Sex workers are part of the solution

Argentinian sex worker activist receives standing ovation for speech at World AIDS Conference, Mexico.

Elena Reynaga finishing her speech in Mexico this week

Elena Reynaga finishing her speech in Mexico this week

We don’t want to sew, we don’t want to knit, we don’t want to cook. We want better work conditions.

We want sex work to be recognised as ‘work’.

We want to be free to do, free to make mistakes and free to learn.

Free to decide what we, as sex workers, need.

Free from repression – this is the best way to build an effective response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Sex workers are not the problem; we are part of the solution’

(Elena Reynaga, Mexico, 2008)

Elena’s voice cracked with emotion as she spoke the last few words of the speech that left both her and the 10,000 attendees emotional at the XVII International AIDS Conference in Mexico this week. Many in the audience cried while the gave her a standing ovation. The moment was tense, as a small group with placards attempted to boycott the speech by the Argentinian sex workers’ rights, but were unable to do so.

While others talked statistics and wore grey suits, Elena Reynaga walked on stage in a pink t-shirt emblazoned with the word ‘Somos Parte de la Solucion’ (We are part of the solution). She began her speech as the first sex worker to speak at a Plenary session in fourteen years at the seventeen year old global conference on AIDS. She ended it having reinforced her position a leading voice on HIV prevention, as a hero of the sex workers’ rights movement and having converted into a public figure in her home Argentina, emblazoned the next morning across all of the most important national newspapers.

Drawing on experiences of sex workers across the world, in India, Cambodia and Africa, as well as in Latin America, she emphasised the important relationship between sex workers’ human rights, poverty and HIV prevalence. In particular, the link between the criminalisation of sex work and the violation of sex workers rights, and its contribution to the prevalency of HIV/AIDS.

“Some may say, sex work is not decent. We reply, indecent are the conditions in which we work”.

Calling for the recognition of sex work as a form of labour equal to any other, Reynaga raised frightening statistics on the consequences of failing to recognise sex work as work. 34 sex workers have been killed in Latin America in the last ten months alone. All with complete impunity. In Bolivia sex workers were public lynched earlier this year and in Congo and Cambodia there is evidence of systematic rape of sex workers by security forces.

In contrast to this disturbing picture of the violation of sex workers rights, Reynaga also outlined the successes of the sex workers rights movement. In particular, the speech critiqued the use of funds around sex work, calling for international donors including the UN, to stop imposing their own agendas and ideologies. Instead she demanded that sex workers be given the autonomy to managing their own funds and resources.

Today, in front of the whole world, we stand and say: we, sex workers, will no longer hang our heads in shame”.

The speech was historic in placing sex workers as agents not only in HIV prevention, but also in defining their own realities and articulating their own needs and desires.

Elena Reynaga is General Secretary of AMMAR, the Female Sex Workers’ Trade Union of Argentina and President of RedTraSex, the Latin American and Caribbean network of sex workers’ organisations.

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