FEATURE-On the move, Chinese prostitutes raise AIDS risk
8/15/2006 5:0:42 Reuters Alertnet

Mainland Chinese prostitutes, who flock to Hong Kong in large numbers to make a living, are failing to protect themselves, and the number of HIV/AIDS infections is expected to rise, social workers say. Groups that counsel sex workers say prostitutes are frequently questioned by police, searched, detained and expelled if condoms are found on them. This is prompting many prostitutes from mainland China to ditch the prophylactics for fear that they will be caught. Although condoms are legal and Hong Kong laws do not empower police to detain anyone found with a condom, police are intimidating and expelling prostitutes from China, the groups say. Prostitution is legal in Hong Kong, but foreigners violate the conditions of their stay if they are caught working. Social workers say such police must stop this practice or it will fuel a rise in sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS. "Police must stop using condoms as an excuse to arrest women because this makes women vulnerable to disease," said Elaine Lam of Ziteng, the most established help group in Hong Kong that is devoted to commercial sex workers. Loretta Wong of AIDS Concern, another Hong Kong group, added: "The government is contradicting itself. Although the Health Department is promoting condom use, the police (are) using it to prosecute sex workers." Their call strikes a chord with key messages delivered at the 16th International AIDS Conference this week in Toronto. Experts agree that preventing transmission of the disease among prostitutes is crucial to controlling the AIDS pandemic. "There are still far too many instances where punitive laws, stigma, gender inequities and lack of access to needed prevention and care services conspire to fuel the HIV pandemic," said conference Co-Chair Dr. Mark Wainberg, director of the McGill University AIDS Centre. At the conference opening on Sunday, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, whose foundation has given hundreds of millions of dollars to fight AIDS, criticized governments and politicians who refuse to talk to and help prostitutes. "We need tools that will allow women to protect themselves. This is true whether the woman is a faithful married mother of small children, or a sex worker trying to scrape out a living in a slum. No matter where she lives, who she is, or what she does a woman should never need her partner's permission to save her own life," Gates said. Some 650,000 people in mainland China are living with HIV/AIDS, according to the latest UNAIDS report, but only 32,500 are classified as female sex workers -- a figure that social workers say is a gross underestimation. In Hong Kong, there are an estimated 300,000 prostitutes at any given time, half of whom are from mainland China, Ziteng said. This figure stood at 200,000 in 1991. Since Hong Kong was returned to Chinese control in 1997, it has become increasingly easy for mainland Chinese to visit the city, and many flock here for higher wages, although they come illegally. According to Lam, prostitutes in China earn as little as five yuan (US$0.60) in construction sites and along truckers' routes, to 300 yuan ($38) in posh karaoke bars for the very few lucky ones. Many choose to come to Hong Kong, where they earn between HK$40 (US$5) and HK$150 (US$19) from each customer. They need to fork out, or borrow, at least 5,000 yuan (US$626) to secure two-way visas to Hong Kong, which are good for only seven days. "Because they have such a short time to try to make money, many of the girls are desperate and have no bargaining power. When customers offer to pay more for unprotected sex, the girls will agree," said Chung Sze-wan of Ziteng. Many women are also ignorant. "We know of girls who have never seen condoms in their lives," Chung said, adding that women who manage to recoup the money they paid to come to Hong Kong and make a profit are those who do not insist on safe sex. "Many of them have children and husbands and they want to protect themselves, but they still take the risk. They literally ... risk their lives," she said. Ziteng provides free health screenings for sex workers and in a 2005 survey, seven out of 58 women tested positive for the human papillomavirus, which is sexually transmitted. There are more than 100 strains of this virus and high-risk types can lead to cancer. Six of of the seven women were mainland Chinese. The health risk is not confined to China and Hong Kong as many of these Chinese women are traveling further afield. "We see them going everywhere after transiting in Hong Kong. Malaysia, Singapore, Italy, Japan, Australia, Taiwan," said Lam. "People see them as a carrier of the (HIV) virus but they are really victims because they are forced not to use condoms."