Sex workers are denied access to condoms in settings where police routinely confiscate condoms and use condom possession to justify arrest or as leverage to harass and abuse sex workers. Sex workers must make a choice between safeguarding their health or staying safe from police harassment or detention. By hindering sex workers' ability to carry and use condoms, police actions increase sex workers' risk of exposure to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, as well as unwanted pregnancies, compromising sex workers' health and the health of their sexual partners.
In some situations, police are following official policy by treating condoms as evidence of a person's engagement in or intent to engage in illegal activity and using condoms found on a person as grounds to justify an arrest. Criminal law positions sex workers as criminals and, as such, as legitimate targets of police attention. In carrying out their jobs, police may be instructed to engage in unethical and legally unjustifiable policing practices such as profiling people based on their clothing, appearance or past participation in sex work, or conducting intimidating and intrusive surveillance of people who are walking or standing in public places at night.
The practices of national law enforcement agencies and local police forces are dramatically out of sync with the declared policies of government health officials. While one arm of government works to get condoms into people's hands, another is taking them away. Police officers' frequent interactions with sex workers on the street mean that they are uniquely positioned to connect sex workers to health services and promote the reach of public health programs such as condom distribution to the sex worker community. Police could be working in partnership with national health programs to help prevent the spread of HIV by allowing at-risk groups such as sex workers to have access to condoms and education.
Policy responses to the AIDS pandemic must take into consideration sex workers' ability to protect their health and the health of their sexual partners. To be meaningful, programs to promote sex worker health should include not only mechanisms for distributing condoms to sex workers but also strategies to enable sex workers to keep and use the condoms they receive. A crucial step toward preventing HIV will be the removal of punitive laws against sex work and laws and policies allowing condoms to be used as evidence that act as structural barriers to the realization of sex workers' right to health.