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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


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.

SWFF Special – Introducing Empower Foundation

One of the largest delegations visiting the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival in Kolkata is a group from the EMPOWER Foundation in Thailand. Over the course of the first days, their participation is among the most visible and inspiring. On Sunday evening, two of their members gave a performance at the ‘Red Light, Red Carpet’ party; on Monday, Empower’s Malee Vandresitan gave a presentation about the freedom of movement and to migrate; and in the Global Village, delegates and visitors can view Empower’s ‘Mida Tapestry’ that consists of embroidered panels depicting how women experience raid and rescue missions. Each panel is hand embroidered by migrant sex workers. It is an art work and a document that best speaks to and from the migrant sex worker community.

Mida Tapestry – An Art Work by Migrant Sex Workers

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

About Empower

EMPOWER stands for “Education Means Protection Of Women Engaged in Recreation”. Empower, also known as Centre for Sex Workers’ Protection or Moolniti Songserm Okard Pooying (Thai: มูลนิธิส่งเสริมโอกาสผู้หญิง), is a Thai non-profit organisation that supports sex workers by offering free classes in language, health, law and pre-college education as well as individual counselling. The organisation also lobbies the government to extend regular labour protections to sex workers and to legalise prostitution.

EMPOWER was founded in 1985 by Chantawipa Apisuk who still serves as the organisation’s director, running the head office in Nonthaburi Province. The organisation maintains centers in Patpong (Bangkok), Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Sai and Patong Beach, Phuket. Unlike most Thai organisations operating in this field, EMPOWER takes a neutral stance towards sex work and does not pressure people to leave the trade. Partly because of this, EMPOWER receives little financial support from the Thai government; the bulk of the donations come from abroad.

Hit & Run 2012 Report by Empower

In 2012, EMPOWER published a report, “Hit and Run: The impact of anti-trafficking policy and practice on Sex Workers’ Human Rights in Thailand,” in which regional sex workers were surveyed over the course of 12 months in order to asses the state of the profession.

Please click here to download Empower’s 2012 report “Sex Worker’s Research on Anti trafficking in Thailand”.

“More women abused by anti-traffickers than exploited by traffickers”

The data collected prompted EMPOWER director Chantawipa Apisuk to say that “We have now reached a point in history where there are more women in the Thai sex industry being abused by anti-trafficking practices than there are women exploited by traffickers.”

Last Rescue in Siam – First ever film by sex workers in Thailand

To accompany the report, EMPOWER also released a short film called “Last Rescue in Siam” (สาวน้อยผจญภัย), the first film ever made by sex workers in Thailand. It is a short black and white film inspired by the tradition of old silent films. The film premiered on the 21st of February, 2012, at the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre.

Please click here to visit Empower’s website.

Information above taken from EMPOWER’s website, report and Wikipedia page.
All Photos by Matt Lemon Photography.

Sex Workers’ Culture Festival

Cultural performances on the second day of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival in Kolkata

SWFF – Day 2 | Quotes & Photos

Snapshots from today’s sessions about the freedoms to associate and unionise and the freedom to be protected by the law. Irina Maslova painted a bleak picture of the situation of sex workers in Russia, where violent perpetrators can often act with impunity.


“I am happy to be here as I can speak for myself rather than someone speaking for me.”
Daisy Namakula, Wonetha, Sex Worker-led organisation in Uganda

“We need to form trade unions to defend our rights and improve work conditions.”
Thierry Schaffauser, Sex worker activist, France/UK

“In Russia, sex work is criminalised. Raids and extortions are common. Violence and impunity are the greatest problems. As donors cease funding, the church steps in and moralisation increases.”
Irina Maslova, Silver Rose, Russia


All photos by Matt Lemon Photography. To view these photos with their respective explanations, please view the photo album on Facebook (no account required). Please go to SWFF Impressions for further photos by the DMSC Media Team and others.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

SWFF Live Webcast

Live Webcast

Follow the link below to view a Live Webcast from the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival in Kolkata


SWFF – Day 1 | Quotes & Photos

It’s been a long day and so I will merely post a few impressions from the first day of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival in Kolkata. John Mathenge’s passionate message to the US government was particularly powerful. (see below) Starting from tomorrow, there should be internet at the conference, so stay tuned for live tweets via @photogroffee.


