International AIDS Conference Hub, Kolkata

This month, for the first time in over 20 years, the International AIDS Conference will be held in the United States: from July 22nd – 27th in Washington, D.C. That the conference, the largest on any health or development issue, took so long to return stateside reflects a policy of exclusion that was in place for more than two decades: the ban on people living with HIV from travelling to the United States was overturned only at the end of 2009, leaving just five countries with the ban still in place (Egypt, Iraq, Qatar, Singapore, and Turks and Caicos)

Still, the United States continues to exclude drug users and sex workers from entering the country, effectively barring the participation in the conference of two key populations at highest risk of HIV transmission. In other words, “How effective can a conference truly be that doesn’t include the opinions of those most affected?”

In response, sex worker rights activists have organized an alternative AIDS conference, called the Sex Worker Freedom Festival, to be held in Kolkata, India. The festival, which is an official AIDS 2012 Conference Hub, will provide a space for sex workers to protest their exclusion and to ensure that their voices are heard.

The Freedom Festival’s “central theme will be the “seven freedoms” that sex workers are entitled to including freedom of movement and to migrate, to access quality health services, to work and choose occupation, to associate and unionise, to be protected by the law; freedom from abuse and violence, from stigma and stigma and discrimination.”

The conference hub is being organised by the Global Network of Sex Workers Project (NSWP) and the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Commitee (DMSC). The DMSC, a collective of around 65,000 sex workers, runs HIV intervention programs in around 50 sex work sites across West Bengal, providing testing, counselling and care for people living with HIV/AIDS. Durbar also runs anti-trafficking programs through boards made up of sex workers; provides housing and training for children of sex workers, and literacy training for adults.

The conference will feature both formal meetings and presentations and a Global Village with cultural and activist events. Participants include representatives of around 20 Indian organisations and 66 international groups, and a programme schedule is available here.

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