Unfortunately, a consistent theme throughout this conference has been the often stunning disregard for human dignity and the emphasis of a ”risk reduction” approach as opposed to the ”person-centered” approach that WYA supports. If you didn’t know any better, you might think this was a conference about sexual lifestyles or a grand recruiting campaign for sex workers. To mention behavior change as a possible remedy to the spread of HIV is considered blasphemous by the majority. In fact, conference posters proudly and graphically advocate various types of ”safe” sexual activity, and the Vienna Declaration blasts the criminalization of drug use but says nothing as to the importance of treating and reforming drug addicts.
A serious deficit at this conference is the homogeneity of thought and viewpoints. The most vociferous attendees are relentless in their pursuits of platforms and political issues that are at best tangential to the goal of better HIV prevention and treatment. At a conference today titled, ”’Human Rights – What’s Faith Got to Do With It?”, a panel of four clergy that included a ”prostitute preacher” from Malaysia took the opportunity to criticize various institutions of faith for their social teachings. Little to nothing was said about religious organizations combating HIV, but fortunately one audience member did take the opportunity to call for dialogue with religious leaders who did not share the speakers’ view. The speakers nodded and agreed and went on to further criticize the more mainstream religious institutions.
On Tuesday I saw firsthand how detached from the reality of the HIV/AIDS pandemic so many of the ”experts” at this conference are. At a round-table discussion on sex workers in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, we heard numerous anecdotes of sex workers being abused and mistreated because of their profession. It was stressed by the panelists that many of these girls were young, impressionable, and financially desperate. Many new sex workers begin selling their bodies immediately after a serious life tragedy. At the end of this presentation, I asked the panelists if they would consider giving these young women psychological evaluations and skills training so that they could re-enter the workforce as something other than a prostitute. The panel fell silent, and after a brief generic answer by one of the Russian panelists about how much she loved the girls she worked with, the chairwoman of the panel said she didn’t quite understand my question. I restated what I had asked originally, emphasizing that since the profession is so dangerous, surely these women would support training for these women so that they could re-enter society with other occupations. The chairwoman replied, ”That sounds almost moralistic. We’re not here to judge.” This response was met by a rousing ovation from the auditorium.
Unfortunately, we have been witness to many similar cases where not only human dignity, but common sense itself has been defied. If one’s principal goal is to promote the overall health of the individual, the first place to start would be to encourage and promote behavior that is conducive to human flourishing. But we have learned that all too often at this conference the actual prevention of this disease and the physical, mental and spiritual health of the human person are secondary to the goal of risk-reduction. At this point, the person becomes simply a transmitter of a virus, and not a human being with real hopes and dreams.
If a sex worker negotiates condom use with her client, but dies from the physical abuse inherent to her profession, nothing has been accomplished, and indeed, a real tragedy has taken place. It is WYA’s hope that the experts can rise above the current debate and start addressing the real needs of the human person.