“As we stand under one umbrella, we are one family.”
– Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, Indian transgender activist

“Speak for yourself! Speak for your country! Don’t let others speak on your behalf!”
MC Khartini Slamah from Malaysia

“We are the people. We are the problem and we are the solution. No one can make decisions for us. They’ll never make decisions for us anymore. Sex work is work and sex workers’ rights are human rights. As Obama joined the government [he promised change]. Where is the change? Why are they still discriminating sex workers? They need to repeal the Anti-Prostitution Pledge for us to have freedom, freedom to work and right to health.”
Message to the US government by John Mathenge, Kenyan sex worker activist
(Click here for the video)

“We like for the criminalisation (of sex work) to be lifted!”
Irina Maslova, Silver Rose, Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network (SWAN)

“Networks work because people trust each other. The Sex Worker Freedom Festival is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get this many sex workers together. We need a mass movement and mass movements start from the ground up.”
– Andrew Hunter, NSWP President

“Because we are seen as victims by some feminist groups and by (prostitution) abolitionists, we need to stand up together and demand our rights!”
Sex worker from Latin America


All photos by Matt Lemon Photography. To view these photos with their respective explanations, please view the photo album on Facebook. Please go to SWFF Impressions for further photos from the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival by the DMSC Media Team and others.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Stop the stigma | Messages on the eve of the SWFF

On the eve of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, I would like to share several messages. One is from KANG Hyun Joon, Director-General of the Han Teo National Union of Sex Workers in South Korea; the second is from a Korean sex worker who sadly cannot participate in the festival; and based on both of their statements I would also like to share a message of my own.

I am often asked what I wish to accomplish with my research project. Some people simply happen to know very little about the subject of sex workers’ rights, others might question my motives or morality, and yet again others might wonder why I am doing this research in South Korea. In the following, I will explain one of the factors that motivate me, and it’s the same that also renders my research considerably difficult at times.

Think globally (sometimes), act locally

I usually try to avoid making generalising statements about Koreans. Firstly, it is never wise to make general assumptions about a large group of people, and secondly, Korean society is in a state of constant and rapid changes, which I have been able to witness over the last ten years, four of which I have been living in South Korea.

If you visit Korea, it will be virtually impossible for you not to come across the words ‘international’ and ‘global’ on a regular basis. You will find them on banners and brochures of universities, research organisations, government agencies or private corporations who all use those words to give their dealings the semblance of being interconnected with like-minded partners in other parts of the world.

My experience tells me, however, that this global link is more often than not in name only, regardless of how genuine the intention to establish it may be. Korean activists, while very apt when organising protests within Korea, are no exception to this rule. [1]

Raising awareness about sex workers in Korea

Raising awareness about the situation of sex workers in South Korea is therefore one of the factors that continue to motivate me. I will not pretend that the lack of an international network doesn’t pose a significant challenge sometimes. But it makes me want to engage with Korean sex workers even more to encourage them – where necessary – to increase their network with sex work activists in other countries and to make their voices heard beyond the Asian realm. [2]

The evening before I boarded my flight to Kolkata, I met with KANG Hyun Joon, Director-General of the Han Teo National Union of Sex Workers, at a café in Seoul’s red-light district in Yeongdeungpo. Kang founded Han Teo in September 2002 and the organisation soon represented 20,000 brothel-based sex workers. Following the Special Law on Sex Trade of 2004 and increased government crackdowns on brothels, membership has since dropped to approx. 8,000, as an estimated 100,000 Korean sex workers opted to move abroad, the majority of them to Japan and the United States.

Message from Korean Sex Workers’ Union Han Teo to the SWFF

Towards the end of our talk, I asked KANG Hyun Joon if he would like me to pass on a message to the participants of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, seeing that on this occasion, Han Teo wouldn’t send a delegate to the conference. He replied the following.

“Since we don’t have frequent contact with people in the sex industry at the international level, I can’t say much about it, to be honest with you. However, if I were to talk about the situation in Korea, I’d like to say that I hope the day comes soon where sex workers in Korea work without shame and speak up with confidence in their own country.”

“그 쪽분들은 제가 접촉이 없기 때문에 뭐라고 말씀드리기 힘들지만 한국 사정으로 봤을 때 이 업에 종사한다고 해서 부끄러워하지 말고 떳떳하게 자기 국가에서 목소리 내면서 노동자로 인정받을 수 있는 날이 빨리 왔으면 좋겠습니다.”

Stop and listen! 

While the immense stigma attached to sex work represent a problem for sex workers worldwide, the traditionally strict gender roles still alive in modern Korean society greatly exacerbate it. In a recent meeting with a sex worker in Seoul, we talked about the common rhetorical ploy by prostitution abolitionists to ask whether or not one would wish for one’s own children to become prostitutes. Her comment was that she would indeed try everything to prevent her child from working as a prostitute, but the reason she gave for that was not the nature of the work, but the stigmatisation that goes along with it, and that is causing her great distress and has her keep a distance from her parents to avoid having to lie to them about her work. [3]

Stigmatisation and discrimination have been the most commonly given answers I received when talking to Korean sex workers about difficulties they experience in their daily lives.

