21 Dic

SCOT-PEP Reaches Next Milestone

… On Road to End Violence Against Sex Workers

For the first time in the history of the sixteen-year-old Scottish Parliament, a bill  developed in conjunction with sex worker led organisations is being discussed. On November 10, 2015, eight panellists, three Members of the Scottish Parliament and over fifty other interested activists, constituents, and community members gathered at the Scottish Parliament for a public meeting on the Proposed Prostitution Law Reform (Scotland) Bill.

parliament hearing_scotland2015

Parliament member Jean Urguhart standing in between the other panellists from sex worker organisations and universities.

In recent years, the political scene has been dominated by attempts to bring the Swedish model, which criminalises the clients of sex workers but not the act of sex work itself, to Scotland. The current official government policy toward sex work, “Safer Lives, Changed Lives”, views all sex work as violence against women and degrading to the position of all women.

Legal but Restricted

The actual exchange of sex for money is legal in Scotland, but criminal laws against soliciting, brothel-keeping and kerb-crawling make it almost impossible to sell sex without breaking the law. The ways these laws are enforced endanger and marginalise sex workers. Kate Hardy, a panellist at the public meeting and lecturer at Leeds University, recalled that when she first came to Scotland, she found that sex workers were more hidden and isolated than perhaps anywhere else she had done research previously.

The ultimate goal of the proposed bill is to decriminalise sex work by repealing laws prohibiting soliciting, kerb-crawling, and brothel-keeping and to begin regulating sex work in the same way as other forms of labour. The recent public meeting at Parliament was an important step in this process, and towards ending the stigma surrounding sex work.

SCOT-PEP’s History

SCOT-PEP has been around since 1989, originally as a service provider funded by the government-backed local health board. However, their recent push for decriminalisation was not ignited until after the organisation lost this government funding and developed a new identity as an advocacy organisation. After successfully preventing the most recent attempt to introduce the Swedish model in 2013, the organisation was galvanised by an influx of new activists and established its sex worker led Campaign Group to direct its decision making process. As experts in their own needs, sex workers themselves are the most important voices in determining policy that will remedy the effects of years of policy and regulation that has been damaging for sex workers created by people who have silenced the voices of sex workers by speaking on their behalf.

Embarking on the Path to ‘Decrim’

SCOT-PEP activists came together to formulate the next goal of the organisation: decriminalisation. Even for the board members, at the time decriminalisation seemed like an impossible goal. Nonetheless activists submitted their plan to the Red Umbrella Fund to conduct a public campaign for decriminalisation and challenging of the stigma, community outreach, community-based research, and alliance building, all of which would eventually culminate in a bill.

SCOT-PEP then gathered as many sex workers as it could reach for a “Decriminalisation Day” to discuss what a bill decriminalising sex work could look like. From that day, all its activities would contribute to this central aim. Some of the ingredients to success have been the focus on creating a series of evidence-based briefing papers, identifying a strong ally within the Scottish Parliament (in the form of Jean Urquhart) who provides access into the parliamentary system, and activating the support of peers and allies (including the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective to the English Collective of Prostitutes). Board members of SCOT-PEP describe the Parliamentary meeting as a marker representing the empowerment of sex workers’ voices inside the walls of Parliament that shows the shift in public perception and stigma. Historically, such stigma would have prevented SCOT-PEP from getting a foot in the door in the first place.

Effects of the Law on the Lives of Sex Workers

Decriminalisation represents a harm-reduction approach to sex work. While activists recognise that a bill in itself will not end the violence and stigma against sex workers, they also recognise that the current regime of criminalisation and regulation surrounding sex work is detrimental to the health and safety of sex workers. Laws prohibiting soliciting and kerb-crawling force sex workers to spend less time negotiating with their clients and work in isolated locations away from the police. Brothel-keeping laws prohibit sex workers from working with even one other person for safety and other laws criminalise relatives for living off income made through sex work. After the passage of the kerb-crawling law in 2007, SCOT-PEP identified a 95% increase in violence against sex workers. Furthermore, sex workers have become less likely to report crimes to police for fear of being prosecuted or not being taken seriously. Violent offenders against sex workers are aware of the stigma and know that sex workers are vulnerable targets.

Interestingly, panellists before the Scottish Parliament at the public meeting rarely even mentioned sex work. They identified more pressing issues in the lives of sex workers, such as their inability to find work that can pay bills and feed their children in a state that is consistently reducing benefits due to austerity measures. Niki Adams from the English Collective of Prostitutes directed attention to policies related to students trying to pay for school, single mothers, and migrants who face racism and discrimination in other forms of employment as being key to addressing prostitution policy.

Time for Evidence-Based Policy

Evidence-based research has reached a consensus that decriminalisation is the logical step to end violence against sex workers. Legal structures that criminalise sex work have little impact on the number of people working in the industry but rather displace sex workers and make them invisible. This makes it much harder for them to access healthcare and other services. Nadine Stott, a panellist and co-chair of SCOT-PEP, argued for legislation that will allow sex workers themselves to make the determination of what is and what isn’t violence against sex workers and empower sex workers to hold managers accountable to laws designed by sex workers themselves. Until pragmatic, progressive proposals developed with sex workers at the center of the decision making process are adopted, legislators risk adopting policy that further marginalises the most vulnerable groups of sex works and increases the violence against sex workers.

