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.”‘


Anti-trafficking law resulting in rights abuses in Cambodia

Sex wrokers protest in Cambodia

The “Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation” passed recently in Cambodia, which aims to eliminate trafficking by stamping out the sex industry, is resulting in serious abuses of sex workers’ human rights. The law was passed in order to meet standards inline with the United State policy on trafficking in persons. However, since crackdowns which began in March when police shut down brothels and rounded up male, female and trans sex workers, sex workers have been forcibly detained and attacked, raped and robbed in rehabiliation centres.

Not only is this affecting the right to coporeal self-determination by the workers and their ability to earn a livelihood, but is also having a profound impact on health. HIV positive sex workers are having difficulty accessing anti-retroviral drugs, condoms are being used as evidence of sex work and many are afraid to access STI services. Andrew Hunter from the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), one of the organisations condemning the crackdown, additionally claims that ‘national HIV prevention programs for sex workers have completely broken down’.

However, in the face of all this violence and repression, sex workers’ organisations are not sitting down. Three grass-roots sex workers’ oprganisations, The Women’s Network for Unity, Cambodian Prostitutes Union and Cambodian Network for Men’s and Women’s Development, alongside the APNSW organised a day of action. Over two hundred sex workers protested, using role play, speech and video evidence to demonstrate the brutality and misery that the new law is causing.

Attendees at the event also heard from two sex workers from India speaking about their fight against trafficking using an effective model of anti-trafficking that respects human rights and which is not in conflict with HIV prevention programs. Further highlights included a video about the anti-trafficking activities of sex workers in Sonagachi, India and The Messenger Band, presenting songs on sex workers defending the right to livelihood.

Condoleeza Rice speaking for The US government, who demanded the changes and which pumped over $14 million into the crackdown have supported the Cambodian authorities and praised their efforts. Though they stated that Cambodia still needed to do more to comply with US anti-trafficking standards.

How you can help
APNSW calls on all those organisations who support the human rights of sex workers to sign onto demands by declaring their support for WNU’s call for this situation to be urgently addressed by the government of Cambodia and for UNAIDS and other UN agencies to openly declare their support for sex workers human rights and to reject the anti-trafficking law itself as a violation of sex workers human rights.

For more information contact Andrew Hunter at

Photo credit: WTOP News

Report on demand found to be unethical, ‘irresponsible’ and ‘disrespectful’

‘Challenging Men’s Demand for Prostitution’ a report on male clients of female sex workers released this month, has been criticised in an open statement by a group of prominent academics from the UK, the US and Canada.

The report, published by the Women’s Support Project and funded by Greater Glasgow & Clyde NHS Health Board, Scottish Government Equality Unit, Community Regeneration Fund (via Routes Out of Prostitution Partnership), and Glasgow City Council, has been lambasted for amongst other criticisms, failing to fulfill ethical criteria. The commentary released by the group argues that that the report divorces sex work from the economic, cultural and social nexus in which the exchange of sex for money takes place and reduces it to an over-simplified issue of violence. At the extreme, this results in a call to categorise men who buy sex alongside ‘rapists, paedophiles and other social undesirables’ (Challenging Men’s Demand in Scotland 2008: 27).

‘Gladiatorial conditions’

The central criticism of the commentary is founded on a lack of evidence of ethical process in undertaking the research. The group claims that the research design violates ‘fundamental principles of human research’ to which all research should be subject. They also point to an absence of submission to an ethics committee, a process which is increasingly mandatory for research projects in all academic institutions and the NHS.

The statement accuses the report of evading ethical procedures including gaining informed consent, providing control groups, engaging in peer review and the inclusion of research tools in appendices. It is claimed that the apparent lack of ‘informed consent’ – the principle that all participants should be fully aware of the purposes of the research – could result in significant psychological damage and social stigmatisation. Further still, it states that the failure to include a risk assessment in the research design also shows disregard for the researchers on the project, who claimed to have been traumatised through their experiences during the investigation.

