft the policy! Sex workers need to stay alert and ready to make sure their voices are represented and that the next document doesn’t propose things that are equally damaging. Here is a quick look at what this is all about, why you should care and how you can get involved.

Why should I care what UNAIDS says about HIV and Sex Work?
In most places in the world, male, female and transgender sex workers are disproportionately affected by the HIV pandemic. This is in no small part due to a lack of respect for our human and workers’ rights. Sex workers in many places urgently need better access to HIV prevention materials (like condom and lube), information, support and access to treatment. These need to be based on respecting our rights if they are to work!

The guidelines UNAIDS puts out can either help sex workers (and our clients) fight HIV if they are good or they can make it even harder for sex workers to fight HIV if they are bad. UNAIDS programs will affect sex workers in many countries… maybe even your own. The guidelines will also set an example that governments and major donors are encouraged to implement.

What is the UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work?
UNAIDS is the United Nations program responsible for preventing and treating HIV globally. They work with many other United Nations offices. Each office is responsible for different areas. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime is responsible for HIV and Trafficking. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is responsible for HIV and Sex Work.

This year, the United Nations Population Fund produced for UNAIDS a document called a “guidance note” which tells UNAIDS how to deal with the issue of HIV and Sex Work. This “guidance note” gives guidelines and directions for all the types of programs the UNAIDS and UNFPA intend to fund and put in place related to HIV and sex work.

How did the UNFPA come up with the “Guidance Note”?
In July 2006, the UNFPA organized a global consultation on HIV and Sex Work in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to get input on how to address HIV-prevention and treatment for sex workers. There were representatives from many UN offices (UNICEF, UNODC, UNESCO, UNAIDS, etc.), from certain governments (Brazil, United States, African Union states, Sweden…) and NGOs. Among the NGOs were sex work groups from many countries: from Central Eastern Europe and Central Asia, there was Tais Plus (Kyrgyzstan) and Humanitarian Action (Russia). The Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Workers, The Latin American and Caribbean Network of Sex Workers, International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe and the Global Network of Sex Workers (NSWP), were also all there.

Sweden sent one person from the government and one anti-prostitution activist.

The United States sent 4 people to the meeting. Three worked with the government and one was an anti-prostitution activist. The Americans were very against sex work or harm reduction projects. They supported criminalizing clients and “rescuing” women from sex work. They also had a very intimidating presence. One UN person told me that after they said in the meeting that there was a difference between sex work and trafficking, their boss at the head office in another country received an angry call from the US government almost immediately. When the UN people had a meeting after the consultation, the Americans sat nearby and appeared to be listening in and taking notes.

The first version of the Guidance Note that came out was called “Three Pillars”. It contained a lot about getting sex workers out of sex work, preventing women from going in to sex work and trying to stop men from being clients of sex workers. There was almost nothing about male or transgender sex workers. The last pillar was ok. It encouraged working with sex workers and sex worker groups. Unfortunately, as one sex worker activist in Asia pointed out…if they succeeded at Pillars one and two, then maybe they were hoping there would be no sex workers left for them to work with!

The latest version of the document to come out is WORSE!

Why is it so bad?
The impact of the American and Swedish anti-prostitution perspectives is clear all through the document. The document even uses language developed by the Swedish government to try and blur the difference between sex work and trafficking. For example, a third party (brothel owner, agency owner, or flat owner) is called a “controller”. Sex work and trafficking are very confused in the document and UN conventions on Human Rights and Trafficking are largely ignored.

The document still concentrates on getting women out of sex work, keeping women from going in to sex work and keeping men from paying for sex. Men and transgender sex workers, with male or female clientele are still basically ignored.

Many sex workers fear that this emphasis on “getting women out” of sex work will mean support for violent police raids on brothels as is happening already in many countries. Some governments, like the American government, already support such raids even though they have not been proven to have any positive affect on stopping trafficking or preventing HIV.

Now, there is no longer a pillar about sex worker or sex worker groups’ involvement! Instead, there is what many read as a push for public health programs that will include mandatory HIV-testing of sex workers by police. (This type of program is already in action on the country-level by UN organizations in places like Mongolia, Cambodia and China.)

So, basically, it is minestrone of some of the worst approaches to sex work and HIV, ones that will do little to empower sex worker to protect themselves, but instead will stigmatize sex work more and make working conditions even worse. There is no mention of sex worker rights-based or harm reduction or peer-led approaches even though, these are the only approaches shown to have made a big difference in reducing HIV among sex workers.

How was it stopped?
On Monday, June 25, 1997, there was a meeting of the UNAIDS PCB (Program Coordinating Board). The PCB is like a board of directors that makes decisions for UNAIDS. It has countries, UN agencies who work on different HIV issues and NGO representatives for different areas. Like most UN Agencies, only countries have voting rights. To see who is on the PCB go here.

Members of the Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), based in Thailand, prepared a full-colour document that talked about how sex workers’ voices were totally ignored in the document and explaining in detail why the actions proposed are harmful to sex workers. Importantly they outlined how the document was in breach of a number of UN Human Rights treaties and other UNAIDS policies. (To contact the APNSW to read the document, write to apnswbkk@gmail.com)

Meanwhile, sex worker groups in Brazil, Australia and a number of other countries pressured their governments who sit on the UNAIDS PCB to support sex workers and block the guidance note. Other groups contacted the NGO representatives for their region and asked that they do the same. Also, importantly UNESCO, one of the members of UNAIDS refused to sign on as a co-sponsor of the document.

ICASO, the international group of Aids-service organizations supported Andrew Hunter of the APNSW to attend the UNAIDS meeting. There, they strategized with the help of the International Women’s Health Coalition to put the issue of the HIV & Sex Work Guidance Note on the Agenda.

Peter Piot, head of UNAIDS spoke in support of the document but Andrew Hunter and other allies were very successful in pointing out the human rights problems of it. Finally, Brazil and Kenya passed a motion that said that the document had to be rewritten. Negotiations then took place in what is called a drafting group. This a group to write or “draft” a proposal so it can presented to the countries in the PCB who then vote to pass or block what is proposed. The draft group came up with a motion that requires UNAIDS to work further with “affected communities” (that’s sex workers although the USA blocked “sex workers” being named in the motion!). This in effect turned the “Guidance Note” from a policy approved by UNAIDS back into a draft document that needs further work. The motion was passed at the final plenary session and discussions are now underway with UNFPA to quickly convene a group to rewrite the document.

What next?
The UNFPA and UNAIDS will rewrite the document. It will be important for sex workers to stand together and pressure for programs that recognize the importance of sex workers’ human rights and workers’ rights, that include sex workers’ voices in a meaningful way and that improve access to HIV-prevention material and information and treatment. If you or your group are interested in helping out with this process, one way to do so is to contact Andrew Hunter at apnswbkk@gmail.com.

Prepared by Anna-Louise Crago, SWAN Consultant

UNAIDS Guidance Note, HIV and Sex Work, April 2007 – the integral text is available here.

Note: SWAN is taking part in the review process, focusing on redrafting the Pillar 3 of the document. For more information please contact Aliya Rakhmetova on arakhmet@yahoo.com .

Many thanks to Andrew Hunter for his help with this article & his tremendous work.
For more information on the APNSW and to find a treasure-trove of interesting articles and documents, go to www.apnsw.org .

An incredible video report of the APNSW human rights summit in Cambodia in 2006 is available here.
You can read Scarlet Alliance, an Australian sex workers’ group’s, response to the guidance note here.

The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network Commentary on UNAIDS Guidance
Note is available at: www.aidslaw.ca/download