Sex workers in San Francisco, Washington DC, and part of New York State can now carry condoms – protecting themselves and their clients from HIV/AIDS – without fearing that police will use the condoms as evidence of prostitution.
In July, Human Rights Watch released a report based on interviews with more than 200 sex workers and transgender women from these cities, which have some of the highest HIV rates in the United States. Police harassment caused many sex workers to stop carrying condoms, their fear of arrest overriding their fear of disease.
But thanks in part to our advocacy in these cities, this practice is changing.
The change: The Metropolitan Police Department has issued a card headed “Know Your Rights” for distribution to all DC residents, including sex workers, assuring them that they will not be stopped for condom possession.
Our role:Human Rights Watch met with Washington DC’s key power players – including the mayor, the police chief, and the head of the Health Department’s HIV unit. At the meeting, the police agreed to distribute the cards, which also debunk the myth, exposed in our report, that in DC it is illegal to carry more than three condoms at a time.
Metropolitan New York City:
The change:Nassau County district attorney has ordered her 200-plus prosecutors to stop using condoms as evidence of prostitution.
Our role:The district attorney told Human Rights Watch that her decision was based partly on our report.
The change: The San Francisco Police Department announced that it will no longer use condoms as evidence in prostitution cases.
Our role:We convinced the city’s human rights commission to arrange a meeting with Human Rights Watch and the issue’s top players – the mayor, district attorney, health department, and sex worker advocates. At the meeting the district attorney agreed to launch a six-month pilot program during which the police would not use condoms as evidence. The period ended on March 31, and as halting the practice didn’t harm officers’ ability to enforce anti-prostitution laws, the change will remain in place.
Potential change: Police are considering a pilot project to stop using condoms as evidence in areas with numerous prostitution arrests.
Our role: Human Rights Watch has been pushing the Los Angeles Police Department to try the program. The department is waiting for the formal results from San Francisco’s pilot program, available in early April.
Next step: We are arranging a meeting with top city officials to push this policy forward.
The potential change: A state bill prohibiting the practice of using condoms as evidence was introduced in the California state legislature.
Our role: The bill’s sponsors used the findings of our report to demonstrate the public health consequences of using condoms as evidence of prostitution.
The change: President Barack Obama was advised that the Justice Department should review the policy of using condoms as evidence for prostitution, as it undermines the national strategy to combat HIV/AIDS.
Our role: We presented our report to and played our video for the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, which made the recommendation to President Obama. We also urged the involvement of the Justice Department in monitoring the use of condoms as evidence nationwide and to press local jurisdictions to eliminate the practice.
Next step: We are meeting with the Justice Department about its potential role for eliminating the practice.