Peer Review/Under Review

At at time in which the government is reviewing the demand for sex work, contributions to the debate are timely, but they must also be constructive. There is already a wealth of research on the clients of sex workers, published in peer reviewed journals, which meets academic criteria and which has undergone processes of ethical approval. The commentary demonstrates that the majority of this research was excluded by the authors of ‘Challenging Demand’. It is this rich body of literature which should be referred to in the government’s review of demand, rather than commissioning expensive and unhelpful research which falls short of basic parameters to ensure the protection of participants and researchers.

For more research on sex work and clients:

Brooks-Gordon, B. (2005) ‘Clients and Commercial Sex: Reflections on Paying the Price: A Consultation Paper on Prostitution’, Criminal Law Review: 425-443.
— (2006) The Price of Sex: Prostitution, Policy and Society: Willan Publishing.

Campbell, R. (1998) ‘Invisible Men: Making Visible Male Clients of Female Prostitutes in Merseyside’, in J. Elias, V. Bullough, V. Elias and G. Brewer (eds) Prostitution. On Whores, Hustlers and Johns, New York: Prometheus Books. pp. 155-171

Campbell, R. and Storr, M. (2001) ‘Challenging the Kerb Crawler Rehabilitation Programme’, Feminist Review 67(Spring): 94-108.

Grentz, S. (2005) ‘Intersections of Sex and Power in Research on Prostitution: A Female Researcher Interviewing Male Heterosexual Clients’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 30(4): 2091-2113.Kinnell, H (2006) ‘Clients of Female Sex Workers: Men or Monsters?’ in R. Campbell and M. O’Neill (eds) Sex Work Now, Cullumpton:Willan. pp. 212-262

Lowman, J., and Atchison, C., (2006) ‘Men Who Buy Sex: A Survey in the Greater Vancouver Regional District’, Canadian Journal of Sociology and Anthropology 43(3): 281-296.

Monto, M. A. and Hotaling, N. (2001) ‘Predictors of Rape Myth Acceptance Among Male Clients of Female Street Prostitutes’, Violence Against Women 7(3): 275-293.

O’Connell Davidson, J. (2003) ”Sleeping with the Enemy’? Some Problems with Feminist Abolitionist Calls to Penalise Those Who Buy Commercial Sex’, Social Policy and Society 2(1): 55-64.

Peng, Y. W. (2007) ‘Buying Sex. Domination and Difference in the Discourses of Taiwanese Piao-ke’, Men and Masculinities 9(3): 315-336.

Phoenix, J. and Oerton, S. (2005) Illicit & Illegal. Sex, Regulation and Social Control, Cullompton: Willan.

Perkins, R. (1999) ‘How much are you love?’ The customer in the Australian sex industry. Social Alternatives 18(3) 38-47

Sanders, T (2008) Paying for Pleasure: Men who Buy Sex, Willan, Cullompton

Scoular, J. (2004) ‘Criminalising ‘Punters’: Evaluating the Swedish Position on Prostitution’, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law 26(2): 195-210.

Van Brunschot, E. G. (2003) ‘Community Policing and “John Schools”‘, Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 40(2): 215-232.

A Dialogue on the Sex Industry

On 20th May, a dialogue on the sex industry will take place in The Forest Hall, Edinburgh. The debate brings together sex worker activists, academics, student activists and women’s project workers. This dialogue is important in bringing together diverse points of view on the sex industry, a topic which continues to elicit fierce argument within feminism and beyond.

The debate on the sex industry is often victim to reductionism in the media and in other research as being simply a battle between ‘pro-prostitution’ and ‘anti-prostitution’ campaigners. The ferocity of the debate often leaves both side ‘preaching to the converted’. The importance of this dialogue therefore cannot be underestimated in creating a forum for dialogue between these two sides who, despite their different conclusions, both recognise the impact of class and gendered influences on sex work, which is as varied and diverse as the analyses themselves.