And so my message on the evening before the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival is directed to those readers unsure about the subject of sex workers’ rights.

To change laws and improve the rights of sex workers will take a lot of time and effort. But to open your mind, you only have to stop and listen, even if some of it might make you feel uncomfortable. I like to encourage you to stop believing the one-dimensional rhetoric of prostitution abolitionists and to listen instead to the experiences shared by those who know best, and those are sex workers themselves.

One of them is Maggie McNeill, a retired call girl, who writes about how she sees the world on her blog ‘The Honest Courtesan’.

“Those who wish to control others, to attack consensual actions with criminal laws, and to eliminate options which make them uncomfortable, believe that morality is set in stone; they think that right and wrong are as separate and distinct as black and white, and that they and only they have the direct proclamation from Godhead about which is which. Rational people, however, understand that morality is a process of weighing out various factors, comparing the relative right and wrong of each, in order to come to the most just, least harmful decision possible.” [4]



[1] The protests against the naval base on Jeju Island are a significant exception to the rule. The Korean government responded to the appearance of 2012 Nobel Peace Prize nominee Angie Zelter (UK) and Benjamin Monnet (France) on the scene by arresting the two non-violent peace activists. While they eventually deported without any formal judicial procedure, three US citizens, members of US Veterans for Peace, were outright forbidden to land in Korea, discouraging further interference from the outside. Case in point.

[2] To avoid any misunderstanding, I would like to clarify that I do not wish to imply that Korean sex workers aren’t capable of making themselves heard, as this video greatly illustrates. In the recent past, Korean sex workers have more frequently participated in meetings and conferences outside Korea. As KANG Hyun Joon’s quote illustrates, however, contacts to sex work activists are still very limited, especially when it comes to links outside East Asia.

[3] The interviewee consented to having her views published. The photo was taken from a twitter account of a Korean sex worker.

[4] A Different View by The Honest Courtesan

Update #4 | On the way to India!

I am now on my way from Seoul to Kolkata, currently on a stopover at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. Thanks to some extremely generous donations, in particular by one American donor, I am able to take my research project on the road to attend the XIX International AIDS Conference Hub, dubbed the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, in Kolkata, India. I will continue to post updates throughout this exciting conference, both on this blog and via Twitter.

Click on the button on the right-hand column (below the Facebook box) to follow ResearchProjectKorea on Twitter or read my tweets on this page. You can also follow the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival via Twitter. Click here to follow @SWFF_2012.

Once again, I would like to thank everyone for your great support. This goes especially to my team and my interviewees who have helped me greatly throughout the last months. I would also like to wish all of those currently travelling to Kolkata a safe journey and pleasant arrival! See you at the SWFF!

Update #4.1

Safely arrived in Kolkata.


SWFF Impressions | DMSC Media Team

Collection of photos from the DMSC Media Team. Reposted with kind permission. Please visit this page again for further updates throughout the festival. To view these photos with their respective explanations, please view the photo album on Facebook. These photos are also published India Civil Society website. Further updates throughout the festival.

The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) is a collectivisation of 65,000 sex workers, which functions as an exclusive forum of female, male and transgender sex workers in West Bengal, India.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

XIX International AIDS Conference Kolkata

By Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee


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

The sessions will begin in the morning and will run through till 10.30 at night to provide an overlap of 5 hours with the Washington conference sessions and Global Village activities. A video link has been arranged every evening starting 6.30pm between Kolkata and the Washington conference sessions and the Global Village activities.

The conference hub at Kolkata has been organised to hold a plenary and several small group sessions. In addition, arrangements have been made for a global village to facilitate informal exchanges between sex worker groups from India and other nations. Entry and participation for the community is free of cost. The Hub will act as a true space for community exchange, cultural performance and sharing.


National: 300 representatives from about 20 organizations from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Manipur, Nagaland, Gujarat, Rajasthan and West Bengal.

International: 120 representatives from 66 organizations from 47 countries of Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America, North America and Caribbean.


The morning sessions at the Hub, will involve technical presenters but will be dominated community presenters from India and other countries sharing their experiences, learning and discussing the way forward. The sessions will be on the topics that will feature later in the evening in the satellite links with the Washington conference.  Sessions for Sex Workers  Sessions on the Pre conference day (21 July) are sharing by male and transgender sex worker, sex workers living with HIV; which will then be followed by the live link with Washington which will feature sharing by male and transgender sex workers and sex workers living with HIV and AIDS.  The morning session of the second day (22 July) has an interesting debate on Media’s response to the sex workers rights agenda. This will be followed by the opening ceremony and community cultural performances. The keynote address and plenary session will focus on the theme “Sex Workers Rights are Human Rights” and followed by a community discussion on the seven freedoms. This will be followed by a Sex worker Session in Washington which is a Call to Action, with Global Sex Workers recommending policy changes for better HIV prevention and treatment. Speakers from the Kolkata will also present and exchange their views through the satellite link.  From 23 to 27 July each of the seven freedoms will feature as topics of presentation and community discussion at the Hub. These include

