Open Letter to the Icelandic Foreign minister minister Lilja Dögg Alfreðasdóttir regarding the Icelandic representatives to the 2016 High-Level Meeting on Ending AIDS

Rose Alliance
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“If access to health care is considered a human right, who is considered human enough to have that right?” – Dr. Paul Farmer

We often say that words hold power, and as such they have to be carefully considered. On some occasions, this is truer than on others, and this is one of those occasions. World leaders, government representatives, HIV programme implementers and civil society organizations are currently preparing for the 2016 United Nations General Assembly High-Level Meeting on Ending AIDS. They should be focusing on the future of the AIDS response. Instead, there have been intense negotiations on which words should be used to describe the global agenda during the next 5-year period.

Words describing human rights are often stated as a matter of fact, but without a real understanding of how it is to be denied those rights. For some of us, however, discrimination, violence and other human rights abuses are reoccurring reminders that not all lives are valued equally, despite all the words assuring us of the opposite. We are frequently criminalised and stigmatised, and sometimes, we are not seen as humans at all. Words are also used to systematically discriminate against us, sometimes through blatant hate speech, sometimes by much subtler means, and above all by silencing us. The most recent example is that of a number of community-led organisations being blocked from attending the High Level Meeting, often by countries in their very own region.

During last week’s negotiations and lobbying in New York, the Icelandic representatives focused a lot on words, specifically two words – sex work – which they wanted removed from the outcome document and exchanged with the phrase “people who sell sex”. This might sound pretty harmless, but words do hold power. In this particular situation, these words come with some very specific powers of their own. Some people say the term “sex work” is only used to legitimise and normalise the sale of sexual services. Others will even go as far as to claim that this terminology is purely pushed by pimps and traffickers trying to increase their profit. Words have the power to mislead, which happens to be the case here. For those of us who sell sex, “sex work” is the preferred way to describe our work, and the term comes from our own community. To us, there is magic behind this term, as it holds the possibility of accessing labour rights. This would mean accessing a whole added layer of rights, including protection against unjust working conditions, exploitation and forced labour – the very same rights violations that those arguing “selling sex” should not be called work claim they want to protect us from.

Sex work is widely accepted as a term that contributes towards rooting out violence, oppression, exploitation, stigma and discrimination of persons engaged in sex work, which is why not only sex workers but also UNAIDS, UNDP, the ILO, the WHO, UN Women, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch use the term sex work to describe what we do.

The International Labour Organization has on a number of occasions discussed sex work in the context of recommendation 200, the first international labour standard on HIV and AIDS in the world of work, which is also applicable to the informal labour market where sex work often takes place. At the most recent AIDS conference held in 2014, the Lancet published research highlighting the decriminalisation of sex work as the single most effective measure to address HIV among sex workers, averting an estimated 33-46% of new cases. Removing the word “work” from an important key document means removing our avenues to access labour rights.

Some countries want to remove the mentioning of key populations from UN documents altogether. Some disagree with key populations’ health being a priority or think our lives are not worth investing in, others deny our communities even exist. Iceland’s recent actions may be based on good intentions, the national discourse on sex work and an approved ideological stance. However, it feeds into an agenda of hatred, oppression and discrimination. That is especially true for key populations in low and middle income countries that are depending on these documents to access funding to advocate for their rights, as well as funding to ensure adequate health care, a situation made more urgent by a number of donor countries cutting down their contributions to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Among them are Sweden and Denmark.

To you it might just be about two words you don’t like, but to us it is so much more than that. You don’t have to like them, this is not an ideological debate where we are arguing who is right and who is wrong. However, insisting on the use of problematic terminology does nothing to improve the lives of sex workers or end AIDS. In fact, it will do quite the opposite.

We, the undersigned, sincerely urge Iceland to recognize that protecting sex workers’ and other key populations’ human rights are what should be prioritized, not pushing national agendas that jeopardize universal access to HIV treatment, care, prevention and support needed to achieve the two words that we should be focusing on – ending AIDS.

Rose Alliance, Sweden

NSWP – the Global Network of Sex Work Projects

APNSW – the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers

ASWA – African Sex Worker Alliance

Carribean Sex Work Coalition

ICRSE – the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe

SWAN – Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia

RedTraSex (Red de Mujeres Trabajadoras Sexuales de Latinoamerica y El Caribe)

All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW), India


Asociación Civil Ángel Azul, Peru

Asociación de Mujeres Buscando Libertad - ASMUBULI, Colombia

Asociacíon para el Mejoramiento de la Calidad de Vida de Trabajadoras y Extrabajadoras Sexuales - LA SALA, Costa Rica

Asoupevu, Burundi

ASPASIE, Switzerland

BAYSWAN – Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network, USA

Best Practice Policy Project, USA

Butterfly - Asian and migrant sex workers support network, Canada

CoyoteRI, USA

Desiree Alliance, USA

Durbar Mahila Samanawya Committee, India

El Sindicato de Mujeres Trabajadoras Sexuales de Colombia - SINTRASEXCO, Colombia

