AIDS2016 Human Rights approach

Short reflections are better than lengthy exegeses. I am at the 21st International AIDS conference and I want to reflect on what I found particularly interesting. During the TB meeting of today, I attended the talk by an advocate – a Treatment Action Campaign advocate – a certain Mr Frick – who spoke about human rights in relation to Tuberculosis. He completed his MPH and then veered onto the road of human rights advocacy in China. He now works for the historic TAC. This young American man impressed upon me the need to take advocacy seriously and how it can become a professional endeavour. Mike Frick is his name. I had the chance to speak to him after the session, where he mentioned he considered the academic route. But he chose a different direction. The corollary of his decision, of course, is that academia can also be a place of advocacy, or at least span a career of advocacy.

I read in the Durban Independent newspaper of today 16th July about the influx of sex workers into the city. I found it remarkable that a member of the NGO community in Durban, who presumably would be a champion for human rights based approaches, used language that portrays sex workers as dangerous, warning persons of the dangers of soliciting sex from women who “may be under the influence of drugs and they may rob the client.” Most strikingly, the newspaper describes sex workers as a source of HIV infection: “the client runs the risk of being robbed, infected and possibly arrested, as prostitution is illegal in South Africa”. Possibly, the newspaper misquoted the member of the Druban NGO, which they report to “assist sex workers”.

As research fellow I ask myself, what impact does this kind of language have on how law enforcement officials approach sex workers and health workers, in the context of sexual and reproductive health services? It appears to me that sex work is equated with danger, with the full responsibility of HIV infection placed on the sex-worker, devoid from the larger socio-political context. For instance, there is no mention of why women engage in sex work, the challenges they face in doing so and whether they would engage in this trade, had they reasonable alternatives that could ensure their livelihood. The Durban Police is quoted in saying that they will press charges against both sex workers and buyers, as they see it as crime.

One of my own challenges is to understand how a human rights approach can be applied to this particular problem – providing sex workers with a safe means to earn money, without the risk of HIV infection or violence. I understand human rights to be economic and social rights – different to those such as voting and freedom of religion (civil rights). This is what Mike Frick explained this morning. Yet he was doing it in the context of how all people have the right to enjoy the benefits of medical advances, including the right to treatment for curable diseases – notably Tuberculosis. But he went further to say that people at risk of TB disease ought to lay claim to the right to have medical science push the boundaries of TB research, so that they have access to the full benefits living at time when science can solve the problems of TB detection and treatment, given sufficient investment in these fields.

Now, what right to sex-workers have in this context? Perhaps it is the right to practise their chosen profession. I am just speculating here.

I must now make my way to the place where the taxi will pick me up. Today, I did not work on my mini-dissertation, alas. However, I did work on my TB paper. Tomorrow, I will aim to work on my mini-dissertation, at a café far away from the conference, far away from distractions. On Monday, I will then be ready for the main conference.


There is a member of the John’s Hopkins Faculty I met at the conference today. The conversation just started with me saying hello, her complimenting me on my yellow pants outfit. Her name is Tonia. She told me “yes finish it [ your
mini-dissertation] and come to us at Hopkins, we’ll play with you”. Now as a UCT student, I want to say, I am going to complete a mini-dissertation that is good, not because I want to study there – a historic University in the global north, with immense resources. I am doing it to bring some of that research energy to the global South. Yet I am still inspired by her words. I also met a man at the TB session, with whom I spoke in Spanish. In fact, I did my whole poster talk in Spanish, with his help here and there. He told me of an EU program in Global Health that I could do. So there are opportunities, indeed they are.

Update: here I am listening to Brian Citro on Human Rights approaches. He says that these are based on the dignity and autonomy of individuals, as opposed to populations (in public health). These is a focus on principles of non-discrimination and equality. Moreover there is a focus on marginalized groups and sex-workers count as those.

Accountability – people must be held to account for the health people and health problems. And then people require remedies, not always litigation, but there must be remedy for health problems.

The legal framework comprises rights, in the constitution. Then there are there freedoms and protections and lastly rights related to prevention (prevention of disease). In this case, the right to safe-sex for sex workers falls in the latter.


About writinghealth

Wannabe Epidemiologist? Wannabe med anthro person? I guess. Christian, scientist (not Christian scientist), i mean like I studied molecular biology and I part of the RC Church. I also completed a Masters of Public Health, at the University of Cape Town, in Epidemiology and Biostatistics.
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