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Activists push for vulnerable groups' rights to reduce HIV | Updated: 2012-07-26 15:10

Activists at this week's global AIDS conference pushed for more rights for vulnerable groups such as sex workers in a bid to reduce new cases of the deadly disease that has ravaged countries worldwide.

The subject was the topic of several panel discussions and artistic performances at the 19th annual International AIDS Conference, which drew more than 20,000 researchers, activists and volunteers to an event that has not been held in the U.S. since 1990.

Advocates said pressure from law enforcement can drive the industry underground and make it difficult for health workers to reach those in commercial sex.

And reaching vulnerable groups such as sex workers are much more likely to contract HIV than the general population -- is critical to reducing overall levels of the disease worldwide, experts said. That is because clients could spread HIV to their wives or other partners outside the commercial sex industry to the general population.


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A result of lax sex workers' rights, activists said, was the alleged practice of police using condoms as evidence against sex workers.

Activists said the alleged tactic could fuel the spread of HIV among sex workers and their clients, as some in the sex industry have reported not carrying condoms out of fear of police.

Speaking Monday at the 19th International AIDS conference in Washington, Acacia Shields, a consultant with the Open Society Foundation, said police in the U.S. and elsewhere are confiscating condoms from sex workers, a practice she said was endangering the lives of those working in commercial sex and their clients.

New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and San Francisco have reported high rates of HIV among sex workers and transgender women, and targeted HIV prevention among these groups is an urgent priority, activists said.

Anti-AIDS activists found the practice odd because U.S. government-funded programs distribute condoms to those in the sex industry, only to have them taken away by police.

Police, however, deny the charges.

Officer Albie Esparza, spokesman for the San Francisco police department, told Xinhua in a phone interview that the department's new policy is not to collect condoms for prostitution related offenses.

Gwendolyn Crump, spokeswoman for the Washington Metropolitan police department, told Xinhua via email that there is "no prohibition against carrying condoms."

Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) spokesman Cleon Joseph told Xinhua via email "We are not aware on this type of activities with LAPD Officers." The New York Police Department did not respond before press time.

Last week, a report by the Open Society Foundation found the same for six countries. The report, entitled "Criminalizing Condoms," surveyed sex workers in Kenya, Namibia, Russia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and the United States. It found that such police practices make sex workers more likely to have unprotected sex with clients.

Fifty-two percent of survey participants in the U.S. said they sometimes opted not to carry condoms because of stop-and-search practices.


In a number of panels at this week's conference, sex worker advocates blasted what they said were blunt police tactics used to combat human trafficking.

A major anti-human trafficking sting last month involving 2,500 state, local and federal officers in 57 U.S. cities was lambasted by sex worker advocates, who said many adults were caught up in a dragnet intended to get child prostitutes off the streets.

The sweep, known as Operation Cross Country, was conducted in a bid to save children forced into sex work while nabbing the pimps who controlled them, according to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

But while the operation was aimed at children, the New York chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project told Xinhua that authorities made little distinction between adults and minors.

Panel speakers this week said such police tactics drive commercial sex further underground, putting sex workers more at risk of contracting HIV.

The FBI acknowledged that it also arrested adult sex workers in the nationwide sweep, saying that the bureau interviews "everyone involved" in a bid to gain intelligence on child victims of human trafficking.

Speaking Tuesday at a panel on sex workers and AIDS, sex worker advocate Cheryl Overs said the term "trafficking" is ill-defined, adding that "tools for fighting it are always going to be ridiculously blunt until we sharpen the definition."

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