Yesterday, a federal appeals court in New York ruled that the US cannot force organizations to formally pledge to denounce prostitution and sex trafficking in order to receive US funding for HIV and AIDS work. This is a significant victory for the global health community. Why is this good news? Because the policy—commonly known as the “anti-prostitution pledge”—is flawed.
The pledge requires all organizations—American or foreign—that receive US funds to fight HIV and AIDS abroad to adopt a formal position condemning prostitution and trafficking. I have been involved with international development organizations focused on HIV and AIDS. I have never met anyone in the development community who is not firmly opposed to—or horrified by—trafficking. There are few issues that bring such universal abhorrence. One problem with the anti-prostitution pledge however is that it conflates prostitution and trafficking, which ignores realities on the ground. In many developing countries there are individuals who sell sex for their livelihood—food, shelter. And these individuals require and deserve access to health and social services, including HIV prevention and care. Condemning and judging by denouncing their livelihood can drive them further from the help they need, limit their ability to access health care, provide for their families, or even leave the industry.
The ambiquity of the pledge language adds to the challenge. If, as in the case of one plaintiff, Pathfinder International, an organization works with sex workers to organize and empower them so that they can advocate for their rights (which is both an effective HIV prevention strategy as well as an effective means of reducing other harms of sex work, including violence and exploitation), is that “promoting prostitution?” No. For those of us in the development community, it means you’re helping those in need.
Perhaps even more problematic, the pledge, as defined by the Bush Administration who first enforced it and now the Obama Administration, applies not only to US government funding, but to private donations as well. That means that even if an organization is not using any government funds to provide services to sex workers, they could potentially lose US funding for their separate, privately-funded work.
Recognizing the issues with this policy, Pathfinder and Alliance for Open Society International originally brought the US Government to court in 2005. “Trust that it was not an easy decision for Pathfinder to take our largest funder—the US Government—to court,” Pathfinder President Daniel E. Pellegrom said. “However, we strongly believe vital principles were, and continue to be, at stake. Private organizations cannot be told what to think or believe; they cannot be compelled to espouse a government mandated position. And they must be free to challenge the status quo and to speak out on behalf of the vulnerable and disenfranchised.”
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