By Nita Bhalla
Almost 1,000 sex workers from India and abroad gathered in the east Indian city of Kolkata this week for the "Sex Worker Freedom Festival" - an event aimed at highlighting the daily discrimination and lack of freedoms faced by men, women and transgenders around the world who sell sexual services.
The five-day summit was organised after U.S. travel restrictions on sex workers prevented them from attending the International AIDS Conference (IAC) in Washington, prompting sex worker rights organisations to hold a "parallel conference" in protest and expose wider is of ostracism and stigma they face as a result of their profession.
Experts say sex workers are crucial to discussion forums such as the IAC, as they are one of the groups, along with drug users, who are most at risk of being infected or infecting others with the deadly disease. In organised red light areas like Sonagachi in Kolkata, sex workers have "Customer Care Kiosks" where they show videos on safer sex, and give out male and female condoms to customers.
The event - which brought together sex workers from 42 countries including China, Mexico, Guyana, Kenya, Thailand, Indonesia, Germany as well as India - held video links with participants at the Washington meeting, and discussed issues such as access to quality drugs and promotion of safe sex.
The summit also had a Global Village, where organisations supporting sex worker rights - including those of their children - spoke about their work and how they could help. Transgenders were also present and shared stories of the abuse face not just in India, but across the world.
But the main event of the week was a massive demonstration through the streets of Kolkata on Tuesday, which saw over 5,000 sex workers waving banners and shouting slogans, condemning the U.S. immigration policy and calling for the decriminalising of sex work.
"We are here to support one another in this fight for equality and not to be treated as criminals. Sex workers' rights are human rights and the U.S. and the rest of the world need to see that," said John, a 30-year-old sex worker from Nairobi. "They can't sit in Washington and speak for us. We are part of the solution."
"I chose this work. It's like any other job, but still I have no rights because society judges me and prevents me from having recognition," said 36-year-old Sapna Gayan, one of 12,000 sex workers in Sonagachi.
"Police have arrested me, clients have hit me when I ask them to wear a condom. Sex workers have no freedom to protest the abuses they face, to move and work freely."
Sex workers, like those in Sonagachi, say despite being breadwinners, they have to hide what they do from their families. Many have already been estranged from their families, and are seen as "fallen women" in these societies.
Participants said that they needed the same level of protection, respect and recognition as any other worker in society. "We are not selling our bodies, we are just selling our services," said one sex worker. "It's our body and our right."
Photo credit: TRUSTLAW/Nita Bhalla