Sex workers in the Caribbean are asking to be treated fairly and given the same respect as other people involved in demanding professions in the region.
That call was made by Miriam Edwards, president of the Caribbean Sex Work Coalition, Kay Forte, of Guyana, and Claudette Johnson, of Jamaica, as well as Ivan Cruickshank of the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition.
Speaking at the closing ceremony of the Sex Work And HIV Technical Working Group meeting put on by UNAIDS, the very candid Edwards said that her organisation, which had members in 13 Caribbean countries, was battling for sex workers’ voices to be heard in order for the legal framework to be instituted for such workers to obtain the medical and other necessary services.
“We need to accept sex workers as human beings and we want the same level of treatment and service when we come forward as anyone else,” Edwards said to nods of approval from her Caribbean sisters.
Edwards also warned that it was pointless setting up programmes for a few sex workers and prefacing the offer with the command that they must give up their profession in order to get funding for education or skills training. “What will the worker do in the meantime and what about the hundreds of other workers out there who will not be benefiting from such programmes?” Edwards asked.
The trio was pleased to meet Minister of Health Donville Inniss, who had earlier delivered the closing address and had stated: “It is not for me to deliberate on the morality or illegality of sex work in the Caribbean, but rather it is for me to face reality. We will not, certainly at the policy level, move ahead if we start by operating with any stigma attached to the issue of sex workers or if we start to bring our own prejudices to the table and bury our heads in the sand and pretend that such a thing does not exist.
“In addition, the increased risk of HIV transmission which may be found in some informal and formal sex work contexts heightens the need to take definitive steps to reduce the risk of transmission in these settings,” Inniss added.
The minister cautioned that often there was the error of associating the term “sex worker” solely with females, and he also stressed a point made by the three sex workers, that in the realities of our own Caribbean context some people who sold sex but did not openly identify as sex workers were able to access services across the spectrum of the health sector.
Cruickshank pointed to the need to examine ways of improving the lives of sex workers and he underscored the fact that sex workers were bridges to other lives since sex workers in the Caribbean often had partners who were not involved in the profession and such home partners did not know what the sex workers were involved in.
Inniss, in summing up, said that “the provision of universal access for sex workers will demand a coordinated and concerted effort, which will involve the adept synchronisation and mobilisation of financial and human resources”.