Empower, Thailand

FIRST Decriminalize Sex Work, Canada

Friends Frangipani, Papua New Guinea

Guyana Sex Work Coalition, Guyana



HIV/AIDS Research and Welfare Centre (HARC), Bangladesh


HPLGBT, Ukraine

Kisauni peer Educators, Kenya



Maggies’d Toronto Sex Workers’ Action Project, Canada

Movimiento de Mujeres Orquídeas del Mar, El Salvador


Nigeria Sex Workers Association, Nigeria

NNSW, National Network of Sex Workers, India

NZCP - New Zeeland Collective of Prostitutes, New Zeeland

ONAEM, Bolivia

Philippine Sex Worker Collective, Philippines

PION, Norway


POWER, Canada

Public Association ‘Amelia’

Red de Trabajadoras Sexuales de Honduras

Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association, Turkey

RedTraSex – Perú, Peru

Reseau Solidalite pour le Droit des Travailleuses de Sexe, Burundi

Respect Inc. Queensland, Australia


Scarlet Alliance – Australian Sex Workers Association, Australia

Scot-Pep, United Kingdom

Sex Professionals of Canada

SIN, Australia

Sisonke, South Africa

Sisters from ME & MY WORLD, India

Star-Star, Macedonia

Stella, Canada

STRASS, France

Surinam Coalition of Sexworkers (SUCOS)

SWAGGERR, Australia

SWEAT - The Sex Worker and Education and Advocacy Taskforce, South Africa

SWOP ACT, Australia

SWOP Las Vegas, USA

SWOP NSW, Australia

SWOP NT, Australia

SWOP Sacramento


SWOP-Chicago, USA

SWOU, United Kingdom

Tais Plus, Kyrgyzstan

Tamaulipas Diversidad VIHDA Trans A.C, Mexico

The Association of Sex Workers Women (WSW), Paraguay

The Sex Work Association of Jamaica, Jamaica

Tikkun Olam Belize - a ngo for sex workers in Belize

“Together with hope” (UNES), Paraguay

Transgender Equality, Uganda

Triple-X Workers' Solidarity Association of British Columbia, Canada

UKMO (Uttara Karnataka Mahila Okkuta), India

UTSOPI, Belgium

Vadamalar Federation of Sex workers, India

VAMP, India

VNSW, Vietnam Network of sex Workers, Vietnam

Wonetha, Uganda

Zi Teng, Hong Kong



Global Action for Trans* Equality (GATE)

Health GAP (Global Access Project)

HRI - Harm Reduction International

IAS – International AIDS Society


International Civil Society Support.

International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW Global).

INWUD - the Internation Network of Women who Use Drugs

IRGT: A Global Network of Trans Women and HIV

IWHC - International Women's Health Coalition

More Peace Less Aids fundacion

MSMGF (Global Forum on MSM & HIV)

The Coalition for Children Affected by AIDS

The Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+)

The International HIV/AIDS Alliance

The International Indigenous Working Group on HIV and AIDS

 Pangaea Global AIDS

ITPC-LATCA, International Treatment Preparedness Coalition Latin America and The Caribbean

African Services Committee


AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA)

AIDS Healthcare Foundation Latin American

APCASO - Asia Pacific Council of AIDS Organizations


Asia Catalyst

Asia Pacific Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (APA)

Asia Pacific Transgender Network

Coalition of Asia-Pacific Regional Networks on HIV/AIDS (7 sisters)

ENPUD – Euroasian Network of People who Use Drugs

European AIDS Treatment Group (EATG)

INA (Mãori, Indigenous & South Pacific) HIV/AIDS Foundation

International Treatment Preparedness Coalition West Africa (ITPC West Africa).

LACCASO – LAC - Latin American and Caribbean Council of AIDS Service Organizations

MENA Rosa (group of WLHIV in the MENA Region)


Southern African AIDS Trust

Youth Voices Count (YVC)

ACO Positive Women, Ukraine

Action against AIDS, Germany

Action for Health Initiatives, Inc., Philippines

AFAO- Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations

Afstaða - Iceland's association of prisoners and supporters of penal reform, Iceland

AHF Argentina

AHF Brazil

AHF Dominican Republic

AHF Guatemala

AHF Haiti

AHF Jamaica

AHF Mexico

AHF Peru

AIDES, France

Aids  Fonds, Netherlands

AIDS-Fondet, Denmark

AIVL- Australian Injecting & Illicit Drug Users League

Akahatá Equipo de trabajo en sexualidades y géneros, Argentina

Alliance for Public Health, Ukraine

APDES, Portugal

Asia Catalyst

Asociación Civil No Lucrativa Proyecto Vida, Guatemala

Associacao Existências, Portugal

ATP+ Tunisian Association of Positive Prevention


Buddism for Social Development Action (BSDA), Cambodia

Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network, Canada

Canadian Positive People Network/Réseau canadien des personnes séropositives (RCPS), Canada

