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Toronto International AIDS Conference 2006

Many thanks to Rachel who spent late nights sitting up writing us up-to-the-minute reports about the activities of the conference. We hope you enjoy Rachel’s articles as much as we do!

The “OFFICIAL” opening happened at 7pm. Stella has given all of us bright blue t-shirts to wear. We are visible and stand out great! You’ll see us in the media photos with our matching blue shirts on.

All of us who had “official” passes went into the arena for the opening speeches. The bit we were waiting for was, of course, was Bill and Melinda Gates. We had 3 banners with us ready for the protest. The protest is about the fact that they recently gave $5 million dollars to the Lantern Project who basically are raiding the brothels in countries in Asia to ‘rescue’ the female workers… which goes against what they have previously stated what they support. I thought that Melinda’s was better than Bills. You can’t see it in the picture but I am at the top on the right holding the big blue banner!!

As Bill Gates was welcomed to the stage we all stood up, some holding banners, others not, chanting “Rights not raids” over and over. After the clapping (for him – not us!) stopped the arena was quiet and we managed a couple of chants to silence which I thought was great. He didn’t even pause to let us finish but just started his speech.

Regardless of being ignored by Bill Gates – we were glad we were there. Bill Gates has been getting so much positive media over his so-called donations to “sex workers” – the public need to know that he is actually funding anti-sex worker groups and simply perpetuating the stigma and discrimination.

Link to the full media release for the event: “Health and Human Rights Advocates Denounce Gates Foundation’s Support of Raids on Sex Workers, Advocates Gather in Toronto to Promote Rights and Safety of Groups Vulnerable to HIV/AIDS,” from the Network of Sex Worker Projects.

Other highlights from the opening ceremony included a PNG HIV+ woman who spoke really well.

There are two areas in each International AIDS Conference. The “Global Village” is the place to be! It is a space for community members and organisations to network, showcase their work, and educate others about grass roots responses to HIV. In the “Global Village” community groups set up stalls and exhibitions, sell merchandise and do performances. The “Global Village” is for everyone, even those who have not "registered" with the conference.

The “official” area for the formal conference is where the oral and poster presentations and plenaries take place. There are also meeting rooms – a video room and two conference type rooms with overheads and stage area and them a main stage for the opening and closing ceremonies and larger performances (pictured above). The official section is only for those who have paid the (very expensive) registration for the conference.

The sex worker space at the “Global Village” this year is called the “Stiletto Lounge.” After so much travel everyone was relieved to be finally in Toronto and chatting with familiar faces and lots of new ones too. The “Stiletto Lounge” was the place to do it, and sex workers from all over the world flocked there to meet, network, share stories and talk about local news and international events. Colleagues from Empower (Thailand), Zi Teng (Hong Kong), Maggies (Toronto), Stella (Montreal), DMSC (India), NZPC (New Zealand), Different Avenues (Washington DC), St James Infirmary (San Francisco), New York, West Africa, Women’s Network for Unity (Cambodia), Germany, Slovakia, Netherlands (Amsterdam), Danyana So (Mali), Ammar (Argentina), Davida and the Brazilian Prostitutes’ Network (Brasil), APNSW, NSWP, Research 4 Sex Work, $pread, Open Society Institute, and so many other groups!!! Too many to mention. On the first evening of the conference 33 groups were represented at a large sex worker networking forum, to meet and greet and plan for the week.

All the different sex worker groups had stalls and displays in the area of the Stiletto Lounge in the "Global Village," performed and did safe sex demonstrations.

Japanese sex workers perform at the Global Villiage. Link to media article.

Empower have also brought some of the dolls made by the migrant, paperless Burmese sex workers that were at the Bangkok AIDS conference in 2004. They each have their own passport (!!!) which they have had officially stamped as they left Empower and have ALSO had them stamped coming INTO Canada!!! They have brought some to be "adopted" by the Canadian workers/ orgs but there are 6 up for adoption for other groups. I have decided to give motherhood a go and will be trying to adopt on behalf of Scarlet Alliance! Will let you know how I go as there are many names on the "potentials" list! I’m personally looking forward to Australian customs when I explain the reason for why I need them to stamp her passport! So if all goes well – expect to be introduced to the Burmese sex worker doll in November at the Scarlet Alliance National Forum.

