August 16, 2006

Sex Workers March for Rights at AIDS Conference

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

TORONTO (Reuters) - Sex workers and their supporters from 21 countries marched on Wednesday through the 16th International AIDS Conference to demand their own place not only at the conference, but in their own societies.

Wearing turquoise T-shirts, they marched from a gauze-draped bed in the Toronto conference's Stiletto Lounge, one of the exhibits at the meeting, through art displays, exhibits about prisoners with AIDS and around booths offering information to drug users and religious groups.

"Sex work is work. Sex workers are workers," said Philal Sri Kumzaw from Thailand, standing amid pillows and sex toys in the Lounge.

To cheers from a crowd of around 200 people, she demanded health insurance, paid vacation and job security.

The AIDS epidemic has launched homosexual men not only into open society, but made them some of the most prominent advocates for research and care. Now the sex workers want their share of the action.

"They should be treated as human beings, instead of being discriminated against, instead of being tormented, instead of being tortured," said Macrina Akorot, a social worker helping sex workers in Kampala, Uganda.

"You can't do without them, and some of them are parents, some of them are our own relatives."

Some of the most prominent speakers at the conference, from billionaire donor Bill Gates to former U.S. president Bill Clinton, have said prostitutes, drug users and other AIDS victims at the edges of society need to be recognized and helped.

The demonstrators want more than just help.

"Sex workers are good people too," said Prempreeda Pramoj of Bangkok.

"That's why they should demonstrate."

Some came to the conference openly, others under the auspices of groups.

Melissa Ditmore of the Network of Sex Work Project in New York said at least 24 sex workers were at the conference on scholarships but it was not clear how many actual sex workers were attending the meeting, which has attracted 24,000 delegates from around the world.

"I think people are hesitant to come out, especially if they come from places where they are prosecuted," Ditmore said.

But she noted that a group called Prostitutes of New York sent four delegates.

"Sex workers are part of society and not adjacent to it," Ditmore said in an interview.

It is also good public health to make sure prostitutes are treated as part of mainstream society, she noted.