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New York, U.S.A. – New research from six countries found that stop-and-search practices by the police are making sex workers less likely to carry condoms, said the Open Society Foundations.
The report, Criminalizing Condoms, surveyed sex workers in Kenya, Namibia, Russia, South Africa, the United States, and Zimbabwe and found that police practices made it more likely that sex workers would have unprotected sex with their clients.
The law enforcement practices documented in the report fly in the face of government programs aimed at preventing the spread of HIV.
“While one arm of government works to get condoms into people’s hands, another is taking them away,” said Heather Doyle, Director of the Sexual Health and Rights Project at the Open Society Foundations.
More than 40 percent of sex workers surveyed reported that police had taken condoms from them; in Russia, that figure rose to 80 percent. In some locations sex workers reported that police have destroyed condoms with scissors, set them on fire, and even ran over condoms with their vehicles.
These actions have dire consequences for sex workers’ health. In Namibia, 50 percent of sex workers surveyed said police destroyed their condoms and 75 percent of those who then did sex work had unprotected sex. Fifty-two percent of survey participants in the United States said they sometimes opted not to carry condoms because of stop-and-search practices.
Police also use condom possession to justify detaining or arresting people on charges related to sex work. The criminalization of sex work and use of condoms as evidence make sex workers particularly vulnerable to police abuse. The report found that police in all six countries harass and physically and sexually abuse sex workers who carry condoms. Arrest on the grounds of condom possession is used to extort and exploit sex workers.
“Again and again sex workers have told us that they are afraid to carry condoms because they worry it will mean being harassed or arrested by police,” said Doyle. “The police are punishing people for doing the right thing, for carrying condoms and trying to protect their health.”
At the 19th International AIDS Conference, held on July 22-27 in Washington, D.C., the Open Society Foundations, Human Rights Watch, and sex worker rights groups will raise the issue of condom confiscation with delegates and call on health professionals, scientists, and policymakers to support decriminalization of sex work and an end to confiscation of condoms by police.