UN, sex workers hold first-ever talks in bid to find ways to halt spread of HIV/AIDS

UN, sex workers hold first-ever talks in bid to find ways to halt spread of HIV/AIDS

Representatives from governments and sex workers associations joined United Nations officials in Geneva today for the start of unprecedented talks aimed at identifying strategies to halt the spread of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Some 35 representatives from the UN, governments and sex work networks and organizations are attending a two-day consultative workshop organized by the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). The workshop seeks to identify strategies for the UN and sex worker communities to collaborate in preventing the spread and mitigate the impact of HIV/AIDS among sex workers, according to UNAIDS.

"The ultimate challenge is for Governments to make access to HIV prevention and care available to sex worker communities, implement policy and legal frameworks that do not discriminate against sex workers, set up programmes that empower young women, and work towards eliminating violence against women," said Lin Lean Lim, Manager of the International Labour Organization's (ILO) Gender Promotion Programme.

Experts agree that much can be done to address factors that force men and women to use sex work as a means of survival, increasing their vulnerability to HIV, according to UNAIDS. This vulnerability is exacerbated by stigma and discrimination, criminalization, limited access to health services, exploitation, and violence. Sex work is also a significant economic sector in many countries, accounting for more than 2 per cent of gross domestic product in four Southeast Asian countries in the late 1990s, according to ILO estimates.

While sex workers are among groups most affected by HIV, they have mobilized to become leading advocates and educators on prevention and care, UNAIDS said. Field experience also indicates that sex workers are among those most likely to respond to HIV prevention programmes and that involving them directly in the development and implementation of such programmes is key.

Successful prevention efforts among this high-risk group will also have far reaching benefits for society as a whole because high HIV rates among sex workers often foreshadow an increase in the general population, UNAIDS said.