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Book says sex workers facing "hell'

BY INGRID BROWN Senior staff reporter browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, November 25, 2010    

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THE hellish working conditions of Jamaican sex workers have been documented by Panos Caribbean in a 48-page book, aimed at highlighting the plight persons in this group face.

The publication provides first-hand account from 15 female sex workers and one male, examining reasons for becoming sex workers, conditions in the industry, health and safer sex issues, prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV, legalisation of sex work and gender issues.

President of the Sex Workers Association of Jamaica (SWAJ) Princess Brown, pointing to the issues faced in the industry, said sex workers are forced into the illegal trade there were no other job options.

“Seeing your children hungry with tears in their eyes looking to you is one of the hardest thing to see,” Brown said, as she addressed the book launch at the Altamont Court Hotel in Kingston, yesterday.

“Before you judge ask the question why they become a sex worker; no one wanted to become a sex worker when they were children,” she argued.

Brown said a number of sex workers, both males and females, were sexually abused by family members and still continue to be abused by clients, employees and even the police.

The association, she said, was formed two years ago to protect the rights of sex workers.

Sex work, though illegal in Jamaica, is widely practised in the island where unregulated commercial sex facilities have been blamed for helping to spread HIV in the general population.

A significantly higher rates of HIV infection exists among sex workers and their clients, compared to other population groups in many countries, according to the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS).

Meanwhile, executive director of the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities (CVC), Ian McKnight, in lauding the decision to highlight the plight of sex workers, said these persons are constantly exploited by the police because the trade is illegal.

“The police will draw down on them to get money and when that happens they have very little recourse,” he said.

Marion Scott, project officer for the sex workers’ programme in the Ministry of Health, said the testimonies outlined in the publication would guide the way interventions are conducted.

While acknowledging that the sex trade was illegal, Scott said the ministry addresses the vulnerability associated with sex work and not the profession itself.

“Yes sex work is illegal but they are considered vulnerable so vulnerability is what we speak to and not the profession,” she added.

She, however, pointed out that although there has been a decline in the spread of HIV among sex workers there is more work to be done.

She explained that while sex workers use condoms with 90 per cent of new clients, only 20 per cent use condom with regular partners.

According to Scott, the ministry is faced with the challenge of reaching some sex workers, many of whom are afraid to come forward for fear of being prosecuted.

“It is difficult to gain the trust of the sex worker because of the fear that we are going to expose them,” she said.

Dawn Marie Roper, programme officer at Panos Caribbean, explained that the sex workers interviewed for the publication consisted of persons working as massuese, exotic dancers, street sex workers and those who engage in live sex on stage and for film.

“What is unique about this is it’s coming straight from the mouth of the sex workers themselves,” she said.

In the meantime, Samuel Blake of the National Taskforce Against Trafficking in Persons said the information gleaned from the publication will be used in the unit’s planning process as it address the issue of human trafficking which has linkages at times with sex work.

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