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AIDS 2006; Toronto, Canada; August 13-18, 2006

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The Body Covers: The XVI International AIDS Conference
XVI International AIDS Conference: An Interview With Claire Thiboutot

August 18, 2006

Bonnie Goldman talks with Claire Thiboutot,  the director of Stella, a sex worker advocacy and support group based in Montreal. Many normally marginalized communities were represented at the International AIDS Conference’s Global Village, a large community-focused space open to delegates and non-delegates. There was a large sex worker booth with Thai, Chinese and Canadian sex worker organizations.  Stella served as the host at the sex worker booth, publishing a newsletter with the schedule of sessions and activities related to sex work. The booth was networking central for sex work advocates and sex workers attending the conference.

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I'm here with Claire Thiboutot, and she is involved with a group that just had a sex worker rally. I'm going to ask her about why she was at the rally, and what she thinks is the most important issue for sex workers at this conference.

Claire Thiboutot
Well, our first message was that it's time to deliver sex workers' rights. We are here [at the conference]; we are 21 groups of sex workers from all around the world. There are sex workers coming from 18 different countries, including China, Hong Kong, Canada, Argentina, Mexico and Thailand. We are from all five continents. We are here to tell the world -- the rest of the world -- that in the fight against HIV, sex workers need their human rights and workers' rights to be respected and enforced all over the world. We need our work to be decriminalized. We need safety. We need health care. But we are here also to say that any enforcement -- prohibition laws [against sex work] -- is very damaging for us in the fight against HIV. Also, putting us in jail doesn't work at all. We don't want any mandatory [HIV] testing, either. It's not protecting us. So that's our basic message.

And "time to deliver" means time to change?

To change the policies that affect us all around the world. There are policies -- funding policies, actually -- right now that affect a lot of sex workers in the developing countries. There's a condom supply shortage in many countries in Africa because of the AB [abstain and be faithful] programs. Condoms are not available for sex workers. It's a life-threatening situation. It needs to stop. We need condoms. We need our rights. We need access to the proper means to protect ourselves.

So are you doing anything at this conference to change things, besides protesting?

For sure. We educate as many high level people [as possible] who can change and actually have input on those policies.

How did you feel when Melinda Gates advocated for the rights of sex workers?

Well, it was kind of tricky, actually, because she was asking people to support sex workers. But at the end of the speech, what I heard is that she said it was support in order to protect the rest of the population and the babies to come. So it was kind of a big deception for us, I think. Sex workers are worthy [too!] It's worth saving our lives for us ... we're human beings, too.

Which organization are you from, and where is it based?

I'm from Stella in Montreal. It's a sex worker organization. We have lots of members. We organize ... we [are] kind of [the] host here in Canada [at the conference] all sex work events.

What sort of support does Stella give in Montreal to sex workers?

We do a lot of things, actually. We offer support and information to sex workers. We go around. We do outreach to distribute condoms. We do all that stuff. We also do a lot of advocacy work to promote decriminalization, to make changes. We negotiate with the police. We talk with the city. We're pushing the agenda -- so that we'll see decriminalization one day in Canada.

Do you get grants to do this work? Is there any money from anywhere?

Yes, yes, yes. We get money in the fight against HIV -- in order to do both things [advocate for sex workers and prevent HIV]. We are very lucky in Canada. Just [working for] human rights and distributing condoms can go hand in hand so far, without getting into too much trouble.

You get grants to do HIV prevention?


And STD [sexually transmitted disease] prevention?

Yes. We get some support. For this conference we got some support from Open Society Institute and CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency.

What do you think is the biggest misconception that people have about sex workers?

There are so many. We are so stigmatized, it's terrible. We are stigmatized as whores, first. A lot of people think that you can do anything to whores and it doesn't matter. A lot of people think that a whore cannot get raped, for example. So we face a lot of stigma like this. We face barriers in accessing health services, because people have a lot of prejudice against prostitutes and sex workers, in general. They don't know us. They don't know our realities. We face a lot of violence, but not where people think. The number one problem for us is police brutality, enforcing prostitution law. We face police brutality, police harassment. We're getting thrown into jails. In some countries, we're actually forced into rehabilitation, like doing some rehabilitation camp for two or three years.