  • Legal protection required for sex workers and promoting access to social protection schemes (23 July morning and satellite link with Washington session)
  • Strengthening an enabling environment to protect sex workers
    (24 July morning session only)
  • Ensuring financial security and sex worker led responses to migration and trafficking
    (25 July, morning and satellite link with Washington session)
  • Seeking social justice and livelihoods
    (26 July morning and satellite link with Washington session)

On 25th July an interesting discussions is scheduled on Rights, Governance and Accountability in the Sex Work movement (by AINSW and DMSC) which will be followed by the live webcast link to the Washington session on using the Universal Periodic Review mechanism of UN to ensure accountability for the rights of sex workers and LGBT communities.

Sessions for People Using Drugs

The program has three sessions for communities of drug users including messages from the Drug users hub in Kiev (23 July afternoon); Messages from Kolkata (24 July afternoon) and a plenary session presentation via satellite from Washington, Dynamics of the epidemic in context (26 July evening).

Sessions on the HIV Response 

Sessions focused on the HIV epidemic, response and treatment include a symposium of sex workers interventions in NACP IV (24 July morning); treatment knowledge (24, 25, 26 July morning); HIV, STI testing and treatment (25 July early evening).  The conference will be interspersed with cultural performances, rallies (24 July), an India evening (25th July).

Global Village 

The Global Village is a diverse and vibrant space where community gathers from all over the world to meet, share and learn from each other. It is a space for community to demonstrate the Rights based approach to health and development. It is also a space that invites conference participants to see how sex workers across the globe facilitated and headed the community actions and interventions. This would be first of its kind where DMSC, the largest sex workers collective will be the host of the Global village.  The Global Village is a community-driven and community– focused space designed to promote dialogue, support networking, build solidarity, and promote inclusion in the global community. The Global Village facilitated the exchange of knowledge and information related to all facets of the human feelings, experience, expressions and response to HIV.  The Global Village promotes networking between north and south, east and west and provides a space for displays, discussions and performances from throughout the world. The Global Village is open to conference delegates.

The Organizers

Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a community based organization of the sex workers of West Bengal, which for the last two decades has been running eleven HIV/AIDS targeted intervention program in 51 sex worker sites. Durbar run SHIP (Sonagachi HIV Intervention Programme) programme has been awarded as model project by World Health Organization.  The Global Network of Sex Workers Project (NSWP) which was established as an informal alliance in 1990 by a group of sex worker rights activists working within sex work projects around the world. Over the years, NSWP has conducted activities in partnership with other organizations, and the principle of the participation of sex workers in policy and programme development has been accepted at many levels.

Conference Location

The conference will be held in Swabhumi, on the Eastern fringe of Kolkata and sessions will run parallel in four auditoriums.

Reblogged from India Civil Society – Enabling Voices To Be Heard

Update #3 | You sent me to India!

Registration Complete!

This week, I received word from the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), co-organisers of the Sex Worker Freedom Festival, that I am most welcome at the conference! As for my participation at the conference, a few details remain to be clarified, and the visa application process seems a little complicated given that I’m a German national with a non-permanent residence in Korea. But the bottom line is: I will go to where the pepper grows and I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone for your great support, both morally and financially. I continue to be amazed by you and will do my best to honour the trust you set in me.

The fundraiser remains open for the time being as I am still seeking support to cover basic expenses (food & transport) while in India. To help complete my fundraiser, please click on the DONATE NOW button!

Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee

‘Durbar’ is a Bengali word that means unbeatable or unstoppable. The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee represents 65,000 male, female and transgender sex workers in India and is active in identifying and challenging the underlying socio-structural factors that help perpetuate the stigmatisation, material deprivation and social exclusion of sex workers. For more information about DMSC, please click here.

Did you know? In 2001, the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee designated March 3rd as annual International Sex Workers’ Rights Day. Click here to find out more.

Related Posts

Update #2 | Send me to India! | Almost there

Update | Send me to India! | Fundraiser at 20%*

Sex Worker Freedom Festival | IAC 2012

Where the pepper grows | Send me to India!

Click on the Banners for more Information

The Sex Worker Freedom Festival is an Official International AIDS Conference 2012 Hub. Supported by Open Society Foundation – Sexual Health and Rights Program, UNAIDS, Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UNFPA, HIVOS, AIDS Fonds and AIDS 2012 conference secretariat.