SCOT-PEP’s efforts to build coalitions, navigate the legal process and bring awareness to the situation in Scotland have been an important step in eliminating the everyday violence that sex workers face.

About the Author
Seth Lauer is a student researcher who volunteered with the Red Umbrella Fund during his Fall 2015 semester abroad through the School of International Training. He researched and documented the techniques, strategies and experiences of SCOT-PEP volunteers to determine which advocacy practices are most effective for creating social and legal change. He studied the work of SCOT-PEP through archival research, attended the public meeting before Parliament, and met with SCOT-PEP board members in November. His thesis will be linked here upon completion.

15 Dic

In Loving Memory of Elena Tsukerman

Nuestro recuerdo cariñoso para Elena Tsukerman

Desde el Fondo Paraguas Rojo hacemos llegar nuestro más sincero pésame por la pérdida de Elena Tsukerman, o Lena como la conocíamos, a su familia, amistades, colegas y compañer*s de activismo. Nos conmovió enterarnos de su fallecimiento repentino y la pérdida de esta activista fuerte y profundamente comprometida, que no aceptaba un «no» como respuesta, nos causó una enorme tristeza.

Elena with red umbrella

En 2012, Lena se sumó al Comité Coordinador Internacional (ISC en inglés), principal organismo de toma de decisiones dentro del Fondo Paraguas Rojo, de alcance global. En estos últimos tres años y medio, se destacó por su dedicación para apoyar procesos organizativos de trabajador*s sexuales y representar sus intereses. Utilizó todas las oportunidades que pudo para dar mayor visibilidad a las necesidades de l*s trabajador*s sexuales en su país y en general en su región, pero también estuvo siempre abierta a aprender de activistas y aliad*s de todo el mundo y vincularse con ell*s.

Celebramos haber tenido la oportunidad de trabajar y relacionarnos con ella más allá de nuestras diversidades geográficas, culturales e idiomáticas.

Elena, siempre te recordaremos en nuestros corazones y en nuestro activismo.

Mensajes de integrantes del ISC y del personal del Fondo Paraguas Rojo:

«Me entristece la muerte de mi buena amiga e integrante del Comité Coordinador Internacional del Fondo Paraguas Rojo. Vamos a extrañar las preguntas que solías hacernos. Esta es una gran pérdida para la organización Legallife y también para l*s trabajador*s sexuales de todo el mundo. Tu legado permanecerá en nuestros corazones.»
– John Mathenge, integrante del ISC- Fondo Paraguas Rojo, HOYMAS

«Elena fue una persona positiva y una integrante comprometida del ISC. Una verdadera luchadora por los derechos de l*s trabajador*s sexuales. Siempre me decía: ‘Voy a aprender a hablar inglés. Hay tantas cosas que quiero decir, pero en este momento me faltan las palabras’»
– Miriam Edwards, integrante del ISC- Fondo Paraguas Rojo, Guyana Sex Work Coalition & Caribbean Sex Worker Coalition

«Elena fue una mujer llena de energía. Si no estaba segura del impacto que algo podía tener para l*s trabajador*s sexuales, no lo dejaba pasar. Fue una suerte para el ISC que Elena representara a Europa del Este. Siempre estuvo muy comprometida y asumió a fondo la responsabilidad de dar a conocer su región y hacer que le prestaran atención. Elena: trabajaste tanto… es hora de que descanses un poco … duerme mucho … descansa bien … ¡te vamos a extrañar mucho!»
– Noi Apisuk, integrante del ISC- Fondo Paraguas Rojo, EMPOWER Foundation

“La vida es tan corta, y más todavía cuando la que nos dice adiós es una persona en la flor de la vida. Es casi increíble, me cuesta creerlo, pero se fue nuestra compañera Elena. Tu partida de este mundo deja una huella muy honda porque fuiste una verdadera luchadora. Recogeremos en todo el mundo las semillas que dejaste sembradas. Te amamos y vamos a recordarte siempre, Elena Tsukerman”.
– Ana Luz Mamani, integrante del ISC- Fondo Paraguas Rojo, Mujeres del Sur

“Haber perdido a una compañera es un golpe fuerte y nos entristece profundamente. Sus esfuerzos por llamar la atención sobre lo que les ocurre a las mujeres y sobre todo a las trabajadoras sexuales durante las guerras y los conflictos es algo en lo que he estado pensando recientemente. Como activista, hizo incidencia a partir de sus principios, con pasión y siempre abierta a colaborar, y su aporte fue valioso en cuanto lograr que el ISC no dejara de tener presente que nuestras decisiones afectan una misión que es importante y también vidas concretas. Estoy azorado”.
– Javid Syed, integrante del ISC- Fondo Paraguas Rojo, American Jewish World Service (AJWS)

