24 Oct

Red Umbrella Fund: Who Gets to Choose?

Minerva5

This blog was written by Minerva Valenzuela, our Programme Advisory Committee member based in Mexico City. It was initially published in Spanish at the feminist collaborative blog Harén de Nadie. Minerva is a sex workers’ rights advocate and peer reviewed two grant-making rounds of the Red Umbrella Fund. In this blog she shares her excitement and experience in supporting the growing and showing sex workers’ rights movement!

In 2001, there was a huge exhibition at the 49th  Venice Biennale to discuss Sex Workers’ Rights. It included film screenings, roundtables, theatre, performances, personal testimonies and other initiatives, including a demonstration with megaphones, blankets and many red umbrellas to attract the attention of passers-by and make them watch it.

It was a powerful and beautiful image and in 2005 the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe adopted the red umbrella as a symbol of resistance. The global community liked it and since then most groups and organizations related to sex work use it.

Minerva1Nowadays, the red umbrella is the international symbol for sex workers’ strength and unity, as well as for their struggle against stigma and for their rights and the recognition they deserve.

In 2006, sex workers, foundations, donors, human rights experts and other international (and moneyed) institutions embarked on a dialogue that was to conclude only in 2012 with the creation of the Red Umbrella Fund, the first global fund led by and for sex workers.

I learned about the existence of the Red Umbrella Fund during the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival that took place in Calcutta, India, in 2012. It was one of those things that changes the way in which your brain works. That sets something in motion that leads to completely changing your way of thinking.

What I realized was that, if money is power, why don’t we change power dynamics within organizations and foundations? If money is power, then we should democratize control over money. The money aimed at “aiding” social movements related to sex work should be distributed by sex workers and not by who knows who. Who is going to know best which projects can bring effective change to the different sex workers’ communities? Sex workers themselves or the head of a “socially responsible” transnational corporation with money to donate? Sex workers or a woman who wants to “help” them because she sees them as passive, helpless, and victimized, and if they claim to be anything different, well, it’s their false consciousness speaking…?

The Red Umbrella Fund was born out of these ideas and in its first year it received 1147 applications. Many more have been coming in every year, with fantastic and very diverse projects.

All these beautiful projects tell us something very important: that there is a global movement of people engaged in sex work. It works in an informed and organized way. Its members know about law, health, digital safety, video editing, advocacy, self-defence, graphic design, civil disobedience and even nail polish – and when they don’t know, they get advice from those who do.

This saves us from many pages and hours of groundless discourses about sex workers being passive, helpless, victimized and speaking from their false consciousness if they claim to be otherwise. What a relief! Because when invited to write or speak about sex work this is what worries me the most: that a feminist will approach me in an evil way to explain to me that this is how I am.

This is my second year as a member of the Programme Advisory Committee of the Red Umbrella Fund and I am more in love than ever with the projects I have to assess. Each of them shows specific skills for something, creativity, strategies, team work and, of course, each one responds to its specific context. It is not the same to do sex work in Uganda as it is to do it in China or in Bolivia. Each location has its own particularities, its laws, its gaps and its stories. But there is something that runs through all the projects and that is the fact that stigma is what is bringing the most trouble to sex workers everywhere. None is spared. All the groups and organizations are searching for what to do so that sex workers stop being subjected to mockery, social and police harassment, and being forced to remain underground to preserve their safety and their lives.

It’s unbelievable, right?

Who would do something like that? Who would contribute a bit every day to encourage stigma against sex workers? Cough, cough.

Who says “son of a bitch” to refer to someone despicable? What lies behind this is: Nothing is lower than a whore, worse if she is a mother, and worst if she is your mother.

What is so terrible about mothers who are sex workers and their children?

Minerva2

Photo: This dress belongs to the Barbie of a daughter of a sex worker. This girl likes to dance and to put her hands under fountains.

 

 

 

 

Minerva3

 

 

 

Photo: This kid’s truck was parked in a street where sex workers work. One of them loves the pozole (maize stew) his father cooks. The other one likes small dogs.

 

Are all of you fine? Has anybody fainted after being virtually in touch with sex workers who are mothers and with their children?

But, going back to the Red Umbrella Fund, I encourage all sex workers who are reading this to organize themselves in groups, collectives, organizations. And when you decide to submit a proposal to the Red Umbrella Fund, I would be delighted to advise you. I would love to see a proposal from my country, Mexico, among all those jewels!

By Minerva Valenzuela, Programme Advisory Committee member of the Red Umbrella Fund

*This text was made available in English thanks to Alejandra Sarda.