“I haven’t felt greater shame than when they caught us.”
That’s what Georgia told me as she recalled the moment in April 2012 that police detained her and dozens of other women alleged to be sex workers and forced them to take HIV tests. Those found to be HIV positive, such as Georgia, were arrested and charged with causing intentional grievous bodily harm (a felony) or attempted bodily harm (a misdemeanor), for allegedly having unprotected sex with clients while knowing they were HIV positive. The police and media outlets publicized the women’s personal data and photographs, and the Greek Center for Disease Control disclosed their HIV-positive status.
The good news is that today, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced the repeal of the health regulation that was used to justify these roundups. UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, and human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, had raised concerns about the regulation, which allowed the authorities to conduct HIV testing without informed consent in a misguided effort to curb the transmission of infectious diseases.
Most of the women were acquitted of all charges. But at least two of them, including Maria, a vivacious young woman who shared with me the humiliation she suffered but also her hopes for the future, have since committed suicide.
Sex workers continue to face other challenges. A new policing plan for the center of Athens announced on March 12 includes targeted operations against “women sex workers,” among others. Many women selling sex on the streets fall afoul of the strict regulations governing legal sex work and face daily harassment by the police.
Repealing a health regulation that led to such terrible abuse is a good first step. But the Greek government should also implement a genuine public health approach to people who exchange sex for money, drugs, or life necessities. And this means ensuring that police operations respect the rights of women whose lives are hard enough already.