The Supreme Court of the US is currently deliberating the constitutionality of the so-called “anti-prostitution pledge”, a requirement introduced by the US administration in 2003, according to which organisations involved in programmes to fight AIDS had to adopt a policy explicitly opposing prostitution as a condition of receiving funding from the US government’s PEPFAR programme. The case against the pledge is that it hampers effective HIV programmes and that it constitutes a violation of first amendment free speech rights (the latter, only in relation to US-based organisations).
For more background, I can recommend the primers and analysis by Serra Sippel, Melissa Gira, Melissa Ditmore and Dan Allman, and Chi Mgbako. The New York Times also published an editorial calling for the Supreme Court to rule that the Pledge is unconstitutional.
While I also hope that the Pledge is lifted, I think it is also important to recognise that, as important as the influence of US funding is to the global response to HIV and AIDS, the Pledge is neither the only nor the main reason that HIV programmes have failed and are continuing to fail sex workers. Governments across the world have failed to adopt policies and implement HIV programmes with sex workers that are evidence based and respectful of human rights, irrespective of whether they are using their money, the US government’s money, or money from another source.
Nor is the Pledge the main cause of abuses of the rights of sex workers. In the majority of countries sex workers remain criminalised or quasi-criminalised, and they face a constant threat of violence and abuse from law enforcement officials and medical authorities (one example here). Removal of the PEPFAR pledge will, no doubt, enable programmes to work more closely with and support grassroots sex worker groups who want to challenge this situation, but they will still be largely constrained in what they can do by the national and legal context. If governments want to arbitrarily arrest sex workers, or stop sex workers organising and claiming their rights, they will do so.
We know that it is not beyond the UN system and donor governments to be scandalised by human rights abuses – take, for instance, the justified international reaction to instances of homophobic abuse. That the mistreatment of sex workers by governments and their agents is not a scandal is a sign of how much further there is to go. We need more than just the removal of the PEPFAR Pledge: we need a commitment to supporting the rights of the most vulnerable, whoever they are. At the same time we need much more humility about the impact that decisions taken in western capitals have on human rights on the ground, and much more solidarity and support for grassroots organisations.