Carusel Association, Romania

C-NET+ - Collaborative Network for Persons Living with HIV, Belize

DAMJ Association pour la justice et l’égalité

Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation, South Africa

Double Positive Foundation, Surinam

EANNASO, Tanzania

FFS – Feminists For Solidarity, Sweden

FPA, United Kingdom

Fundación Huésped

Fundación Salud por Derecho


Ghapro vzw – Health care and support to sex workers, Belgium

GrenCHAP Inc., Grenada

Grupo Este Amor, Dominican Republic

Hiv-Iceland, Iceland


India HIV/AIDS Alliance

Kaana Foundation for Outreach Programs (KAFOP), Uganda

Lambeth Service User Council, United Kingdom

LGBT Platform, Surinam

MANGO Key population network

Mrs. Laufey, Iceland's Harm reduction Association, Iceland

NAPWHA- National Association of People with HIV Australia

ONG Nepyru, Paraguay

Our Circle

Pembe Hayat LGBTT Solidarity Association, Turkey

Positiiviset ry, Hiv-Finland

Positive Vibes, Namibia

Positive Women's Network, USA

Pro-tukipiste ry, Finland

REPSSI, South Africa

Safe Harbour Outreach Project (S.H.O.P.), Candada

Salud por Derecho, Spain

Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, USA

Shanghai CSW&MSM Center, China

Snarrótin - Iceland's Civil Liberties Union, Iceland

South India AIDS Action Programme (SIAAP), member of NNSW, India

Stepping Stone Association, Canada

STOPAIDS, United Kingdom

StopVIH, Venezuela, Netherlands

The Make A Difference (MAD) Trust, United Kingdom

The People living with HIV Stigma Index, United Kingdom

The Sexual Rights Centre, Zimbabwe

The Street Lawyers - Gadejuristen, Denmark

Trans In Action

Ukrainian Association of Substitution Treatment Advocates, Ukraine

Women's health and Human rights Network Antigua

Women's Initiatives (WINS)


Individual supporters

Aarthi Pai, CASAM, SANGRAM, India

Alexander Bard, philosopher, Sweden

Alexandra Oliveira, Professor at University of Porto, Portugal

Alexandra Tigchelaar, Operation Snatch, Canada

Alice Young, Regional Assistant: Latin America and Caribbean, International HIV/AIDS Alliance

Anna Forbes, MSS Consultant, USA

Anton Mulyana, Ruma Cemara, Indonesia

Ásta Sif Árnadóttir, Multimedia specialist, Iceland

Björgvin Mýrdal, Master Chef, Iceland

Carol Holly, Ms, Australia

Christian Hui, RSSW, Canada

Cora Chisholm, Australia

Dean Lewis, India

Desmond Ravenstone, National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, USA

Diane Anderson-Minshall, Editor in Chief, Plus Magazine, USA

Edona Ahmetaj, Legal Expert on human rights

Elisa Castellanos, Sex Worker/Escort, Tikkun Olam Belize, Belize

Eric Sprankle, PsyD, LP, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Minnesota State University

Eva Björk Káradóttir, Event Manager, Iceland

Filipa Alvim, Antrpologist, Portugal

Guðmundur Ingi Þóroddsson, Chairman, Afstaða –  Prisoners Union of Iceland

Halla Kolbeinsdóttir, Webmaster, web designer, Iceland

Halldór Árnason, Chemist and Economist, Iceland

Jaana Kauppinen, Executive Director, Finland

Joanne Csete, Adjunct associate professor, Columbia University, NY, NY, USA

Júlía Birgisdóttir, Economist, Iceland

Julia Lukomnik, Program officer, Open Society Foundations, USA

Julie Bates, Principal, Urban Realists Planning & Health Consultants, Australia

Mabel Bianco, Fundacion para Estudio e Investigation de la Mujer-FEIM- Argentina

Marieke Ridder, Programs manager Strategic Partnership, Aids Fonds- Stop Aids Now!

Marinette Sjöholm, Sweden

Maya Sands, international sex worker

Meena Seshu, SANGRAM, India

Mike Crawford, sex worker and activist, USA

Ms Talya De Fay, Sex Worker, Australia

Namakula Nakato Daisy, WONETHA, Uganda

Nick Crofts, Law Enforcement and HIV Network, Australia

Pétur Þorsteinsson, Retired head-teacher, Iceland

Prof. dr. Ine Vanwesenbeeck, Senior Advisor, Rutgers, the Netherlands

Rachel Wotton; International sex worker and activist, 20+ years, Australia

Revd MacDonald S Sembereka, Malawi

Rikki de la Vega, Author, USA

Sanghamitra Iyengar, Trustee, Samraksha, India

Saul Isbister; sex worker and activist,  20+ years, Australia

Shelly Stoops, United Kingdom

Þorsteinn Úlfar Björnsson, Graphic Designer, Iceland

Tracy Quan, USA

Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad, VAMP, India