Welcome to Asia Catalyst’s monthly media roundup. 

Public awareness is key to understanding and promoting human rights. Here is this last month’s news reflecting developments for some of the key affected populations that we work with.

Sex Workers

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December 17 marked the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. To commemorate this date, sex worker groups around the globe jointly advocated for the respect and fulfillment of their human rights.

Analysis:


The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers marked an important opportunity to raise the profile of the myriad problems and human rights violations faced by sex workers worldwide. Stigma, discrimination, and punitive legal policies all lead to environments where violence against sex workers is often perpetrated with impunity. In Asia, sex workers are highly stigmatized, and experience abuse and discrimination in public and private settings. HIV prevalence among the community is spiking, and public services remain difficult to access for sex workers. 

All countries in Asia criminalize sex work or activities associated with it. In Myanmar and Malaysia, police often fail to respond appropriately when crimes are reported against sex workers. In China, the Custody and Education system still arbitrarily detains female sex workers for up to two years without trial or due process. Across the region, the police are often the perpetrators of abuse, extortion, harassment and assault against sex workers. Confiscation of condoms by police as evidence of illegal conduct or to justify harassment and extortion is a widespread problem.

Public advocacy by sex worker groups, as seen around December 17, is thus an important step to protect the human rights of this marginalized group. Following Amnesty International’s decision to support the decriminalization of sex work in 2015, sex worker community members have skillfully maintained the public spotlight by advancing the dialogue around the human rights of sex workers. In 2016, policy makers should listen to the concerns of sex workers, as well as the plethora of data available on the harms of criminalization of sex work on epidemics like HIV. Priority should be given to increased protections for sex workers and reform of punitive legal and policy frameworks that criminalize rather than protect this marginalized community. 

 

Harm Reduction

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In early 2015, President Joko Widodo of the Republic of Indonesia declared a “War on Drugs.” The subsequent campaign has included harsh punitive measures against people who use drugs in Indonesia.  Last month, the Indonesian Drug Users Network (PKNI) and Drugreporter released Dying a Slow Death: Inside Indonesia’s Drug War, a short documentary conveying the impacts of the war on drugs as experienced by the community itself. The documentary has led to increased attention to Indonesia’s drug response, and its shortcomings.

Analysis:


People who use drugs face high levels of stigma and discrimination in their daily lives, preventing the realization of their right to the highest attainable standard of health. Punitive responses to personal drug use fuel the HIV epidemic and human rights violations by isolating people who use drugs from seeking health services and structuralizing the stigma they face.
 
According to figures released by Indonesia’s National AIDS Commission, an estimated 54.5 percent of people who inject drugs in Jakarta are living with HIV. Nation-wide, this figure remains high at 36.4 percent of people who use drugs. Following President Widodo’s declaration of a “war on drugs” and Indonesia’s widely condemned executions of several convicted drug dealers, The National Narcotics Agency (BNN) has increased penalization rates for, and begun forced rehabilitation of, people who use drugs. Harm reduction efforts have remained under funded and under utilized.
 
As revealed in Dying a Slow Death, the crackdown on personal drug use in Indonesia is both misinformed and dangerous. Instead of increasing health outcomes for people in Indonesia, such tactics are pushing an already marginalized community further underground, where they cannot access vital health services. To stop undermining its own HIV prevention strategy, the Indonesian government should listen to harm reduction activists in the country like PKNI. Investing in programs that will have a positive public health outcome for people who use drugs in the country, such as clean needle exchange programs and other harm reduction measures, is a good place to start. 

LGBT

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A gay man in Hunan Province, China has filed a lawsuit against the Chinese government for refusing his application to marry his partner, a move that has been called a major test for LGBT rights in the country. The plaintiff, Sun Wenlin (pseudonym) is arguing that since Chinese marriage law refers to the union of “husband and wife,” but does not specify genders of either marriage party, it actually permits same-sex unions. 

Analysis:


The lawsuit brought by Sun Wenlin this month marks China’s first same-sex marriage rights court case. LGBT activism in China has gained momentum in recent years and is gaining increased government attention. In 2014, the Beijing LGBT Center and a gay Chinese man filed the country’s first ever lawsuit against a gay “conversion” clinic. The court announced its verdict in that case on December 18, 2014, ruling that gay “conversion” therapy was unnecessary and ordered the clinic to publicly apologize and provide compensation to the plaintiff. In its ruling, the Chinese court also reaffirmed that homosexuality is not an illness and thus does not require treatment. This was a milestone victory for the Chinese LGBT community, and the first time an LGBT person initiative and won such litigation in the country.
 
While success in the same-sex marriage case is far from assured, Sun Wenlin’s filing of the case highlights a clear trend in rights-based lawsuits by LGBT activists in China. The issue of same-sex marriage has gained traction globally in the past few years, with countries like the United States recently legalizing same-sex unions. With strong support from activists and allies around China, the issue could gain traction and see marked progress in upcoming years. 


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