Reduce sex work stigma in PNG to bring down numbers of AIDS deaths, says Port Moresby governor

The governor of Papua New Guinea’s capital says he is willing to disregard laws that prosecute sex workers if it means an end to the discrimination that is linked to the country’s large numbers of AIDS-related deaths.

Papua New Guinea has one of the highest rates of HIV infections outside of the African continent and a struggling public health system.

It has over 90 per cent of HIV-AIDS cases in the Pacific, and was labelled as on track to “pandemic” rates earlier in the year.

The worst-affected in the developing nation are sex workers.

United Nations AIDS data shows 19 per cent of female sex workers, 9 per cent of male and 24 per cent of transgender sex workers are HIV positive.

Sex work and homosexuality are criminalised under PNG law, which experts believe leads to higher rates of HIV.

The governor of Port Moresby, Powes Parkop, has told Radio Australia it was the stigmatisation and discrimination of these communities that caused high infection rates and deaths from HIV-AIDS.

“They’re not coming out to get treatment and [other] assistance so they can live a full life and, more importantly, not pass on the virus,” he said.

“So this is why it’s important that we reach out and create a safe environment for these communities so that they can feel comfortable, they can come forth and they can get the services that they are entitled to … like anybody else in our country.”

Governor Parkop’s campaign for less discrimination includes strengthening ties between sex workers and health service providers and education of Port Moresby’s police force.

He said helping police understand what the campaign is trying to do would be difficult in a country where there is legal, religious and cultural prejudice against sex worker communities.

“But I’ve made an appeal … to all our people, especially in Port Moresby, that we should put our cultural, religious, political, legal, whatever prejudice aside and deal with the issue as a legal issue,” he said.

Police ‘call us names’, sex worker supporter says

PNG’s sex work support coalition, Friends Frangipani, welcomed Governor Parkop’s announcement.

The group’s manager, Cathy Ketepa, said sex workers were discriminated against in most areas of their lives.

“We even receive more violence from the policemen when they see sex workers carrying condoms around in their bags when they are walking along in the streets, especially in the night,” she said.

“Instead of protecting us they look through our bags and once they see a condom inside our bag they call us all kinds of names.”

Ms Ketepa said transgender sex workers reported high levels of stigma and discrimination when they tried to access services at health clinics.

“They are not so friendly, and confidentiality is not maintained when we go in there.”

Australian organisation Scarlet Alliance is one of Friends Frangiapni’s international collaborators in their advocacy work.

Scarlet Alliance chief executive Janelle Fawkes said moves to decriminalise sex work were welcome news.

“Particularly seeing this year at the AIDS 2014 conference some very important research was delivered showing at potential 33 to 46 per cent drop in HIV transmission if sex work was decriminalised,” she said.

Ms Ketepa said the fight against discrimination would be tough, but law reform would allow sex workers more freedom.

Governor Parkop agreed it would not be an easy road to change laws.

“But I’ve made a commitment that in our city, Port Moresby, the life of our people is more important than the law,” he said.

“So I’m going to put the life of our people ahead of the law and hopefully, maybe in the future, the law will change.

“But I’m not going to wait for the law to change, I’m not going to wait for national consensus.

“I have to deal with the situation I have in our capital city of Port Moresby based on the health concerns of our people and take it from there on.”

by Yara Murray-Atfield
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