As health experts, politicians and dignitaries gathered in Washington, D.C., last month to attend the International AIDS Conference (see separate story), more than 1,000 sex workers from around the world gathered in Kolkata for an alternate AIDS conference after being denied U.S. visas.
The five-day Kolkata conference, known as the “Sex Workers Freedom Festival,” was organized by the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee – known simply as Durbar – and was held in Sonagachi, a notorious red-light district.
“To make HIV intervention and prevention effective, we must include sex workers in policy-making decisions,” Smarajit Jana, a co-organizer of the event, told India-West by telephone from Kolkata. “It was a huge mistake to leave these key voices out of the discussion,” he said.
“Sex workers must own the process and product, but often, participation in the process of policy-making is denied to them,” said Jana, adding, “Society is against the active participation of sex workers in decision-making.”
Jana said the decision to hold an alternate AIDS conference was made in February, when sex workers from around the globe attended a conference in Geneva, organized by the World Health Organization. “Many of us had already received notification that our visa applications had been rejected, so we jointly took a decision that – under these circumstances – we would hold a parallel discussion,” he said.
In 2009, President Barack Obama lifted a ban which denied U.S. visas to HIV-positive travelers.
A spokeswoman for the State Department told India-West that the U.S. does deny visas to people who have a history of injectable drug use or sex work, but it is not a blanket ban.
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