Which countries?

Cambodia, China and Vietnam -- a lot in Asia. Jails -- here in Canada, in Montreal, the jail is super overcrowded right now, because we have such a wave of repression. We have [a lot] more women in jail now. The population in jail -- the women in jail -- doubled over the last five years. There are not enough beds. We're in Canada and there are not enough beds in jail. The women have to sleep on the floor.

Are these women arrested because of sex work? Prostitution?

Sex work, yes.

So they clamp down here? Is that what they call it? Meaning, they have become tougher on people.

Oh, yes, yes, yes. ... The cities are developing ... they are more into economic development than social development. It's getting -- things are getting a little tough. The violence related to criminalization of our lives, our work, is the number one problem. [And] not having any protection when that violence comes from police or customers. It's very hard for us to go back to the police to get some protection. There's such a mistrustful relationship between law enforcement, police officers and sex workers. So that's a big problem. Access to health care for many of us -- [for] drug users, for example -- it's kind of tough, too. If you combine sex work and drug use and if you work the street, you face so many prejudices. It's just like everything gets worse.

But even for those of us who are facing -- who are just doing well in our job -- we're never sheltered from any police abuse, or customer violence, or AIDS or anything. The law is there [against us].

Are you still involved in sex work? Or do you now work in a leadership capacity?

No, I'm the leader.

How long were you a sex worker?

Seven years.

And when did you stop?

When we opened up ... a little after we opened Stella.

And when was that?

Eleven years ago.

So it's a long time.

Yes, yes. It's [been] 15 years of activism for me.

Wow. What's your secret to not getting tired?

Well, sex workers are so lovely.

But it's a long road.

It's a long fight. It's a long road. But, we just cannot stop. It's like I said on the radio the other day: Even in Quebec, things are getting worse, because the government just stopped giving [sex education] in school, in high schools. At the end of it, when it comes to the sex industry now, we get customers and sex workers who just don't know anything about AIDS. We get here, this week [at the International AIDS Conference] -- now, suddenly, we talk about AIDS. OK, but it's not going to last. Because of our lives, because of our work, we need to keep educating [people] all the time about AIDS and STDs. It doesn't stop after the conference.

Right. What do you hope will come out of this conference? It's such a long, difficult road. That Melinda Gates even mentioned sex workers in her speech is, I think, critical.

Yes, yes, yes. I think it's getting there. It's getting it on the agenda of people. It's important that it gets on the agenda in the proper way. Just don't save us, rescue us or rehabilitate us -- we just want better working conditions. We want protection of our human rights. That's what we want. [We] want access to condoms. We don't want those policies that try to save us or cut the condom supplies -- it's life threatening.

Would you know what percentage of the women in Stella are HIV infected?

I don't know that. It's not a question [we ask] to get involved [in Stella]. You have got to be a sex worker to get involved.

I'm just wondering. Because I know, for the poorer sex workers, wearing a condom has financial ramifications. In some places, men will pay a sex worker more if she doesn't insist on a condom. So often they'll take the extra money rather than try to make the man wear one.

Well, for us, in Montreal, we distribute a lot of free condoms, so it's not an issue. I think, because of police repression, there are a lot of women who are just getting more and more isolated, working [as sex workers]. They have limited access to downtown, where they can have access to free condoms. Because of the police repression, they tend to stay away from the downtown area, where they face more problems. So [the police presence] has an impact [on condom use], for sure. We'll see it in the next years, in the next three years. I'm sure we're going to talk about it. [We'll talk about it at the next International AIDS Conference] in Mexico. I'm sure this wave of repression has got sex workers [keeping] away. If you look at this little population [of sex workers in Montreal] that has been harassed and put in jail. ... If you look at who's in jail, there's an increase in the infection rate, in women in jail. We talk about it. It's a mix of drug use and ...

So you don't do any supportive things for HIV-infected sex workers?

Yes, we do.

Oh, you do? But you like to keep it quiet?

No. It's just that it's always difficult. When you run a service, you give services to a certain population that needs your services. You cannot talk about all sex workers because you don't see all of them. So I'm trying to be fair with the methodology, here.

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