“Lena hizo activismo con todo su ser. Nunca tuvo miedo de decirle la verdad a quienes tienen poder o de cuestionar el estatus quo, y tenía un fuerte sentido de la justicia. Pero también era muy cálida, amable y divertida; utilizaba su sentido del humor y su capacidad de empatía para tender puentes por encima de las diferencias idiomáticas y culturales. Con enorme dedicación, promovió los derechos humanos de las trabajadoras sexuales en Ucrania y en su región en general, y utilizó su plataforma para difundir las voces de esas trabajadoras siempre que le fue posible. Muchas veces fue la ‘pacificadora’, la voz pragmática y la que marcaba el tono moral en el Comité Coordinador Internacional. Lena: te vamos a extrañar profundamente”.
– Heather Benjamin, integrante del ISC- Fondo Paraguas Rojo, Open Society Foundations

“Lena fue una comprometida integrante del ISC que asumió sus responsabilidades y nunca le tuvo miedo a las discusiones difíciles. Este año lideró el proceso de elaboración del primer Código Ético del Fondo Paraguas Rojo que nos ayudará a fortalecer nuestra infraestructura y a garantizar que continuamos siendo transparentes y rindiendo cuentas. Durante nuestras reuniones y en las charlas individuales, se comunicaba de maneras directas que a veces podían parecer duras pero también con mucha calidez, con risas y con cariño. Vamos a extrañar a Lena como trabajadora sexual que también era activista y como líder del ISC y del movimiento de trabajador*s sexuales en general.”
– Nadia van der Linde, Coordinadora, Fondo Paraguas Rojo

“Viendo qué rápido y con qué poca ceremonia, la vida llega a su fin, quiero agradecerle a Olena por todo lo que me enseñó sobre el movimiento de trabajador*s sexuales y sobre el mundo. Tuve la suerte de trabajar con ella muchas veces, inclusive en Ucrania. Con ella aprendí que el idioma no es una barrera cuando hay una meta en común. Yo la podía sentir y muchas veces me sorprendía ver cómo podíamos comunicarnos en persona y a través del traductor de Google. Aunque tuvimos nuestras diferencias, siempre supe que Olena luchaba por algo que era correcto. Fue una activista sincera y admirable. La fuerza de su voz nos va a hacer falta y su lucha siempre conmoverá nuestros corazones”.
– Dennis van Wanrooij, Asistente de Programas, Fondo Paraguas Rojo


ISC meeting 2015

Elena (izquierda) durante la reunion del ISC en Amsterdam, Abril 2015

Elena with Red Umbrella Fund

15 Dic

In solidarity with Kemal Ördek

Last week, Kemal Ordek, a trans* sex worker and the head of Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association, a Red Umbrella Fund grantee-partner, was assaulted and raped in their home in Ankara, Turkey. The Red Umbrella Fund is concerned that these criminal acts are not being taken seriously enough by the Turkish authorities.

The story of Kemal Ordek is not unique. It is the story of many people in the sex worker community around the world. Violence and impunity for this violence are fuelled by laws and social norms that fail to respect the fundamental human rights of sex workers and trans* people. Police corruption further exacerbates the problem.

In Kemal’s own words:

“What I will tell you is not a simple robbery case. It’s not a mere rape case either. This is the story of a series of events that could possibly end in murder. It is a story of the apathy and the denial and ignorance that come after—the story of the surrounding paralysis of a lonely sex worker and an LGBTI.”

Kemal’s case sheds light on several injustices and abuses regularly experienced by those in the trans* sex worker community in Turkey – at the work place, in the streets or even in their homes. It also calls into question the effectiveness of national laws and policies that should be combatting violence, reducing vulnerability and ensuring universal access to rights and justice for sex workers and trans* people. There is no justice if justice isn’t accessible to all.

It’s time to end violence, stigma and discrimination against sex workers and trans* people. We urge the Turkish authorities to take violations against trans* sex workers seriously by conducting a thorough investigation, led by and focused on supporting Kemal’s human rights. In addition, we urge for better laws and policies to protect sex workers and trans* people in Turkey.

Read full story:



17 Abr

Exploring the How and Why of Participatory Grantmaking

The very first session of the funders’ Working Group on Participatory Grantmaking was organised at the International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG) meeting in San Francisco on 28 January 2015. While we had prepared to welcome just a handful of interested colleagues from peer foundations, we were instead welcomed by a room filled with around forty grantmakers and philanthropic advisers. Participatory grantmaking seems to be ‘hot and happening’ on the West Coast. The audience represented a diverse spectrum of grantmakers varying from peer-led participatory funds, to grantmakers with some experience involving communities or grantees in some grantmaking processes, to more traditional funds that do not involve communities or grantees in their grantmaking at all. What participants had in common was an interest to learn more about: the how of participatory grantmaking, seeking to explore diverse models and options as well as the why of participatory grantmaking, looking for the arguments to convince managers, boards or trustees to potentially “do something more in that direction” in the future.

About the Working Group

The Working Group on Participatory Grantmaking was created in 2014 with two key objectives:

  1. to build a community of practice to share and increase effectiveness of participatory grantmaking models; and
  2. to encourage other grantmakers to increase the involvement of the community the intend to reach in their practices.

