Sex Work and Human Rights

Sex Worker Freedom Festival

SWFF – Pon-Pon

34-pon-pon-matt-lemon-photography-all-rights-reservedPon Pon, Japanese sex worker/activist, performing at the Red Light, Red Carpet party at the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival in Kolkata, West Bengal, India.

Pon Pon is a member of SWASH (Sex Work and Sexual Health), a group founded in 1999 aiming to improve the health and safety of sex workers. SWASH consists of women working in the sex industry and their supporters. Click here for the English content on their website and follow them via Facebook or Twitter.

View full post at Matt Lemon Photography.

SWFF – In the Media

Sadly, but not necessarily surprisingly, there was only a somewhat limited press coverage about the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, although it happened to be the official hub of the XIX International AIDS Conference 2012 in Washington and the biggest sex workers’ conference to date. Outside India, it was mainly thanks to the Guardian’s Claire Provost and, adding one important article, Andrea Corwnwall that some in-depth information was available during the conference. The Huffington Post only released an article after the conference had concluded and I have yet to find any articles in the German media.

Below, you can access the articles, photographs, an audio clip and several videos published around the world. If you know of additional coverage, please add a comment and provide a link to any materials not listed here. I will then add them. Thank you very much in advance for your help.


“Global AIDS conference: US denies visa to sex workers”
July 19th, Times of India URL

The five-day conference in Kolkata will deliberate on the ‘Seven Freedoms’, the right to move, work, access to healthcare, participate, organise, be free of violence and discrimination – without which the community of sex workers cannot reduce their vulnerability to HIV.

“Sex workers gather in Kolkata for alternative Aids summit”
July 20th, The Guardian, UK

US legislation still prohibits sex workers and drug users from entering the country. Activists say this means these communities will be excluded from debates that directly concern them – despite the conference’s official theme of “turning the tide together”.

“Kolkata hosts world sex workers’ meet”
July 20th, Times of India URL

“We have been working in the field of HIV/AIDS for the past 20 years. It is unfortunate that the community that is most vulnerable to infection has not been included to as a part of the conference, Therefore, we had to take up this parallel conference,” said Bharati Dey, secretary, Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC).

“Kolkata to host global conference of sex workers”
July 20th, Taaza News, India URL

Pegged as the sex workers’ Freedom Festival, its central theme will be the “seven freedoms” that sex workers are entitled to – freedom of movement and to migrate; access to quality health services; freedom to work and choose occupation; associate and unionise; to be protected by the law; freedom from abuse and violence; and from stigma and discrimination.

“Denied US visa, sex workers hold own meet”
July 22nd, Deccan Chronicle|The Asian Age, India URL

India’s AIDS control programme has cut new HIV/AIDS infections by 50 per cent in the last 10 years. The country has an estimated 2.4 million people with HIV. One of India’s key strategies has been to scale up preventive education campaigns among high-risk groups such as sex workers.

Fight against HIV empowering sex workers in India, says UN Aids envoy
July 23rd, The Guardian, UK URL

“Before HIV nobody ever thought about these groups – sex workers, MSM [men who have sex with men], transgender populations,” said Prasado Rao, UN secretary general’s new special envoy for Aids in the Asia-Pacific region, who made his first trip to a brothel in Mumbai as head of India’s National Aids Control Organisation in the late 1990s. “And they never had this self-confidence you see today. HIV, in an indirect way, has brought an empowering aspect.”

“Banned sex workers find sympathy from AIDS meeting organizers”
July 23rd, Reuters

“I don’t know how we’re going to ever see an end to AIDS in our lifetime — and we believe we can, especially with scientific advances — and have an AIDS-free generation, without including all of those populations who must be involved as part of this solution,” said U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee of California. Michel Sidibe, executive director of the United Nations AIDS program, said it was “outrageous” that in 2012 “when we have everything to beat this epidemic, we still have to fight prejudice, stigma, discrimination, exclusion, criminalization.”

“Anti-prostitution pledge in US Aids funding ‘damaging’ HIV response”
July 24th, The Guardian, UK URL

On Monday, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced $37m (£24m) in new funding for initiatives that target vulnerable communities, such as sex workers and drug users, to achieve an “Aids-free generation”. However, Clinton did not mention the US visa exclusion that prevented sex workers from attending the Washington conference and prompted an alternative summit in Kolkata to be convened. Andrew Hunter (NSWP President) said Clinton’s comments were “too little too late”, adding that these initiatives are a “drop in the ocean” compared with the changes activists are demanding. Beyond repeal of the anti-prostitution pledge, Hunter said the US government must realign its trade and global health priorities. According to the UN, less than 1% of global funding to prevent HIV and Aids is spent on sex workers, despite disproportionately high infection rates.

