Do You Feel Courageous?

Two female sex workers stare resolutely into the camera. Beside them, the words: Do you feel courageous?

We have this saying at Pathfinder—“Courage is in our DNA.”

Today, on the one-year anniversary of Pathfinder’s historic win at the US Supreme Court, I’m reminded of how important it is for organizations like ours to be brave. To take risks. To ensure high quality sexual and reproductive health programs are supported by sound government policies. When those policies fall short, and threaten people’s access to services, we owe it to the people we serve to fight and advocate for change.

I remember anxiously anticipating the verdict, the immense joy I felt when we won, and the ensuing pride in the stand we took, as accolades poured in from all around the world.

That’s exactly what we did when we took the US Government—our single largest funder—all the way to the Supreme Court. For those of you unfamiliar with the case…

As the largest donor to sexual and reproductive health worldwide, the US Government helps create the environment in which Pathfinder and our local partners operate. When a 2003 law, known as the “Anti-Prostitution Pledge,” required all groups receiving government funds for international HIV and AIDS work to have a policy “explicitly opposing prostitution,” we had no choice but to challenge it.

Make no mistake, we have long partnered with the US Government to assist in the global fight against HIV and AIDS and to pursue common goals for public health. But, we and our co-plaintiffs—Alliance for Open Society International, Inc., InterAction, and the Global Health Council—believed the pledge violated free speech. Moreover, we feared a policy opposing prostitution could hinder our efforts to organize and educate sex workers, like Manda Chavan, who are particularly vulnerable to contracting HIV.

Manda is a dynamic peer educators trained through the Mukta project. We helped build her skills—to listen attentively to her fellow sex workers, identifying personal or social factors that leave them vulnerable to sexually transmitted infection. A true leader, Manda even established critical support groups for her fellow sex workers and their partners.

Many global public health organizations—the US Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and UNAIDS—have concluded that it is critical to partner with sex workers, like Manda, to ensure effective HIV prevention and AIDS care and treatment. What would happen, then, if organizations like Pathfinder, who aim to empower sex workers, were forced to publicly and explicitly oppose the very group we strive to support? If we are not allowed to remain ideological neutral in this circumstance, it could seriously undermine efforts to prevent the spread of HIV worldwide.

The US Supreme Court agreed.

To this day, I remember anxiously anticipating the verdict, the immense joy I felt when we won, and the ensuing pride in the stand we took, as accolades poured in from all around the world.

I’ll never forget the reaction of my colleague, Darshana Vyas, Director of the Mukta project, who exclaimed, “To the thousands of sex workers we serve, this ruling could absolutely be hope for a better life!”

That is why we do what we do.

Pathfinder will continue our long history of partnering with the US Government. Our successful challenge of this prohibitive policy has done nothing to adversely impact our critical relationship.

Because Pathfinder took a stand, countless other organizations can continue to engage sex workers in the global fight against HIV and AIDS. It is a hard-fought victory, one worth celebrating. But we cannot celebrate for too long. Tomorrow, the fight continues. There is so much to be done to eradicate HIV and AIDS worldwide, and it will require the best, high impact solutions we have.

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