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Victory! Court Overturns “Anti-Prostitution Pledge”

Victory! Court Overturns “Anti-Prostitution Pledge”

Why This Decision is Good for Women, NGOs, and the Global Battle Against HIV

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.”

In 2008, more than 300 other organizations from coalitions at Global Health Council and InterAction also joined the case—a testament to the global health communities universal dismay over this policy.

This case has received little, if any, attention beyond the global health community, but it has huge consequences for our democracy, women, NGOs, and the global HIV battle. “This victory has profound implications not only for the rights of private, non-governmental organizations to operate without undue government interference, but for the health of vulnerable women, men, and adolescents in less developed countries,” President Pellegrom said.     

Photo: Courtesy of Pathfinder International shows sex workers in India during a community-empowerment meeting as part of the Mukta Project.

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2:18AM PDT on Jul 17, 2011

Private donations are just that. It's not government funded so the government has no say.

10:32PM PDT on Jul 13, 2011

(No insult meant to women in my post!!!! Just saying some people can be bought.)

10:28PM PDT on Jul 13, 2011

"Prostitution" doesn't always have to do with sex or selling your body for money.

An old guy walks up to a pretty girl in a bar and asks her if she would sleep with him for a million dollars. Her eyes went wide and she said, "SURE!!!"
"Well, would you sleep with me for a dollar??," he asked.
"NO!!!! What do you think I am???" she exclaimed with outrage.
"We already determined that. Now we're just discussing a price."
Old joke but you could replace the old man with a Koch Brother or Rupert Murdoch, and replace the pretty girl with a Republcian politician. More and more of our politicians are just high-priced prostitutes.

7:10PM PDT on Jul 12, 2011

Those that are involved in prostitution or have been trafficked need help not condemnation.Those that force people into prostitution or traffic people need to be targeted and stopped.

8:10PM PDT on Jul 11, 2011

This is another example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. Clearly,the nice people who wrote the rule don't realize what women sometimes have to do to live, to eat and to provide for their children.We also have a definition misunderstanding. When American women who married a man who turned out to be unpleasant or abusive asked for advice, ANN LANDERS used to tell then to consider whether they'd be "better off with him or without him ". If they were particularly unworldly she'd ask if they were prepared to earn a decent living. Were the women who stayed for financial reasons thereafter called prostitutes? Of course not. They were the object of public sympathy.Ladies talked behind her back about "poor little Martha" So let's admit that many prostitutes are actually women who do what they have to do to live. With that said,I have to look again at what the idea of this plan was.
The United States planned to require charities who recieved money for AIDS assistance in foreign countries to "denounce" prostitutes and trafficking. But ,who,I ask, is more in need of assistance with AIDS AND where would that help be most effective? Fortunately cooler heads have prevailed and the courts have over turned the plan. Women,democracy and charity health care have won!

8:13AM PDT on Jul 11, 2011


5:03AM PDT on Jul 11, 2011

Thanks for the article.

5:10PM PDT on Jul 9, 2011

Not very realistic -- Throw it back, and if something is necessary, get it right before imposing it on the people.

3:18PM PDT on Jul 9, 2011

Jaime-Alexis, so glad you understand ground realities faced by the very poor. Few people seem to. Thank you for this post...

9:12AM PDT on Jul 9, 2011

Thank God it was overturned! This pledge was just another means for politicians to punish women for not adhering to their arbitrary "sexual morals" and had nothing to do with helping women. The right-wing groups that support this type of law even admit that they're willing to sacrifice a few lives in order to uphold their morals (see the court case that recently went down in Canada). To address the idea that sex work is always bad, I'm going to quote an acquaintance of mine (who is proud to be a sex worker): prostitution is to trafficking as sex is to rape.

And by the way, Fern D., being a "sperm receptacle" (i.e. having sex) is fun and feels good. Why the heck should we send a message that that's not what our bodies are for?

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