KOLKATA, Jul 26 2012 (IPS) - Bare-chested and beaming in the company of many like him, London-based male sex worker Thierry Schaffauser wipes the beads of sweat trickling down his face on a humid Kolkata evening, and slams U.S. President Barack Obama.
“He is against sex workers. His policies are actually killing sex workers across the world and hindering HIV/AID prevention,” says France-born Thierry.
Thierry and thousands of sex workers from across the world who are gathered in Kolkata Jul. 21 to 27 at the ‘Sex Workers Freedom Festival’ are critical of the U.S. government for denying them visas to attend the international HIV/AIDS conference being held this week in Washington.
The International AIDS Conference is the premier gathering for those working in the field of HIV, as well as policy makers, persons living with HIV and other individuals committed to ending the pandemic.
But sex workers, who are the most HIV/AIDS prone community, were denied entry in the U.S. under laws which limit travel for sex workers.
The sex workers community chose instead to hold a parallel meeting in this eastern city. Nearly 800 sex workers and activists turned up from 41 countries to join thousands of Indian counterparts at the Kolkata meet.
Sex workers from India were also vocal against the U.S. laws. “I am here because this is like a festival for us,” says a transsexual sex worker from south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. “But we are also protesting the U.S. visa denial. It is like denying one’s human rights.”
Anna, who represents the Canadian sex workers’ organisation Stella, says the Kolkata conference will send a strong message.
“I am a worker. A sex worker is a real worker. You should decriminalise the profession and accept us as workers. It is strange that the U.S. does not understand that,” says Anna, marching with hundreds of others holding a red umbrella, now a sex workers symbol of resistance against discrimination.
Visitors from across the world are overwhelmed by the organisational skills of the host organisation Durban Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC).
With 65, 000 members, DMSC is the world’s largest association of sex workers. It operates out of Sonagachi in Kolkata, the hub of more than 10,000 brothel-based sex workers.
Akhila Sivadas, executive director of New Delhi-based Centre for Advocacy and Research, which is partnering with the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (GNSWP), the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW) and DMSC to organise the conference, says the Kolkata gathering is the manifestation of a bold stand taken by the community.
“This conference is an affirmative statement where sex workers from diverse cultures and economies have come together. There are differences but the overall similarities are the same. If you do not decriminalise you will lose the battle.”
According to Dr. Smarajit Jana, chair of the conference and father figure of the sex workers’ movement in Kolkata, the U.S. is continuing with an earlier restriction on visa denial to sex workers. “So when they were denied visa by the U.S., we in Kolkata came forward. The government in India does not have such restrictions on entry of sex workers.
“Despite all our failures and social taboos, India is transparent about fighting AIDS and so we could bring down the HIV population from five million to 3.5 million at the moment,” says Dr. Jana. “The policy in India is effective and progressive.”
“The roadmap ahead is to clearly strengthen partnership at every level,” says Akhila Sivadas. “The community is designing, shaping, fighting economic injustice to fight HIV/AIDS.
“We will focus more on social entitlement and economic justice,” she says. “Here DMSC is the ideological vanguard because they started at a time when tolerance was not there. But while they are at the vanguard, those taking inspiration from them have to also innovate in their environment in each area, in different milieus.”