Trafficking and HIV/AIDS
last updated September 1, 2005

Trafficking in women and girls is increasingly being linked to the spread of HIV/AIDS. This link has important consequences for individual and public health.

Forced into commercial sex work, women who are trafficked are at high risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases, which increase the risk for contracting HIV. Also, they are often subject to violent or dangerous sex practices that allow the virus to more easily enter the body. Finally, trafficking is contributing to new strains of the virus that are resistant to treatment.

According to Policing the National Body: Sex, Race, and Criminalization, A Project of the Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment, 2002, numerous case studies have found that women in prostitution have significantly higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and infections (STIs), hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, and other sexual health problems. STDs of the upper and lower reproductive tracts, including syphilis, genital herpes, chanchroid, trichomoniasis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea increase the HIV transmission rate in women two to ten times. The report states, "HIV/AIDS is both a stark disease burden and also a biomarker of the gendered condition of women and of male sexual consumption. The highest rates in the world today exist in centers of sex tourism, in the military, and in societies and subcultures that condone male sexual exploitation, male sexual promiscuity, and female subordination. When the landscapes of sexual politics are further riven by economic collapse and conflict we see - as in Africa, South and East Asia, and the Newly Independent States of the former Soviet Union - the rise of trafficking in women and girls for prostitution and the emergence of new and the re-emergence of 'old' sexually transmitted diseases." Countries such as Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, where the spread of HIV/AIDS is rising the most quickly, also have the highest numbers of trafficked women and girls.

The nature of trafficking causes women to have sex against their will and leaves them vulnerable to conditions where the virus can be easily spread. In an address to the House International Relations Committee on June 25, 2003, Holly Burkhalter of Physicians for Human Rights states that when women are forced, coerced, or tricked into prostitution, they are literally enslaved and cannot protect themselves by insisting on condom use from dangerous sexual practices that lead to contracting HIV. They are forced to have sex with multiple partners as well as endure violent acts that can result in tearing and abrasions that allow the virus to more easily enter the body. Young girls who are physically immature are especially vulnerable to injuries, which increase their risk of infection. The vulnerability of trafficked women to STDs is compounded by their inability to receive proper medical care, especially when they are in a foreign country and unable to speak the language.

Trafficking is causing new and virulent strains of the virus to appear. Holly Burkhalter of Physicians for Human Rights, in the speech mentioned above, refers to the work of Dr. Chris Beyrer, a leading epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins. He has linked sex trafficking to the AIDS virus, stating that the new strains of HIV are proving resistant to treatment. "What we are seeing is that the trafficking part of the sex industry is aiding the global dispersion of HIV subtypes." And according to U.S. representative Jim McDermott, in a statement before the Congressional Task Force on International HIV/AIDS, the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues, and the Human Rights Caucus briefing on the International Trafficking of Women, May 24, 2000: "New and more virulent strains of HIV are being tracked in Eastern Europe. The Congressional Research Service estimates that as many as 175,000 women and children are being 'exported' into the sex industries of Western Europe and America each year." Given that holding women and children in sexual slavery is illegal in every country in the world, the only way sex trafficking can flourish is when government officials are complicit, says Burkhalter. In order to stop the virus from spreading as a result of trafficking, governments must see it to be in their interest to enforce laws already in place that are designed to eliminate trafficking. Additionally, rather than simply targeting prostituted women for AIDS prevention (promoting condom use, for example) a more modern approach should be taken. Since it has been documented that the epidemic is driven mainly by male-to-female transmission and male use of prostituted women, prevention techniques and education could be aimed at the men who engage in sexual practices with trafficked women.