“Sex workers fight for rights at Kolkata conclave”
July 24th, NY Daily News, India URL

Khartini Slamah, a Malaysian transgender sex worker, said: “We do not want to be saved. We just want to be treated as equals. Sex work is work.” But the picture is somewhat rosy in New Zealand, where decriminalisation of sex work in 2003, has given them back their rights to a large extent. Elaborating on this, Anna Pickering said: “If a client refuses to pay up the amount then we can go to a judge and take action against the client.” A far cry from this is Serbia, where sex work is illegal. Said Rada, a Serbian sex worker, “It is quite common for the police to arbitrarily imprison sex workers if they are found with condoms.”

“International AIDS Conference 2012: Red umbrellas mark sex workers’ rallies in Kolkata and Washington”
July 25th, Health,, India URL

“The red umbrellas have become symbolic of the movement for sex worker rights. While the umbrellas can protect us from the skies, they can also protect us from human beings. They can hide us at times when we need it and can also ward people off in times that we face violence,” said Ruth Morgon Thomas, global coordinator of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects. The red umbrellas were first used as a symbol for sex worker solidarity at the Venice Biennale of Art in 2001, when Italian sex workers marched along the canals of Venice with red umbrellas as part of an art installation by Slovenian artist Tadej Pogacar, Ms Thomas said. Balloons, banners and posters that declared “I am a sex worker….I can be a policymaker too” or “Sex workers demand workers’ rights” were held up by the demonstrators.

“Indian sex workers are a shining example of women’s empowerment”
July 26th, The Guardian, UK URL

As the alternative Aids summit in Kolkata has shown, society should start treating women who work in the industry with respect instead of disgust. “If I’d been married, I would have been HIV positive by now,” says Shabana, reflecting that married women are far more vulnerable than she is as a sex worker, unable to insist on condoms with their husbands as she does with her clients. And her face breaks into a smile as she describes the life she leads: the freedoms she enjoys, her choice of clients, and the autonomy and empowerment she has. “I’m as free as a bird,” she says.

“Aids conference in Washington and sex workers’ summit in Kolkata – in tweets”
July 26th, The Guardian, UK URL

Tweets from the International Aids Conference in Washington and the week-long summit and protest in Kolkata, which sex workers organised in response to visa restrictions that prevent them travelling to the US.

“U.S. ban unites global sex workers at Indian festival”
July 26th, Reuters URL

“Sex workers are key to all policy decisions on AIDS,” says Samarajit Jana from the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), an Indian collective of 65,000 sex workers, and one of the co-organisers of the Kolkata conference. “It has been proved that if you can succeed in controlling transmission amongst sex workers, you can be rest assured that you will not face an epidemic. They must be part of the discussion.”

“Sex workers banned from Aids conference”
July 26th, Independent Online, South Africa URL

“I chose this work. It’s like any other job, but still I have no rights because society judges me and prevents me from having recognition,” says 36-year-old Sapna Gayan, one of 12 000 sex workers in Sonagachi. “Police have arrested me, clients have hit me when I ask them to wear a condom. Sex workers have no freedom to protest the abuses they face, to move and work freely. We cannot even go to big meetings where decisions about us are being made.”

“Silenced by U.S., Sex Workers Speak from Kolkata”
July 26th, IPS Inter Press Service URL

Sex workers from India were also vocal against the U.S. laws. “I am here because this is like a festival for us,” says a transsexual sex worker from south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. “But we are also protesting the U.S. visa denial. It is like denying one’s human rights.” Anna, who represents the Canadian sex workers’ organisation Stella, says the Kolkata conference will send a strong message. “I am a worker. A sex worker is a real worker. You should decriminalise the profession and accept us as workers. It is strange that the U.S. does not understand that,” says Anna, marching with hundreds of others holding a red umbrella, now a sex workers symbol of resistance against discrimination. Akhila Sivadas, executive director of New Delhi-based Centre for Advocacy and Research, says “This conference is an affirmative statement where sex workers from diverse cultures and economies have come together. There are differences but the overall similarities are the same. If you do not decriminalise you will lose the battle.”

