Despite violence and marginalisation, sex workers in Argentina are leading the way on HIV/Aids prevention

As part of an ongoing research project, the following article has been longlisted for the Guardian International Development Journalism Competition.

Despite violence and marginalisation, sex workers in Argentina are leading the way on HIV/Aids prevention

On 12 April 2008, Carlos Garcia was convicted of the murder of Andrea Rosa Machado in Córdoba, Argentina. The case was a landmark, the first time that anyone had been convicted for the murder of a sex worker in the Latin American country. Garcia was cleared in 2005 in a first trial due to lack of evidence, despite Rosa’s body being found buried beneath the patio of his home.

Corruption throughout the legal system and sex work stigma mean violence against sex workers is rarely taken seriously and often initiated by the police, who elicit bribes and detain women for up to 21 days. When Mirta, Rosa’s sister, reported her missing and told police she suspected she had been killed, no-one listened. It was not until AMMAR took up the case that people began taking notice.

AMMAR is the Argentinian Union of Female Sex Workers, with over 3800 members across Argentina. AMMAR offer empowerment classes, re-training, gender awareness workshops, micro-enterprise and healthcare. Elena Reynaga, the General Secretary, says these activities are all important ‘to remove all the guilt they have put in our heads: that you are bad, a sinner, dirty, drug addicted . . . it is important to work with our co-workers, to elevate them and to tell them that [sex work] is dignified, as dignified as a gynaecologist, as a sociologist’. Alongside social, education and political programmes, these women are revolutionising approaches to HIV/Aids prevention.

Sex workers are better placed than most for understanding importance of safe sex. They can access hard-to-reach populations with language that is in touch with real sexual practice. Zulema from AMMAR-Rio Negro described the experience of talking to a group of striking construction workers. She said, ‘we took the opportunity to talk to them about HIV prevention and give them condoms and leaflets. At first we were a bit nervous, but afterwards, the men asked us questions and told us they’d never spoken about HIV and they didn’t know there were STIs, we stayed there talking for three hours’.

Direct and uncomplicated approaches such as these are creating more open dialogue for talking about sensitive issues of sex, even in a context with a strong Catholic church, promoting abstention as the only form of protection. Sex workers have practical working knowledge that can develop needs models and articulate pragmatic ways in which condom-use can best be negotiated.

AMMAR is one of a growing number of sex worker organisations across the world that are transforming HIV/Aids prevention alongside their daily realities as a stigmatised and excluded group. Officials in Brazil have cited a working partnership with sex worker organisations a key to the country’s falling Aids mortality figures. Similar organisations from Costa Rica, Colombia and Peru to Cambodia, India and South Africa as well as many in the United States and Western Europe are organising around issues surrounding sex work and becoming primary agents in HIV/Aids prevention.

As well as services to the general public, AMMAR provide specialised services to sex workers. With contributions of condoms from the state and municipal authorities, volunteers from AMMAR pass through areas of sex work, talking to women about rights, health and distributing condoms and information.

In La Plata, AMMAR have founded the Sandra Cabrera Health Centre. This is a joint initiative with the CTA (the umbrella trade union group to which AMMAR belongs) and the Buenos Aires Province Ministry for Health. It has created a space for sex workers in which all their healthcare requirements can be addressed directly alongside other personal needs. Supported by money from The Global Fund Against Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the centre attends to a thousand sex workers a month and is also open to members of the public.

Federal and municipal governments now rely on AMMAR’s activists to design, implement and deliver HIV/Aids prevention policies and other sexual health services. But this is dangerous work. Women in are still detained for working on the street in most provinces in Argentina. In the state of Jujuy, the police are specifically targeting sex workers known to be activists. Cases of murdered sex workers rarely make it to court and the police have been implicated in the deaths of sex workers, including that of Sandra Cabrera, General Secretary for Rosario on the January 27 2004. Despite, the risks, their work is making a real difference in the fight against HIV/Aids and for creating more open and creative dialogues. With a sense of pride, Elena shows that participation in the organisation also changes personal experiences, as she tells me, ‘sometimes I walk in the street and people say to me “hey, I saw you on TV, how brave you are, how brave.”‘

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