(WOMENSENEWS)–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed the importance of reaching high-risk groups, including female sex workers, on July 23 in her remarks at the bi-annual International AIDS Conference.
“I have seen and experienced how difficult it can be to talk about a disease that is transmitted the way that AIDS is,” Clinton said in her address to delegates. “But if we’re going to beat AIDS, we can’t afford to avoid sensitive conversations, and we can’t fail to reach the people who are at the highest risk.”
Because of a U.S. travel ban on sex workers, however, many of those same people had no way of physically reaching the July 22-27 conference in Washington, D.C.
The conference is being held in the United States for the first time since 1990, when it was held in San Francisco.
At that time, those with HIV who wished to visit the United States needed a special 10-day visiting visa as foreign visitors with HIV were barred from entering as a result of immigration law. That changed in 2010, when the ban was lifted. Foreign sex workers, however, are still denied entry.
Clinton’s new commitment to sex workers comes as part of a set of new programs dedicated to three at-risk groups, female sex workers, injecting drug users and men who have sex with men.
Through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief–known as PEPFAR–$15 million has been committed for research on the best interventions for these groups, $20 million has been committed to expand services to these groups.
PEPFAR is based on a law that explicitly calls for the promotion of employment alternatives to sex work.
Organizations receiving funds from PEPFAR are obligated to take an anti-prostitution pledge, an explicit recognition that the organization opposes prostitution. As a result of a court challenge settled in 2011, the pledge can no longer be applied to most U.S.-based organizations as it was found to violate First Amendment rights.
Research presented at the conference has shown that the pledge has consequences. Organizations were found to limit or avoid working with sex workers out of fear of losing funding. The research was conducted by Melissa Ditmore, from the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center based in New York City and Dan Allman, from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.
Ditmore says she welcomes Clinton’s announcement of new funding for research on specific interventions for sex workers because U.S. funding policies have restricted access to some reports on the subject.
“The [anti-prostitution] pledge shouldn’t dictate what findings are promoted or punish findings unpopular with legislators,” Ditmore said in a phone interview.
She hopes guidelines for the new research funding will ensure findings will not be muzzled.
“It is discriminatory policies like the anti-prostitution pledge that will keep us from ever getting ahead of HIV,” said Serra Sippel in a July 23 press release. Sippel is the president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), an advocacy group based Washington, D.C.
“There is no place for discrimination in an AIDS-free generation.”
Sadiya Ansari is a Pakistani-Canadian freelance journalist, currently reporting from New York.