Networking in Vancouver
Report on the XI International Conference on AIDS July 7-12, 1996.

At the Sessions
Protest Against Human Rights
Violations in Burma

On Thursday afternoon the NSWP protested "Interventions By and For Sex Workers." This session about prevention programs was to open with "HIV Prevention Among Commercial Sex Workes Using Peer Education and Outreach Strategies, Myanmar" (Th.D.460) by Dr. Nyunt Nyunt from the AIDS/STD Control of the SLORC, the military regime in Burma! In April 1992, there were well-corroborated reports (Human Rights Watch/Asia, UPI April 2, 1992) that the Burmese military had executed 22 HIV-positive prostitutes being forcibly repatriated from Thailand. NSWP began following up reports and also heard that rumours were also supported by a group of nuns.The NSWP decided that given the other blantant human rights violations reported in Burma, to protest this atrocious violation of human rights at the VIII International Conference on AIDS in Amsterdam in 1992. Our protest was both specifically about those women but it was also symbolic for all the sex workers who are persecuted and discriminated against because of HIV.

The NSWP and SWAV wrote a letter to the organizers of the conference the previous day requesting the cancellation of the presentation from the Department of Health in Burma. The NSWP then notified all the conference press with a media release. It was exciting to discover the speed and ease with which we were able to obtain information about Burma on the Internet. Canadian Friends of Burma and the Free Burma websites:,
were extremely helpful for putting us in touch with people and information.

NSWP have been consistently criticized for acting on the 1992 allegations because they have never been fully confirmed. We were also criticized for speaking out about an Asian matter when we were not from Asia. In fact, NSWP had been in touch with people in Burma and Burmese exiles in Thailand. And, we had sought advice and support from Asian NSWP members.

HIV and Human rights was a running theme through this conference. Regardless of whether the reports of sex worker execution are true or not, no respectable international conference has any business inviting a actual repesentative of an unelected military regime where human rights are being so blatantly violated, (see our handout) to make a presentation. How incredibly insensitive it was for the AIDS conference to accept a presentation from a military regime entitled, "HIV Prevention Among Commercial Sex Workers Using Peer Education and Outreach Strategies" after the NSWP had consistently drawn attention to this issue.

We approached ACT UP who were willing and eager to help. A vote held at the ACT UP planning meeting decided unanimously (with a couple of abstentions) to endorse our demonstration. NSWP and ACT UP members arrived at the session with signs and leaflets to protest but the representative from AIDS/STD Control of Myanmar didn't show up.

As people were entering the session we distributed a handout with background information about human rights violations in Burma, asking people to leave the session while the Burma delegate speaks to a large full room. There were seven uniformed police and at least two undercovers (that I spotted). All of the conference co chairs showed too. It was a brilliant job of public education about many issues concerning HIV, human rights and sex work.

Presentations also included "Quantitative Study on Status Quo of Sex Workers and Their AIDS-Related Sexual Behavior in Two Kinds of Chinese Cities" (Th.D.461) by Pan Suiming; "Peer Education with Commercial Sex Workers" (Th.D.462) by Nguyen Van Nhieu, CARE International, Ho Chi Minh City; "La Sala : A Novel Educational Approach for Sex Workers in Guatemala City" (Th.D.464) by Helen Cornman; "Communicaitions Patterns Related to STD Findings From a Qualitative Research Activity Among Female Sex Workers in Manila and Cebu City, Philippines" (Th.D.465) TE Wi; and "Prevention Actions Against HIV Infection Among Transvestite and Transformist Sex Workers (CSW) in Paris" (Th.D.466) by Eva Lansun.

How did this mess happen?

Yet again the NSWP was passed over in the conference planning process. We offered a developing country sex worker to the program planning committee but were told, "We already have a sex worker on track D, thanks." The community laision officer was "too busy" to tell us for ten weeks who it was who representing the interests of sex workers. Eventually we found out (through our own sources) and contacted (Claudia Fischer, who had made several trips from Europe to Vancouver planning sessions and yet never contact the NSWP or the Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver who had made themselves known to the conference community liasion coordinator several times.

Fischer also chaired the session at which the SLORC health official was to present. When the Burmese presenter didn't show up Cheryl Overs asked the her if a sex worker (from Asia) could speak in their place. The answer was a firm "No, tell her to go to the microphone like everyone else." The woman chose not to speak.

Instead, at the end of the session our liason with ACT UP San Francisco, without consulting any NSWP members, decided to go to the front of the room and shout, "Twenty-two women -- sex workers were sent back. They were arrested at the border. They were shot. Twenty-two people killed because of their HIV status. If there is anyone in this room who can accept that, fine. Don't join us. The rest please join us for a minute of silence for all the people with AIDS whose human rights are not being protected."

Seized by the moment, (much to many NSWP members' surprise) Priscilla Alexander of the "North American Task Force on Prostitution" took the floor next and requested "a moment of silence for every sex worker who is arrested in this world; who goes to jail in this world; who is raped in this world; who is killed in this world; who is beaten in this world; who gets STDs in this world; who gets HIV in this world; and the lack of care for them from almost every single government of this world."

There were NSWP members with no warning and with no choice but to obediently shuffle into position to enact sham solidarity. There lies the dangers of quick-fix alliances when dealing with political issues to do with sex work. Often sympathetic political groups are not sensitive to, or aware of, the typical ways sex workers and their groups are disrespected and disregarded. As one NSWP member quipped, "I'd like a moment of silence for every sex worker who has been been spoken for by others and silenced in this world!" These affiliations felt advantageous, given that on-the-spot crying for people you haven't ever known doesn't exactly promote trust that a group is politically competent.

This comedy of errors would be funny were it not so tragic. The NSWP is sex-worker controlled which is why we are routinely and blatantly excluded. The justifications for those exclusions would cause outrage if it were HIV-positive women or gay men being excluded. The International Community of Women with HIV is, as it should be, a conference co-sponsor. Imagine if instead of being co-sponsors of the conference ICW were simply told, "Sorry, we have found an individual HIV-positive woman to represent HIV-positive women, but we are too busy to tell you who she is." The real problem is that many professionals who may be willing to work with individual, well-behaved sex workers, but just can't stand the idea of sex workers making decisions collectively and having some control.

Transcript of session... [XI AIDS Report] [XI AIDS Abstracts] [Rights Groups]

Created: July 16, 1996
Last modified: March 9, 1997

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