The session at the IHRFG meeting was organised by three distinct participatory and peer-led funders: Disability Rights Fund, which involves persons with disabilities in their grantmaking processes and provides grants to Disabled Persons Organisations in the developing world; Red Umbrella Fund, a collaborative peer-led fund launched in 2012 that supports sex worker-led groups and networks worldwide; and Wikimedia Foundation, the largest known participatory grantmaker that supports initiatives that promote free access to information as a human right.


An important catalyst for these participatory grantmakers to come together to set up this Working Group has been a research by The Lafayette Practice in 2014 comparing the operations of eight international participatory grantmakers.

The report finds that the funds, regardless of the focus of their specific missions, share a belief that people impacted by the fund’s programme should be involved in decision making on allocation of grants. Not only because there is a common belief that it will actually lead to better results but also because that involvement in itself is believed to be important to achieve the social change the respective funds seek to achieve. The researchers encourage additional research on the effectiveness of participatory grantmaking and the possibilities for reproduction and moving to scale of existing models.

Changing power relations

In his paper called “Beauty and the Beast” Michael Edwards explores a diversity of funding models – not limited to philanthropy – and experiments that have the potential to not only fund local activists and groups but also change the power relations that surround money. And that is an essential ingredient to tackle the root causes of poverty and discrimination and contribute to lasting social change. Andrea Armeni, Executive Director of Transform Finance, added his experiences with participatory or community-led impact investing and how that relates to participatory grantmaking. Impact investing is about giving not a grant but a loan or investment (which is expected to have also financial returns) with the explicit intention of reaching social or environmental impact. Transform Finance fosters a social justice approach to impact investing that rests on deep community engagement around co-design and shared ownership that creates more value than it extracts from communities.

By sharing our experiences and evidence that community involvement works, we can benefit from and support each other across the philanthropic and investment sectors.

Recommendations from an impact investor

Andrea argued that exploring hybrid models of grantmaking instead of considering them in isolation may be the most effective strategy for change: in some cases,  a combination of a grant and a loan or investment might actually be most relevant and effective. Concretely, Andrea recommended funders to:

  • Embrace the ‘nothing about us without us’ principle in all you do;
  • Consider participation an investment in the success of a project, not a cost, and push for a view of participation that goes beyond mere consultation;
  • Improve transparency of decisions and provide feedback to groups that are declined for funding;
  • Consider including community members on investment committees of your board (for large foundations that have capital to invest);
  • Appreciate that participatory grantmaking and participatory investing represent continuums along which you can select what fits best for you at a certain period of time.

It clearly is time to invest more in participatory grantmaking.   By Nadia van der Linde, Red Umbrella Fund

This blog is a slightly adapted version of the blog by the same author published by IHRFG (here)

02 Mar

OTS: Mapping Human Rights Violations Against Sex Workers in El Salvador

The Red Umbrella Fund grantee Organización de Trabajadoras del Sexo (OTS) in El Salvador mapped the situation of sex workers and documented the human rights violations they experience. This strategy has resulted in an effective model for legal empowerment and rights advocacy.

OTS implemented a national mapping of the situation of sex workers through self-led community meetings, workshops and in-site visits across the country in 2014. The objective of the mapping was to investigate the current situation of women sex workers in various cities and in a variety of sectors (outdoor and indoor) and settings (street, parks, bars, nightclubs, brothels). campa+¦a 5 Photo: OTS «Sex workers have a say as any other women»

Organising for Change

Sex workers created OTS in 2004 to address discrimination, abuse and violence against sex workers at work, within their families, and in society in general. To meet its objectives, OTS educates the general public about sex workers’ rights and provides peer support and HIV prevention information to women sex workers working on the streets and in parks in 15 municipalities. OTS’s advocacy strategy focuses on legal and policy reform for the recognition of sex work as work and the right of sex workers to be free from violence, stigma and discrimination. Through its networking and advocacy efforts, OTS recently became active in political spaces that had previously excluded sex workers, especially policy dialogue round tables with municipal authorities.

Negative Legal Environment

In El Salvador, municipalities apply public order laws, which impose administrative fines on individuals engaged in sex work. Some municipalities also fine the clients of sex workers. At the national level, the law does not actually criminalise sex work itself, but all activities related to sex work, such living off the earnings of sex work, are prohibited. In addition, the law prohibits organised prostitution. These laws create a hostile work environment for outdoor and indoor sex workers and increase their vulnerability to violence and abuse.

OTS opposes any form of legal oppression of sex workers and confronts policy makers to review these laws in light of the evidence that the laws contribute to or cause human rights violations and abuses.

Mapping the Situation

Although OTS, an organisation led by sex workers themselves, already knew that sex workers were experiencing human rights violations, the group decided to collect evidence documenting the human rights abuses to more effectively influence the policy debate and counteract the current norms and practices. Over the course of several months, OTS collected information on the situation of sex workers in different cities, sectors and settings through in-person visits.

These face-to-face visits strengthened the connections between sex workers in rural and distant areas and allowed OTS to assess the situation of the most marginalised groups.

