Punishing Sex Workers Won't Curb HIV/AIDS, Ban-Ki Moon

Armen Hareyan's picture

Add United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the list of people who understand that arresting and punishing sex workers is counter-productive in the battle against HIV/AIDS. And take the government of Cambodia off that list.

The Global Working Group on HIV and Sex Work Policy wrote to Ban in June to applaud his statement commending the findings of a March report that favored decriminalizing sex work. The Report of the Commission on AIDS in Asia noted that sex workers are part of the solution to preventing the spread of HIV, and advised countries to "avoid programs that accentuate AIDS-related stigma and can be counterproductive. Such programs may include 'crack-downs' on red-light areas and arrest of sex workers."

To express their gratitude for this understanding, sex workers and advocates circulated a statement at the June 11-12 UN High-Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS as Ban spoke to the gathering in New York. "Sex workers thank [Ban] for his support of their efforts to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic," the statement said.

The March report strongly advised countries to enlist sex workers in the effort to prevent the spread of HIV. It included firm recommendations against punitive measures targeting sex work and other frowned-upon behaviors, on the grounds that such approaches have proven counter-productive. The UN Secretary-General supported these recommendations in his statement and sex workers everywhere are grateful.

Unfortunately, some governments continue to deny reality.


Under pressure from the United States, Cambodia outlawed prostitution in February. The government's promotion of a "no condoms, no sex" program in legal brothels there had succeeded in reducing HIV infection rates, but now those brothels have closed or gone underground, along with bars, karaoke clubs and street areas. Hundreds of women have been arrested, jailed or displaced, while dozens have been raped and beaten by police and prison guards. The HIV prevention and care programs that were working have collapsed.

The new law, ironically named the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation Law, is a failure in every way. It encourages trafficking and exploitation because it makes sex workers easier prey: the workers can no longer seek clients in public and must depend upon others to introduce them. Worse, police now use condoms as evidence of prostitution, so sex workers can no longer use them. We can expect to see HIV rates rise as a result.

The U.S. ambassador to Cambodia acknowledged in an article in The International Herald Tribune that U.S. influence played a part in the passage of this dangerous law. The annual U.S. Trafficking In Persons Report ranks countries on their efforts to end the practice according to U.S. perception, with those low on the list risking economic sanctions.

By passing the law, Cambodia moved up from the "Tier 2 watch list" to "Tier 2" and thus evaded sanctions. But is U.S. aid worth the cost in sex workers' lives and in lost ground against HIV/AIDS?

Sex workers in Cambodia protested the new law on June 4, calling for repeal and an end to raids. "Don't be fooled by talk of rescuing 'sex slaves' until you have heard our testimonials and seen video evidence of the brutality and misery this new law is causing," their statement said (watch the video below).

Sex workers and their allies also protested the new law at the Cambodian Mission to the United Nations in New York on June 11, during the High-Level Meeting on AIDS. Further demonstrations are planned in the United Kingdom and Australia.

Sex workers documented human rights abuses and sought local and international support in their campaign against these violations. Supporters have been invaluable. The next steps include continued support for changing the law that led to these abuses, as well as immediate care and assistance for those who were abused in detention.