BANGKOK, 15 October 2010 (IRIN) - In a region where carrying a condom has been construed as evidence of illicit activity, 10 million women sell sex to 75 million men, who then have sex with another 50 million people, according to the multinational Independent Commission on AIDS in Asia.
"The technology is there to prevent infections, but punitive laws get in the way," said Steve Krauss, regional director of UNAIDS Asia Pacific.
Asia's AIDS epidemic is linked primarily to unprotected paid sex, according to the commission, but policies outlawing sex work are undermining HIV/AIDS prevention efforts by fragmenting and stigmatizing the sex workers and turning condom possession into an act that could lead to jail time, NGO officials say.
Until recently, Cambodia was praised by the international community for its implementation of the 100 percent Condom Use Programme, which allowed for selective enforcement of anti-sex work laws and required condom availability and use for sex workers. But a national anti-trafficking law introduced in 2008 broadly criminalized sex work, and sent sex workers into hiding.
Now officials are interpreting the law to implicate even those who distribute condoms, according to a July 2010 Human Rights Watch report .
The closure of most brothels in Cambodia as a result of the law drove thousands of sex workers into underground karaoke bars, massage parlours and parks, making them more vulnerable to police corruption and HIV infection, said Andrew Hunt, founder of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers based in Bangkok.
"The full impact of this new law is still unknown," said Hunter on 15 October, speaking from a conference in Thailand that gathered 140 civil society and government officials and sex workers from Cambodia, China, Fiji, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Thailand, to discuss issues of HIV/AIDS and sex work.
"Police actually think they have a duty to arrest sex workers and use condoms as evidence. They need legal training - most countries do not accept condoms as evidence in court - but most sex workers never make it to court," Hunter said.
The Cambodian law is but one example of policies driving an industry into hiding and making containing HIV a challenge, according to UNAIDS. A coalition of agencies working on HIV/AIDS reported that all the eight countries at the conference had created obstacles to accessing HIV services for vulnerable sub-populations: Cambodia and Papua New Guinea specifically criminalize HIV transmission or exposure.
New International Labour Organization (ILO) standards adopted in June 2010 include sex workers in all areas of non-discrimination, but experts say that while policies can change, without proper understanding and implementation, the stigma and violence that surround sex work will continue to threaten human rights and HIV prevention.
"Most sex workers say access to justice and process is equally important to law reform - they have no faith that changing the law will make a difference," Hunter said.
Kay Thi Win, programme manager of the Targeted Outreach Programme, a peer-to-peer project in Myanmar primarily run by current or former sex workers, confirmed that sex workers are up against more than policy. "Stigma is the issue," she said. "But if the policies change, we need the police to be trained."