The mapping allowed OTS to engage with different communities of sex workers and gain understanding of the structural barriers that put sex workers at risk of violence and abuse. The mapping highlighted the diversity of sex work sectors and settings in El Salvador and the characteristics and specific problems they faced. This self-reflection led to the legal empowerment of these communities. Sex workers became aware of their rights and started to demand them at the local and national levels.

Key Findings

Social stigma and an adverse legal environment create a wide range of barriers negatively impacting the ability of sex workers to enjoy their human rights. The following summary of OTS’s mapping report identifies the challenges and obstacles experienced by sex workers in the country. SAM_1771 Photo: Sex worker protest organised by OTS Legal and Policy Environment

  • Most municipalities penalise the selling and/or buying of sexual services. Those municipalities that do not directly penalise sex workers and their clients often create isolated sex work zones, far from schools and churches, instead of safe working spaces for sex workers.
  • The police often arrest women sex workers if they do not have money to pay fines.
  • Police arbitrarily apply municipal ordinances. Some municipalities that do not prohibit sex work, in practice, use public order laws from other municipalities to penalise sex workers.
  • Anti-trafficking laws pose a severe risk to sex workers’ safety and working conditions, particularly those who work indoors.

Health and Support Services

  • Discriminatory and judgmental attitudes of public health workers threaten sex workers’ ability to seek health services and support.
  • HIV/STI clinics, also known in El Salvador as clínicas vicits, do not provide integral health services for sex workers.
  • HIV test results are often not available until one month after the date of the test and sex workers have experienced and documented breaches of confidentiality. In some cases, the sex workers’ health status was disclosed to the police and their clients. This exacerbates stigma against sex workers and violates their human right to health.
  • Municipalities arbitrarily require street-based sex workers to provide health certificates to the police, despite the absence of any law imposing this requirement.
  • Municipalities require that, as a condition of granting a business license (to a bar, disco, etc.), the owner has to disclose the health certificates of sex workers to the police. This practice, which lacks any legal basis, fosters coerced sexual health testing of sex workers.
  • Most sex workers were unaware of their rights and do not know where to seek support.
  • Social services available in the country are not tailored for sex workers, and most of them address only women’s issues generally.

Family Life

  • Some sex workers are abused or violated by their partners, but they rarely receive adequate support from public institutions. Sex workers do not trust the police and the police fail to address violence committed against sex workers.
  • In some cases, sex workers have also lost their children in court and/or have not received social benefits due to their profession.

Building Allies to Achieve Change

Based on these findings, OTS publicly raised the issue of human rights violations against sex workers, especially violations perpetrated by law enforcement.

As part of its effort to influence the policy debate , OTS expanded its external allies and jointly advocated before public institutions.

OTS partnered with FESPAD (Foundation for Research on Legal Application) and ISDEMU (Salvadorian Institute for Women Development) on a research project examining the legal situation and impact of the laws on sex workers in the country. The main outcomes of the research were a detailed analysis on why sex work should be decriminalised and a proposed law decriminalising sex work. Results from the mapping report were used in the analysis. OTS has also worked with national and local governmental organisations, such as the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights (PDDH), the Office of the Public Prosecutor, the National Civil Police (PCN) and Municipal Security Forces (CAM). OTS established connections with these public institutions in different municipalities across the country through advocacy letters and round tables for policy dialogue. Additionally, OTS engaged actively with the feminist platform Prudencia Ayala and the LGBT group Fraternidad sin Fronteras, a group that specifically supports trans* sex workers.


The legal empowerment of sex workers’ was the greatest achievement of OTS’s strategy of mapping the situation of sex workers and documenting human rights abuses. The participatory and grassroots focused research methodology used improved the group’s advocacy skills, as sex workers learned to demand their rights more effectively. OTS contributed to the strengthening of the national sex worker movement, engaged new allies and documented human rights violations against sex workers, which the organisation used to influence the legal and policy environment in the country. Although the barriers remain huge, OTS has proven that sex workers communities can mobilise with limited resources and capacity. They will continue to do so until sex workers are recognised as workers and as people with rights. By Dennis van Wanrooij, Red Umbrella Fund 

16 Dic

Funding needed to end violence against sex workers

Each year on 17 December, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, sex worker rights activists and their allies come together to remember the colleagues they have lost and bring attention to the need to end the stigma, discrimination and violence against sex workers. It is time for more funders to speak out in solidarity and provide more and better funding.


Sex workers around the world face high levels of stigma, discrimination and violence. In many countries, sex workers have organised themselves to speak out against the injustices they face and demand that sex work be recognised as work and that sex workers be recognised as persons before the law. Many sex workers are human rights defenders who reach out for support and solidarity and advocate for legal and policy changes that will improve the well being of the women, men and trans people active in the sex industry.

“Sex workers tell me they are fed up with being seen as victims. Sex workers do often get exploited. Not because it is inherently part of the job, but because their work is criminalised and their working conditions unsafe. This feeds stigma and discrimination and hinders their access to health, social services, and justice,”

says Nadia van der Linde, Coordinator of the Red Umbrella Fund which aims to support sex worker-led organisations to stand up for their rights and strengthen their movement(s).