“Sex workers strive to fight exclusion, discrimination”
July 26th, NY Daily News, India URL

Resolving to take forward the fight against “exclusion and “discriminatory practices”, over 550 sex workers from 46 countries released a declaration at the ongoing International AIDS Conference Hub here Thursday seeking their calling be recognised as work. The document, christened the Kolkata Platform of Action, espouses the three core values of the Kolkata Platform of Action – acceptance of sex work, opposition to criminalisation of sex work, support for self-organised and self-determination of sex work. “Exclusion of sex workers and drug abusers (a key population affected with AIDS) at the 19th International AIDS Conference in the US was a missed opportunity in the fight against the epidemic.” Andrew Hunter, Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) president

“International AIDS Conference 2012: International sex workers unite in Kolkata”
July 27th, Health,, India URL

The drug dealers, the transgender etc. are the core of the response. To prevent HIV-AIDS, we have to work with them hand in hand. We will send a clear message not only to the Washington but to the entire world that without sex workers the response is not adequate,” said J.V.R. Prasada Rao, UN secretary general’s Special Envoy for AIDS in the Asia-Pacific region. ”The police harassment and the violence against the sexworkers must stop. This should be worked out with all the state governments in the country,”

“Sex Workers Unite In India After Getting Banned From D.C. Conference”
July 29th, Huffington Post, United States URL

“Sex workers are key to all policy decisions on AIDS,” Samarajit Jana, one of the co-organizers of the Kolkata conference, told Reuters. Some organizations have been responding to the call. Avahan, a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, gave more than $200 million over five years to provide sex workers with preventative health education and has helped them integrate into society.

“Where Were The Sex Workers At The International AIDS Conference”
August 1st, Tracy Quan, The Gloss, United States URL

“These travel bans could have been lifted for the conference. Other countries have been known to do just that. During an election year, was Obama likely to support a rules-bending controversy? Just to welcome a floating community of sex workers and druggies who can’t even vote for him? No, I guess not. The organizers of AIDS 2012 should have taken our election cycle into consideration, maybe. Six hundred sex workers went instead to the rather mind-blowing alternative-yet-official AIDS 2012 Hub in Calcutta. Billboards welcomed the sex workers at Kolkata airport and the central train station.  The inauguration of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival “took forever,” one organizer told me, because “all these West Bengal politicians,” diligently courting the sex worker vote, kept arriving for the ceremony. In Sonagaatchi, one of the largest red-light districts on the planet, the ladies are now a formidable voting bloc.”


“Sex workers march for rights and Aids awareness in Kolkata – in pictures”
July 25th, The Guardian, UK URL

Thousands of sex workers marched through the streets of Kolkata, India, with balloons and red umbrellas to demand the decriminalisation of sex work and prostitution worldwide, raise Aids awareness and protest against their exclusion because of visa restrictions from the International Aids Conference taking place in Washington DC this week.

“Sex Worker Freedom Festival”
July 27th, Reuters URL

“Sex Workers rally launched in Kolkata”
July 24th, Demotix, India URL


“Global Sex Workers Meet to Fight HIV”
July 26th, The World, US/UK URL

Most AIDS experts believe including sex-workers in discussions of HIV prevention is essential if the epidemic is to be stemmed.


“Denied US entry, sex workers hold rally in Kolkata”
(feat. Mena Seshu and Annah Pickering) July 25th, NDTV URL

Sex workers from 42 countries took to streets of Kolkata protesting the fact that they were not allowed to attend the 19th International Aids Conference in Washington. They claim, no AIDS conference is complete without the participation of those who are an integral part of the problem and its solution.

“Sex Workers Freedom Festival in India”
July 26th, Euronews URL

Related Videos

“Sex Workers – The Voice To to be heard”

“Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival”
Matt Lemon Photography URL

“The Power of the Collective”
Katrina Mansoor URL

SWFF Special – Sex Worker Quilt Project

“A collaborative art project by sex workers, highlighting some of the positive things sex work has brought to our lives.”

The Sex Worker Quilt Project was a project by VIXEN, a group set up by current and former sex workers from all areas of the sex industry in Victoria, Australia. Their mission is to empower all sex workers through the provision of community and peer support, and promoting the cultural, legal, human, occupational and civil rights of all sex workers. VIXEN aims to overcome divisions between workers and is committed to promoting the wellbeing and rights of sex workers from all unique backgrounds. If you wish to show your support, you can join VIXEN’s Facebook group or alternatively, you can visit their MySpace page.

The quilts were hung up in the Rangmanch hall of Swabhumi, venue of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival. I apologise that due to lighting inside the venue, the quilts’ colours aren’t brought out as beautiful as they actually are. The collection is not complete but represents my personal favourites. The quilts were first displayed at the Festival of Sex Work in Melbourne, Australia. Please visit the Sex Worker Quilt Project on Facebook for further images and information.

