02 Nov

Covering the World with the Red Umbrella – Reflections of a PAC Member

After a few unsuccessful applications by my organization, Bar Hostess Empowerment & Support Programme (BHESP), to the Red Umbrella Fund, I saw it:  the call for sex workers to be part of the Program Advisory Committee (PAC) of the Red Umbrella Fund. That is the group that reviews proposals from sex workers’ organizations from all over the world. I decided to give it a shot.

After all, if I could not make it as a grantee, I would try for a reviewer of the grants!

I knew the process would be enriching and the exposure to well written proposals would really be of help. I knew the selection of PAC members would be very competitive but I hoped my experience as director of one of the oldest sex workers’ organization as well as being the chair of Africa Sex Workers Alliance would help. I also threw in my experience as a proposal reviewer for a local fund.

…and it worked!

I was selected as one of the two representatives of the fund from Africa. The PAC meeting brought together a group of eleven sex work activists from all over the world in Amsterdam for the 5th year of the Red Umbrella Fund’s application review process. Now I sit on the plane home and reflect on the process.

Widespread panic

There was a request from an African country where the HIV prevalence among sex workers is over 50%. The request was to fund the only national sex worker organization in that country. This proposal brought back memories…

It took me back to a sad time in the ‘90s when HIV prevalence was over 30% in the general population. Although there was no data to determine the number of sex workers infected at that time, BHESP put the figure to over 60% in Nairobi among bar hostesses and sex workers. An entire bar lost all her hostesses and other girls. The story was the same in bar after bar. There was widespread panic and desperation.

Sitting in the room with all these activists, selected to participate as a representative of African sex workers for this fund, I feel I must make a case for this proposal. Surely this is why this great fund was formed, to respond to the cries of such women who suffer so much, unsupported and unrecognized?

PAC

Photo: PAC members reviewing applications

So many proposals

But there are so many excellent proposals from all over the world. From sex workers who use drugs, sex workers locked up in prisons, migrant sex workers and even refugee sex workers. Proposals are from women, men and transgender sex workers. We reviewed proposals from local grassroots groups to regional networks.

Some of the organizations are responding to violence and gaps in access to health. Many of them have only been exposed to HIV programs and are not aware of the kind of support, the core funding, available from the Red Umbrella Fund. So many base their request on HIV commodities and services only. Many sex workers do not yet understand that there can be an organization like the Red Umbrella Fund that just wants to support you as an activist sex worker organization.

A funder that accepts and respects sex worker organizations for what they are. Yes really, no crazy targets here! You can use the money to pay rent and to grow your organization.

Some groups were created just one month earlier while others have more than 30 years of history.  Each PAC member is allocated a set of proposals to score prior to the meeting. Having scored earlier on what I thought were very good proposals, I am faced with even better proposals, compelling cases and persuasive advocates.

Amazing people

I’ve learned a lot from these proposals but even more from the other PAC members. Each one of them is an expert, knowledgeable, experienced and passionate to a fault. We debate everything from Brexit to new laws against sex work. The feelings and opinions are as strong as these amazing people.

I am honored indeed to be in the PAC with an Italian colleague who explains to me how the red umbrella, now adopted as the symbol of sex workers all over the world, came into being in Italy. Grazie to the sex workers’ rights activists in Italy.

Cover the world with red umbrellas

We laugh, argue and score amazing groups, some very local groups, others working at national or regional levels. It is clear that some proposals are well thought out and articulated. They speak to the level of organizing and capacity but also to preparedness and time spent on the proposals. These must surely be rewarded. But we also keep in mind that in many countries English may be a third language or not applicable at all. The entire proposal may have been translated by Mr Google. We all know how that goes! We know the realities of sex worker activism and the challenges of putting together a quality proposal. Our scoring will not be based on just perfect wording and presentation.

The last day is tough because excellent and deserving proposals will need to be left out, due to scarcity of resources and… no other reason.

We seek some form of regional balance in the final selection. The fund is not called the Red Umbrella Fund for nothing; we must cover the world of sex workers!

As I sit on the plane, I reflect on the many things I have learned in my first time as a reviewer of this great fund. I reflect on the huge responsibility bestowed upon me as a PAC member. Among this is the responsibility to be fair and true, to give a chance to thousands of sex workers and their groups to rise in a world that is determined to push them down. A world that sees sex workers as criminals, illegals, or victims. We are determined to uphold our mantra:

Sex work is work.

By Peninah Mwangi, member of the Red Umbrella Fund’s Programme Advisory Committee (PAC)