But in order to make lasting social change the organisations that mobilize and voice the concerns and demands of sex workers need resources. To pay for meetings, trainings, research and materials. And although foundation funding for human rights has grown in the past years, the funding that supports organisations to stand up for the human rights of sex workers is still minimal. If we want to end violence against women, end the spread of HIV, end gender discrimination and labour exploitation, then sex worker rights organisations must be supported to speak up and invited to share their solutions.

In 2014, the Red Umbrella Fund partnered with Mama Cash and the Open Society Foundations to commission a mapping of global grantmaking for sex worker rights by public and private foundations and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The researchers contacted foundations and organisations working with sex workers to better understand what is being funded and to identify the main gaps.

They identified 56 foundations and NGOs that altogether invested a total of €8 million (US$11 million) in support of sex worker rights in 2013.

This may sound like a lot to an individual organisation but it is just a fraction of overall spending on development and human rights. Most organisations working in support of sex worker rights are small; 53% of organisations receiving funding to support sex worker rights have budgets of less than €50 000 (US$68 500) per year and many organisations have no income at all. Volunteer work and in-kind or individual contributions play an important role in the sex worker rights movement.

“The political struggle against criminalisation, the battle against violence done to us, the work of building organisational structures to link us and support us better – these are long-term efforts that need sustained steady financing”
– Sex worker organisation from Latin America, survey response

Because sex work is criminalised in many and stigmatized in all countries, organisations that speak out against the violence and exploitation experienced by sex workers and for improved access to health services for sex workers have a hard time getting funding from their government.

Foundation funding is crucial to support the human rights of sex workers and help build the movement.

  • Read the full report and infographic here.

  • Read the article «Sex workers missing out on development funds» published by The Guardian here.
10 Nov

Sisonke Durban: Sex workers in South Africa claim their human rights

Thuli Khoza, Coordinator of Sisonke Durban and member of the Red Umbrella Fund’s peer review panel in 2014, speaks to Zoe Bakker about the daily work involved with being a regional branch of South Africa’s sex worker movement. Specifically, she shares important insights in the unique context of the Durban and KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) area and the successes and struggles of their work.


Created just over ten years ago, Sisonke calls itself the National Sex Worker Movement of South Africa. With its headquarters in Cape town, the organisation has used the core support from the Red Umbrella Fund (2012 – 2013 grantee) to expand its network to seven provinces, strengthen its organisational and network structures, and plan towards independence. Sisonke provides information to sex workers on accessing social services, such as health care, and on working with the police and court system. The group offers workshops on sexual health, leadership and human rights and advocates for the decriminalization of sex work. Sisonke Durban – one of five branches of South Africa’s sex worker movement Sisonke – is situated in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). KZN is South Africa’s second largest province with over 20 million residents, hosting nearly twenty percent of South Africa’s population. Durban, the largest city of KZN, situated on the East Coast of South Africa, is home to nearly 3.5 million people. As every city and every province in South Africa has their unique traits, so does Durban and so does KZN.

“Each province has their own story to tell. Some of them are similar, some of them are very different. With me having been around in five provinces already in South Africa, I have found that all provinces are different in their own way. In Johannesburg you will find a lot of brothels and you find sex workers everywhere, whereas in Durban they are mostly on the streets and in private houses and massage parlours.”

For the sex worker movement this means that these unique contexts call for unique approaches in the various regions, which is one of the reasons that Sisonke National decided to expand and set up branches to be visible in various provinces. Creative Spaces The core of Sisonke Durban’s activities are the monthly Creative Spaces, where sex workers come together and talk about issues they face in their work, as well as issues in their personal lives at home with their families. These creative spaces offer an opportunity for sex workers to openly discuss topics of their interest. Every month, a different theme is taken up for discussion, ranging from strategies on how to deal with discrimination and violence to debates regarding alcohol and substance abuse. Over the past one-and-a-half years, since Sisonke Durban’s inception, peer educators and paralegals at Sisonke have gained the trust of the sex workers in their community. They see their empowerment efforts paying off: women sex workers are increasingly standing up for themselves, facing police violence. They have now expanded their work to other parts of the province as well.

“KZN is big. It was high time that we moved to the next city, the next place, so that we do not only focus on Durban, because there are sex workers everywhere. This is beneficial, as many sex workers throughout KZN have heard of Sisonke’s work, but have not yet had the opportunity to meet Sisonke’s peer educators and participate in the Creative Spaces.”

Stigma and violence Sex work is illegal in South Africa. Also clients of sex workers are criminalized. As a result, levels of stigma and violence against sex workers are high.

“As sex work is illegal in South Africa, the police do whatever they want to us, and that leaves us in a vulnerable situation where anyone just takes advantage. People who are involved in crime, like robbers, drug dealers, take advantage of that situation.”

Sex workers are unable to report the crimes and violence against them as they will be questioned extensively as to what they were doing and why they were there in the first place. Photo Sisonke Durban Ourtimeisnow The challenges Sisonke Durban have to deal with to address the violence against sex workers can be intense.

