Sex Work coverage at the South African AIDS conferences: What’s the verdict?

By Marlise Richter

In June 2011, South Africa has hosted two significant conferences related to HIV and AIDS. The South African AIDS Conference and the 1st HIV International Social Science and Humanities Conference. Between them they attracted over 5000 delegates from academia and the HIV sector more broadly.

As in previous years, I analysed the number of abstracts published in conference proceedings that related to sex work in relation to the rest of the conference content (see article in Gender & Media Diversity Journal Issue 7.

The net was cast very wide - any abstract that contained the word 'sex work' or 'prostitution'/'prostitute' was included (this means that the research did not even have to focus on sex work it merely had to include some reference to sex work or sex workers to be included in the analysis.)

So how do the conferences shape up?

At the 2011 South African AIDS Conference only 2.2% of accepted abstracts (12 out of 552) related to sex work, while the 1st HIV International Social Science and Humanities Conference included 4% of abstracts that mentioned sex work (7 out of 176).

This omission is evident in the analysis of previous South African AIDS Conference's abstracts on sex work:

  • 2003: 10 out of 285 (3.5%)
  • 2005: 7 out of 400 (1.75%)
  • 2007: 2 out of 702 (0.2%)
  • 2009: 3 out of 552 (0.5%)

However, it is heartening that the 2011 South African AIDS Conference paid more attention to sex work in the form of a symposium debate on the effects of decriminalisation of sex work on HIV/AIDS and health more generally.  It was well attended and included Mickey Meji from the African Sex Worker Alliance as a speaker. This is the first time that a national South African AIDS Conference has given a public platform to a sex worker. There were also sessions focusing on the next AIDS Plan 2012-2016 in which sex workers and sex work researchers had speaking slots on sex work. 

Cause for concern

The virtual absence of sex work from conference programmes is cause for concern as it serves as proxy for the state of research on this issue. I can only assume that:

  • Sex work is not seen as an important issue for researchers, the South African AIDS community and/or conference abstract reviewers;
  • Research on sex work is not of a sufficiently high standard to be included in peer-reviewed abstracts for AIDS conferences;
  • There is no/little research conducted on sex work; and/or;
  • Researchers who conduct research on sex work in South Africa do not submit research to the AIDS conferences.

Given the (very outdated!) HIV prevalence rates that we have for sex workers in South Africa - between 45-68% in 1998  the lack of sex work related research at these conferences is distressing.

Sex workers, researchers and policy makers have called for an evidence-based response to HIV. How can we work together to make this a reality when the evidence base is unavailable or invisible? What does the lack of evidence say about the commitment of donors and academics to the health and wellbeing of sex workers?

Those in the HIV sector who shout about ‘Universal Access’ or ‘Getting to Zero’ need to start putting their money where their mouth is and funding relevant, ethical and robust sex work research that include sex workers in its planning, design and execution.

Marlise is a PhD Candidate at the International Centre for Reproductive Health, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Ghent University, Belgium and a Visiting Researcher at the African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.