Prejudice and ignorance can go a really long way towards sustaining injustice, and that is why I believe that sessions like the one on sex workers rights at the Human Rights Networking Zone was completely necessary.

The presence of sex workers at the AIDS conference was eye opening for me. Being able to hear them speak out about their work in HIV prevention and their struggles in getting their human rights recognized left its mark. During the Sex Work, Human Rights and HIV/AIDS panel in the Networking zone, Melissa Gira from the US moderated Anna-Louise Crago and Dan Allman from Canada, Meena Seshu from India and Ly Pisey from Cambodia in discussing the impacts of the UNAIDS Guidance Note on Sex Work and HIV and the negative way this document portrays sex work, equating it with trafficking and slavery. This is not new, as a matter of fact, I myself have in the past thought of why any woman would want to be a sex worker, that it must be due to lack of other choices and a way out: during the conference I was able to meet dozens of women who set me straight in their perspective. For them, sex work is work, and as Ly Pisey explained, the one complaint sex workers have in general usually has to do with stigma and discrimination for what they do, not with the work itself. Meena Seshu also points that this idea that women should be "freed" from sex work hinders the processes they have set in place to be able to locate those women who are really being exploited trafficked: after all, it is the sex workers who are in contact with new "girls" in the community and who can speak to them about their rights.

Anna-Louise Crago's publication for the Open Society Institute's Sexual Health and Rights project, "Our Lives Matter" (you can download it here) brings this message home by case studies from sex worker organizations from all over the world who have come together to discuss these and other subjects: trafficking, stigma, discrimination, health, rights, HIV and STD prevention as well as campaigning for decriminalization.

Ly Pisey also points out that campaigns to liberate women from sex work attempt to send them into work at factories and sweat shops. As she sees it, she would give up her right to chose when and how to work, how much to charge and when to rest to stand in a factory for a starving wage, being told when to use the restroom, having to stand sexual harassment and not being able to talk to her coworkers: the problem is not with sex work in itself, but in the fact that it is illegal. She shows videos of the impact this criminalization has had: sex workers being sent to jail and harassed, prostitutes afraid to carry condoms out on the street for fear of being tagged as sex workers and getting imprisoned, women being sent to prison for as much as 3 months in terrible conditions: no food, no privacy, no hygiene, abuses and medication deprivation.

Speaking to women who deeply care about their work and the rights of their fellow workers was inspiring, and I believe that if policy makers could just sit with these women in the same room and talk about their needs, results in HIV prevention would skyrocket thanks to their input.

Juliana Rincón Parra lives in Colombia where she writes for Global Voices Online, she's at the AIDS conference blogging on behalf of the Open Society Institute.