“We have had two major incidents with white dominated communities… I remember this one experience, where we tried our best to have a dialogue with the residents in an area where sex workers work and it turned out to be a very bad dialogue… it became a big issue, with fights and with us being chased away.”

Thuli further describes that residents neighbouring the areas where sex workers are active, had started writing down the number plates of clients, which “obviously is bad for business”. Residents claimed that the clients do not reside in the area but come from far away. However, as Thuli states:

“Sex workers work where there is a demand. If there is no demand, they will not be there.”

This conflict puts sex workers in a difficult situation, whereby violence and crime is seen to increase. HIV prevention Another challenge Sisonke Durban is facing illustrates the importance of sensitization when working with sex workers for HIV/Aids prevention purposes, which is particularly relevant for the KZN region where HIV prevalence is recorded to be the highest (37,4% in 2011) throughout South Africa. In recent times, there has been some crumbling of trust among sex workers that Sisonke Durban’s peer educators and paralegals have been working so hard to build. As Thuli explains, a relatively large amount of funding is currently going to organizations with HIV/Aids and TB prevention programmes. Many of these organizations have not worked with sex workers in this area before and have not been sensitized on how to work on sex worker issues. Feedback from sex workers illustrates that confidentiality is not always respected properly. Towards decriminalisation However, Thuli is hopeful. Sex work, as a sector, has recently been included within the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC), which strives to bring together government, civil society, and the private sector to create a collective response to HIV, tuberculosis (TB) and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in South Africa. Thuli is the representative for sex workers within the Council. With the launch of the national sex worker strategic plan last year,  even came out to state that they support the decriminalisation of sex work. Thuli concludes:

“We are going somewhere, slowly but surely. Everything is written but not yet practiced.”

By Zoe Bakker for the Red Umbrella Fund

An adapted version of this blog is published by HIV Advocates here.

29 May

Learning Visit Reflection: Beyond Victories – Funding Human Rights in Brazil

crossposted from the website of the International Human Rights Funders Group


IHRFG recently held a Learning Visit in Rio de Janeiro exploring the changing dynamics of human rights and global philanthropy in emerging economies. Over the coming weeks, IHRFG will share reflections from participants. Click here to read more lessons and join the conversation!

Contributed by Diana Stefanescu, Programme Associate, Red Umbrella Fund

As wealth increases in the so-called “emerging economies”, social, political and further economic development is expected to follow. However, as so often, reality is proving to be indefinitely more complex. What is development? How inclusive can it be? What is the place for human rights and human rights grantmaking in this context?

This year’s IHRFG Funder Learning visit to Rio de Janeiro explored the very junctures of interplay between economics, state power and philanthropy in Brazil. The three intense days of meeting local activists, peer funders, researchers and civil society organizers shed light on a multidimensionally unequal society, marked by both great achievements AND distressing shortcomings.

Brazil’s economic growth and state efforts in poverty reduction have brought great change to the country. A rising middle class concurred with a recovery from the “neoliberal” era of the 1990s and had the government regain its capacity to regulate. Minimum wage, affirmative action and the famous “bolsa familia”, a cash transfer program benefitting millions of the country’s poorest, have even reduced inequality in some ways. But the achievements came at a price and were sometimes accompanied by heavy drawbacks in other issue areas. The prolific re-primarization of the economy meant more mining, more exploitation of resources and increasingly high concentration of land property in Brazil. Neglected urban areas (mostly in the so-called favelas) were “pacified” by resorting to state violence and police brutality, leaving human rights considerations out of the equation.

Religious fundamentalism has had major influence on government institutions in which minorities (Afro-Brazilians, indigenous people) and women continue to be heavily underrepresented. Most investments in infrastructure that were to be realized in the run-up to the two big sport events (Football World Cup 2014 and Summer Olympics 2016) have not been implemented. And all this happened while civil society was grappling with managing the hopes raised by an assumed “friendly” progressive center-left government and the deceptions of international funders “fleeing” the scene. At closer examination, the victories seem to have been accompanied by distressing casualties in Brazilian society.

The dialogues and discussions in Rio de Janeiro made a central theme surface: the need for structural change and reform accompanying economic growth in Brazil.

Inclusive and sustainable development which is respectful of human rights is not an automatic consequence trickling down from economic growth.

The current Brazilian democracy is reasonably well-structured but very young – a mere 30 years have passed since the end of the dictatorship. Its civil society is in dire need of substantial support – not only in the light of the country’s strategic role as an emerging global power – but also because Brazilians are facing a critical timing for political and social action within.

The recent criminalization of protests illustrates the government’s inability to productively deal with contestation. In view of the upcoming Football World Cup, entire quarters in inner cities have been “cleaned up” – a development by which marginalized communities such as sex workers are touched most heavily.

During IHRFG’s visit to Rio, a local group of self-organized sex workers that cooperate closely with a grantee organization of the Red Umbrella Fund, was brutally arrested and abused in a large-scale police operation. Sex work is not actually illegal in the country but the violent crackdown was part of a downtown re-urbanization (hygienization) campaign.

This case illustrates well how right the timing was for a learning visit. It’s time to turn our attention beyond the economic victories, to where there’s plenty left to do for human rights funders in Brazil.

