Kolkata to host parallel AIDS conference after US denies entry to sex workers

Country’s laws do not permit granting visa to those involved in prostitution

By Sonal Matharu
Published: Friday 06 July 2012

Hurt at being denied visa by the US to attend the International AIDS conference, sex worker groups from 27 countries have decided to hold a parallel conference in Kolkata. The group includes 70 members from India. The 19th International AIDS conference is slated to be held between July 22 and July 27 in Washington DC.

The conference is held every two years but sex workers are facing problems this year as the US laws do not permit granting visa to those involved in prostitution. “While applying for visa, an application is filled where a person has to declare that he or she has not been involved in sex work for the past 10 years. Vatican City also has same visa granting rules as the US,” informs S Jana, principal, Sonagachi Research and Training Institute, a Kolkata based non-profit.


“The US links human trafficking with sex work. They have not even allowed groups working in The Netherlands, Australia, where sex work is completely legal,” adds Andrew Hunter, from the Asian Network of Sex Workers, a Bangkok-based non-profit. “They must understand, sex workers rights are human rights,” he says.

Indian laws impose no such conditions and that it is the reason it has been chosen for the conference’s parallel session. Kolkata will see over 900 representatives from Botswana, Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Thailand, Australia, Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, New Zealand, South Korea, Nepal, France, Hungary, and the UK. From India, representatives from Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Manipur, Nagaland, Gujarat, Rajasthan and West Bengal will attend the meeting.

Focus sex workers

At the meeting, issues such as policies against sex workers and other HIV/AIDS high risk groups like injection drug users, will be discussed. The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Amendment Bill, which was proposed by the Union ministry of Women and Child Development in 2006 would also feature at the conference. The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act of 1956 in its present form does not term sex work illegal but adds certain clauses that makes work for sex workers difficult. For example, the Act terms soliciting illegal. It also says that no sex worker can rent a flat to conduct her work. It also says that customers who visit sex workers may be arrested and anyone above the age of 18 cannot live off the income of a sex worker.

The Act has been criticised as it often leads to harassment of sex workers. AIDS groups have called for amendments in the Bill before it is passed. “It is a myth that women who are trafficked are brought to brothels,” says Bharati Dey, secretary, Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a Kolkata-based non-profit that has 65,000 sex workers (male, female and transgenders) as its members. DMSC has formed a self-regulatory board in 30 red-light districts in West Bengal to combat trafficking and entry of minors into sex trade.

Representatives from the government’s department for AIDS, National AIDS Control Organisation, will however attend the Washington conference. Meanwhile, Union women and child development minister Krishna Tirath and special envoy of Ban Ki Moon, secretary general of United Nations, will attend the Kolkata conference. The conference in Kolkata will get continuous updates via video conferencing from Washington as the two conferences will run parallel.


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