“I wanted it to be happy, with lots of love, as that’s how i view my life as a sex worker Layers of hearts on hearts! The words pride, hope, inner strength and love, these are all things that sex work has brought me. I am not ashamed of who I am, in fact, I am grateful and thankful for it. I had a few little pics of cats and dog bones and a glass of wine to make it a bit fun and to also represent my family (I’m an animal kind of person). Oh, and the stars – because all of us are one! STARS!”

Comment by Holly, who created the quilt above.

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All Photos by Matt Lemon Photography.


Farewell SWFF! Farewell Kolkata!

“Thank you and farewell Kolkata!
Let’s meet again in a few years time!”

Unforgettable MC Khartini Slamah,
Malaysian transgender sex worker (APNSW)

There are further quotes and photos to come from the final days of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, but for now, I would just like to share with you the final moments of this unprecedented conference.

I would like to take this occasion to express my sincere gratitude to those who have supported my participation in Kolkata, both financially and – equally important – in spirit. I also like to thank the participants at the SWFF for sharing their views and experiences with everyone, and congratulate the organisers from the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects for the great success of all their hard work.

Kolkata Platform for Action

Please click here for the Kolkata Platform for Action, published on July 26, 2012, at the conclusion of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, the official hub of the International AIDS Conference 2012, that became necessary as the US government continues to prevent sex workers from entering the United States, thus barring them from attending the conference in Washington D.C.

SWFF @ Home

Unfortunately, there was a 24-hour taxi strike in Kolkata and so I could not attend yesterday’s sessions or watch the great performances given in the afternoon. I could have made it to the venue by bus but would have been unable to get back to my friend’s place who lives far from the venue. However, since the organisers of the SWFF set up a livestream from the main Rangmanch hall, I was able to follow several of the presentations, and here are three quotes for you from yesterday.


“Sex workers couldn’t register as citizens and weren’t able to open a bank account. Unofficial money lenders and other locals exploited them. Due to sex workers’ low financial security, there was a higher prevalence of sex workers having unprotected sex and STIs. The Usha Multipurpose Co-operative Society Limited started off with 12 members. Today, Usha has 17,000 members. We offer higher interest for savings and low cost loans. Usha is a bank for sex workers made by sex workers.” Rita Roy, USHA Cooperative, INDIA

For further information please visit the DMSC website and learn more about USHA.

“African sex workers are mothers. We support our families, we use our own money to pay for education or renting houses. We are people, we are sex workers, we know our needs and challenges better than others. Nothing about us, without us! We want sex workers to plan and implement programmes.” Hajira Batte, Lady Mermaids Bureau, UGANDA

During the presentation of Ger Steenbergen (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, NETHERLANDS) the audio was muted. (?) However, chairperson Tracey Tully (APNSW, THAILAND) summarised that he had highlighted the importance of self-determination of sex workers.

“Sex workers’ allies must remain allies and must not attempt to take over their organisations! Programmes must be planned and implemented by sex workers.” Tracey Tully, APNSW, THAILAND


Please visit the APNSW Facebook page to view photos from yesterday’s performances by Dale.Bangkok.

Sex Workers’ Freedom Rally

Sex Workers’ Freedom Rally in Sonagachi on the fourth day of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, the official hub of the International AIDS Conference in Kolkata

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Photos and Videos by Matthias Lehmann | Matt Lemon Photography

You can talk to me | Photo Publishing Rights

Come and talk to me

If you are a delegate or visitor at the SWFF, please approach me should you have any question, be it about the nature of my project or its funding, about the media I publish, or about my personal background. Like you, I have ears to listen and a voice to reply.

Photo Publishing Rights

Matt Lemon Photography Profile Photo SmallAll photos taken at the SWFF and published on this blog or on my Facebook page are either my own, i.e. by Matt Lemon Photography, or reposted with kind permission by the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) Media Team, which also publishes these photos on the India Civil Society website.

“Receiving credit for an image we created is a given, not compensation, and credit is not a substitute for payment.” Tony Wu, Photographer

I grant permission to those wishing to repost my photos via social networking sites but ask for credit to be given either as ‘Matthias Lehmann’, ‘Matt Lemon Photography’ or ‘@photogroffee’. If you publish my photos on your blog or website, I would appreciate it if you shared the link with me. For that, or in case you wish to use any of my photos in print publications, please contact me by leaving a comment below. Before contacting me, I recommend you to read Tony Wu’s ‘Reasons Why Professional Photographers Cannot Work for Free’.

All permissions are given for non-profit use only. I retain all rights of my photo/videography work.