On Monday at 7am the Canadian Treatment Action Coalition Council held a huge rally “Time to deliver, AIDS action NOW for Women and Girls.” Organized by the coalition “The Blueprint for Action on Women and Girls and HIV/AIDS”, the rally began at Metro Hall Square with Posawawajek Aboriginal women drummers performing. There were a number of speakers from around the globe – including Clare from Stella who spoke about sex workers’ Human Rights and HIV while the rest of us stood in front holding banners. From there we marched out on to the street heading up towards the conference building and the entrance to the Global Village. Most of the sex workers were in the blue t-shirts and collectively we walked and chanted “ Sex workers’ Rights – Deliver it Now!” the whole way.

Street-Based Sex Workers the focus of Australian contributions at Toronto

Rachel Wotton from Australia presented her poster:

"Improved working relationships between a sex worker organisation and the police in order to increase the effectiveness of HIV prevention strategies for street-based sex workers."

Sydney has a legally-defined street-based sex work area that SWOP regularly outreaches. Recent collaborative approaches between SWOP and local police has dramatically improved the effectiveness of HIV prevention strategies and empowered sex workers to make informed decisions about health and safey.
Click on image to download poster in a new window.

Some of the of sex worker presentations that were well attended included:

Sex workers are part of the solution: sex worker leaders from around the globe Speakers included:
Clare Thiboutot: Stella; Montreal,
Noi: Empower; Thailand
Elena Reynaga, Ammar; Argentina
Andrew Hunter: NSWP

Sex Workers, HIV and Human Rights: what can be done? Speakers included:
Elena Reynaga, Ammar; Argentina P. Sokchea, Women’s Network for Unity; Cambodia
A. Saha, DMSC; India
And a representative from the sex worker organisation in Nigeria

Early in the week there was a large meeting for sex workers to plan for Wednesday mornings’ sex worker action rally. The rally turned out to be a huge success, with everyone wearing their matching bright blue t-shirts and having a fabulous time! A member of the Conference organising committee came down and demonstrated in support, and was photographed by the media too. All in all the many sex workers and supporters sent a strong message to all conference participants:

“Sex Workers’ Rights: Time to Deliver!”

At the rally, Claire Thiboutot, director of Stella, Montreal’s by-and-for sex worker group said: “We are strong, proud and united in the struggle against HIV! We, sex workers, demand our human rights and workers’ rights in order to fight HIV.” Awa Dambele of Danyana So, an association of 2000 sex workers in five cities in Mali had this to say : “Accept the rights of sex workers. Society must accept us. Women have a right to their work. We demand access to free condoms to protect our health. ” Gabriela Leite of sex worker group Davida and the Brazilian Prostitutes’ Network adds : “We demand the recognition of our labour rights as sex workers and that sex work be decriminalized in all countries. ” Thai sex worker group Empower says: “It’s not what we do…it’s how we do it. Safe, fair working conditions save lives. The power we share, the power we have!” Link to full media release

More media

Sex workers march for rights at AIDS conference By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent
TORONTO (Reuters) - Sex workers and their supporters from 21 countries marched on Wednesday through the 16th International AIDS Conference to demand their own place not only at the conference, but in their own societies.

Legalizing sex trade touted to cut HIV, Researchers back sex workers' view, Out of the shadows, risks are reduced, Aug. 17, 2006, JOSEPH HALL
As Donna Summer moans "Love to Love You Baby" in the background, three prostitutes are lolling provocatively across a satin-covered bed — amid a scatter of sex toys — while half a dozen others sway to the music nearby. That this is happening in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre — with plenty of the city's finest patrolling the facility — is a little disconcerting on first approach....

These stories are published with support of International Spokesperson Rachel Wotton, 21/08/06