For more information: Dialogue on the Sex Industry

Defending women’s right to choose: The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill

On May 20th, the Commons will debate the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Anti-choice campaigners have proposed a number of reactionary amendments include reducing access to abortion and reducing

Despite anti-choice scaremongering that survival rates have increased under 40 weeks, scientific evidence points to the contrary. On 29th October the Commons Science and Technology Committee published a review of the 1967 Abortion Act. They made three main recommendations:

• Upholding the 24 time week time limit for abortion
• Removing the need for women seeking an abortion to get two doctor’s signatures
• Allowing nurses to perform first trimester abortions

All of these recommendations ensure that women can access the reproductive health care they need with minimal delay. Few women need an abortion beyond the 24 week limit, but evidence shows that those that do are often the most vulnerable, often resulting from rape or for women in situations of domestic violence.

The eight amendments threaten constitutional rights which have been enshrined as women’s rights for forty years. Fortuately the amendments are opposed by the British Medical Association, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, British Association of Perinatal Medicine, Royal College of Nursing, TUC and national trade unions, the Department of Health and MPs across all three major parliamentary political parties.

However, it is essential that you support them and stop the amendments going through and attacking the principle and the actuality of women’s right to choose.

Two things you can do:

1) Protest ‘Defend 24 Weeks – no reduction in abortion time limit’

Outside Parliament on 20th May, 5.30pm, Old Palace Yard, opposite St Stephen’s Entrance

Tube: Westminster

2) Consider writing a letter or copying and pasting (changing the names and the name of the constituency) the one I have written below:

Dear Jim Fitzpatrick,

Women’s right to choose, established constitutionally in 1968, heralded a great leap forward for women’s ability to control their fertility and for self-determination over their own bodies.

It is essential that this right is defended. Recent attacks by anti-choice campaigners, made up of the religious right wing threaten the gains won by the women’s movement. The proposed amendment to reduce the limit to between 12 and 20 weeks and an enforced “cooling off” period of two weeks, not only threatens rights, but also puts women in danger, particularly those who are already in danger from domestic violence, lack of access to health care and knowledge about reproductive health.

Contrary to the claims of the anti-choice voice, there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that a baby can survive at less than 24 weeks. This was confirmed on 29th October by the Commons Science and Technology Committee published a review of the 1967 Abortion Act. They made three main recommendations:

• Upholding the 24 time week time limit for abortion
• Removing the need for women seeking an abortion to get two doctor’s signatures
• Allowing nurses to perform first trimester abortions

I urge you to support these recommendations in the discussion of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill on 20th May.

This is particularly salient for your constituents in Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest boroughs of London, in which access to healthcare, especially for those for whom English may not be a first language can be a complex, difficult and delayed process.

Yours sincerely,
Kate Hardy

Simply go to and follow the instructions.

Repression Against Sex Workers Continues in Argentina

On Monday 5th May 2008 Marcela Ocampo, the Communications Secretary of
AMMAR (The Argentinian Female Sex Workers Union) was detained in
Córdoba, Argentina.

This has occurred at a time when AMMAR is in discussions with the
Provincial Government to end police abuse against sex workers.

Representatives from AMMAR met with the Head of Security of the
Ministry of the Government with the intention of making progress with
signing an agreement to stop the detentions without reason of workers
affiliated to the organisation.

At the end of the meeting and after informing the other members, the
secretary of communication, Macerla Ocampo went to her place of work
en Alta Córdoba, where two polic men from the Provincial Police were
waiting for her. They took her into detention together with another
activist to the Police Station 7 ‘on the orders of a boss’.

Once in the police station, they not only denied her the right to a
telephone call, but their detentions were not recorded and they were
not checked by a medical examiner. Later they were moved to Police
Station 17, where they were seen by a doctor. The women were charged
at 2.30am and later freed after negotations by the association.

Eugenia Aravena Secretaria (General Secretary of AMMAR-Cordoba) and
Oscar Mengarelli (General Secretary of CTA-Cordoba) stated that they
were worried by this reaction by the police. They claim it hinders
negotiations with the Minister of the Government, although state that
government officials are aware of the situation and have promised to
investigate so that discussions are able to continue.

Likewise, AMMAR and the CTA have demanded a meeting with the governor
of the province, Juan Schiaretti, to make him aware of this situation
and the demands of the organisations.

For more information, contact:
Eugenia Aravena Secretaria general AMMAR