|GABRIELA SILVA LEITE|
Gabriela Silva Leite, the executive director of Prostitution Civil Rights and Health, talks about the work her group has done to help slow the spread of HIV among prostitutes.
The NewsHour Health Unit is funded by a grant from The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
SUSAN DENTZER: Tell us a bit about your past. We understand you actually were a working prostitute. When did you do that, how long did you do that for?
GABRIELA SILVA LEITE: I actually started working during the '70s in San Paulo City. I stopped working about 10 years ago, and after I worked in San Paulo, I also worked in Belo di Zointi, which is another city in the southeast of Brazil, and after that I worked in Rio de Janeiro. I stopped working in Rio because I became involved with a political movement and more militant activities to protect prostitutes...
In Brazil, engaging in sexual activities has been legal for a long time. Selling sexual fantasy is legal. What is illegal is maintaining a prostitution house, or a nightclub that has prostitution. So the person who is acting criminally is the nightclub owner or the cabaret owner, or even the owner of a massage house.
What we want to do at this moment is to change the situation. We want to make this a legal relationship so that we can establish a labor relationship between employer and employee.
|Becoming an HIV activist|
DENTZER: Let me just ask you, at what point did your political activities also
expand into HIV?
GABRIELA SILVA LEITE: We started getting involved with AIDS in 1989. Before that we had not wanted to get involved with it because we believed it was one more source of prejudice. People often thought that prostitutes were the ones transmitting this disease. So we hadn't really wanted to get involved.
SUSAN DENTZER: So what changed? Why did you get involved?
GABRIELA SILVA LEITE: What changed this was a conversation I had with a very close friend of mine who has since died. He was a strong militant for this fight against AIDS, and he convinced me that we had to be engaged in this fight together...
SUSAN DENTZER: What is the situation for prostitutes in Brazil with respect to HIV/AIDS? How many are infected, how worried are prostitutes about HIV?
GABRIELA SILVA LEITE: Well, it's a very big concern among prostitutes ... The numbers indicate that about 6 percent of prostitutes in Brazil are infected with the HIV virus, but there's also an interesting issue in that the use of condoms among prostitutes with clients is very high. It's at 80 percent, and prostitutes who ... seek taking tests is also high. It's 58 percent and that's a percentage that is higher than that one found in general society...
|Brazilian prostitutes' awareness of HIV|
SUSAN DENTZER: How many prostitutes do you think are completely aware of HIV/AIDS, the risks and the transmission risks in particular?
GABRIELA SILVA LEITE: I'd say the vast majority of prostitutes are well aware of the issue, and even those that are not using condoms, it's usually for reasons of vulnerability. So maybe she needs to pay her rent, or she needs money for something. Or even maybe she has a client that she knows for many years, and she actually trusts him, and perceives him more as a partner.
But even those prostitutes that don't work with us, they are very well informed. They have the same kind of information that the Brazilian society has, and we do have lots of information.
But what we really need to do in an urgent way is start working systematically with men, because we usually consider prostitutes and transvestites and gay men, but usually the client, the man who sees these people, he's never taken into consideration when we work with prevention.
SUSAN DENTZER: So what is the most effective outreach that can be made to prostitutes? You said the vast majority are already aware of the issues, but there obviously are some who are not yet. What is most effective in helping them to understand the risks, and to take action to stop the spread of HIV?
GABRIELA SILVA LEITE: Well, nobody -- prostitutes or anybody else -- nobody will perceive the danger of AIDS if they don't have any kind of self-awareness that they are citizens in a society that AIDS is near, that exists. And what happens is with this universal access that we have to drugs and medication, AIDS starts to become something less important.
So I think what is important here is to have policies and information for prostitutes, but for also all kinds of citizens so that they can gain back self-esteem, and they can know about their rights, and learn about the needs of self-preservation.
SUSAN DENTZER: In your experience, you probably have spoken with many other individual prostitutes. What is it that prompts them to change their own behavior? What prompts them to request their other customers begin using condoms? What gets the message across to people?
GABRIELA SILVA LEITE: What prompts them is fear. They are afraid that they will get this terrible infection, that maybe this client is infected, and also the awareness that she has a life ahead of her, and that she has to take care of herself, because she is not alone in the world. So all this will bring her to use condoms, to see her doctor regularly without being forced to do so. And this is the ideal of a free society, the autonomy to be able to do this without being forced.
|The next steps in the fight against HIV|
SUSAN DENTZER: What is the number one most important thing? You said a moment ago that now people need to reach out to men, to the customers of prostitutes and educate them as well. What should happen, and who should do that?
GABRIELA SILVA LEITE: Well, first of all, AIDS is not a problem that is the responsibility of any specific group. AIDS relates to all of us, the entire society. So we should all be concerned with it in all acts.
We all have sex. Whether or not we're prostitutes, we all have sex. So I think everybody -- wives, husbands, everybody should talk about it. And prostitutes are very important. We have an important role. We help. We have booklets that we distribute, talking about prevention, and a very important aspect of this fight against AIDS are the prostitutes. And men have to realize that they are important players. It's not just something that happens to someone else, and it's something that's related to transmission from a prostitute or from women. They can also transmit this disease.
SUSAN DENTZER: But are there some specific actions that you think should be taken by somebody -- government, whatever -- to increase this awareness among men?
GABRIELA SILVA LEITE: I think we should do this through specific campaigns. Our movement has been starting a campaign on safer sex with partners, and this goes for everyone, for all women, for all men. Men and other women should think about risk, and sexuality with love using a condom. That's an issue that should be thought about. And I think we have advanced a little bit. There's still a lot more to do.
SUSAN DENTZER: Do you think prostitutes now in Brazil are helping to spread HIV, or helping to stop the spread of HIV?
GABRIELA SILVA LEITE: ...Prostitution is definitely helping to stop AIDS. Since 1989 we were one of the first movements, along with the gay men's movement, to engage in this fight and to work with prevention. Demanding condoms for men, we've been working with the government seriously, and we are one of the players in this fight inside the Brazilian solution to AIDS.
SUSAN DENTZER: Do prostitutes get free condoms from the government?
GABRIELA SILVA LEITE: Yes, the government has been donating condoms for many years now. We've been receiving them in large quantities actually. But now our work mainly is concerned with the awareness of prostitutes, that they also have to be responsible for buying condoms because this kind of donation is not going to last forever, and it's part of the responsibility of prevention to buy condoms. You have to also be responsible for your own condoms.
SUSAN DENTZER: What do you think of the debate in the United States about not letting any U.S. money go to organizations overseas that do outreach to commercial sex workers, to prostitutes?
GABRIELA SILVA LEITE: Well, first of all, I think that we are two different countries. We have two different legal and governmental approaches to seeing prostitution. Now, especially with the Bush administration, the U.S. pretty much believes in forbidding prostitution. Brazil, on the other hand, has a different vision, and we also have another cultural vision...