21 Abr

“Stop using condoms as evidence” say sex workers in China

Prostitution is illegal in China where sex workers experience regular police raids and forced detention in rehabilitation centres. As a result, women deal with unsafe and unhealthy working conditions and lack of access to health care, including HIV prevention.


The few programmes and services that actually reach sex workers in China mostly focus on addressing health concerns, especially those related to the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STI’s) and HIV.

“These NGOs can not relate to sex workers and their particular needs”, says Lanlan, the founder and head of Xin’ai, a community based support group for sex workers that received one of the Red Umbrella Fund’s first grants in 2012.

After the birth of her daughter in 2000, Lanlan herself turned to sex work to support her child and aging parents. The particular needs of sex workers motivated her to start an organisation in Tianjin that provides support for their unique needs. “We conduct outreach to sex workers, providing them with occupational safety training, health training and legal training”, she says. The mission of the organisation is centred on self-confidence, self-respect, and mutual support. Since its establishment, Xin’Ai has reached over 3000 sex workers in Northern China who have experienced various kinds of violence. Job options are limited in their region and many people lack formal education.

Sex workers work on the street but also in massage parlours, sex shops, and through escort services. Because the whole Xin’Ai staff has a background in sex work, they know how to approach sex workers and get in touch with new sex workers through their network and mouth-to-mouth information sharing. “The government has invested a large amount of money into the HIV prevention programmes for sex workers.

But low income sex workers usually work in secluded and scattered places where sanitation conditions are very poor and not easy to access to. Besides, not many sex workers work in the same place, usually just one to three people, thus making it difficult for CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] employees to access the low income sex workers population”, Lanlan says.

A recent report by Asia Catalyst highlights that fewer sex workers are using available health services provided by NGO’s, out of fear of exposure. Many sex workers mention not using condoms, the report states, because police use condoms as evidence for sex work.

In the name of “education” and “rescue,” large numbers of sex workers and their clients are detained for periods of six months to two years without any form of judicial oversight. During detention, the women are subjected to forced labour and compulsory testing for STI’s, while they are not informed of the results of the tests. Sex workers are even obliged to pay the costs of their incarceration. They are not given the opportunity to learn labor skills that might enhance their future job opportunities while, ironically, the detainment centres are officially called “Custody and Education Centers”. For many sex workers, the stigma surrounding sex work is daunting and the punishment is too harsh to risk exposure.

“I am aware that I might catch a disease if not using condoms”, one sex worker who recently tested positive for syphilis tells Lanlan, “but I don’t have a choice. The clients are unwilling to wear one and there is no time to drop them once a policeman comes to you. If I get caught, there is a six month detention waiting for me, long enough for my family to know what I am doing and I couldn’t carry on living by that time”. “Xin’Ai initially focused only on HIV prevention”, Lanlan says, “but soon we realized that there were additional issues that needed to be addressed during these outreaches. For example, the refusal of some of our sisters to use condoms, because the police are using them as evidence of prostitution.

We’ve collected cases of sex workers who got caught, and found that 19 out of 40 sex workers were punished because of condoms used as evidence.” With this realization, Xin’Ai adjusted its aims, and prioritized working with sex workers on how to work under safe conditions. “Only through putting ourselves in a sex worker’s position could we successfully perform outreaches. From then on, more female sex workers were receptive to our services.”

By Alexandra van Dijk for the Red Umbrella Fund

Related readings

This blog is crossposted from http://www.hivadvocates.net/advocacy-stories/reducing-cultural-stigma/stop-using-condoms-as-evidence-say-sex-workers-in-china/

15 Abr

Sex workers mobilise in Cordoba City, Argentina

Interview with María Eugenia Aravena, the Secretary General of AMMAR-Cordoba (Asociación de Mujeres Meretrices Córdoba) by Mama Cash, published in the Annual Report 2013.

Eugenia has been an activist with AMMAR-Cordoba since late 1999. AMMAR-Cordoba is a provincial level, self-led network of 1,000 sex workers determined to support the health and well-being of sex workers and advocate for the recognition of sex worker labour rights. In 2013, AMMAR opened a centre offering sex worker-friendly health services. They created a network of sex worker organisations in Argentina for mutual support and in order to do more effective advocacy, including at the national level.

“I went to the first meeting of sex workers in Cordoba when I was 19 years old. We were protesting because the police were working with some nuns who were fighting against sex workers.

AMMAR Buenos Aires came and spoke. They said sex work is not a crime and that we should organise. It had a huge impact on me to hear that we were not criminals, and there was no reason to take us to jail.

I had felt powerless. I always heard the elder sex workers telling stories. They told about the cruelty and hardships they experienced in the street. Each of them had a story of abuses, beatings, and some had even been murdered. Then I heard AMMAR saying we are not criminals. I thought: Why then did my elders face so many injustices?

I knew I was a person with rights. Nobody was entitled to insult me, abuse me, take me to jail or take away my earnings.

In Argentina there are misdemeanour codes in each province. Sex work is not criminalised in the Penal Code, but in the Misdemeanour codes, engaging in prostitution in public carries the heaviest punishment.

The police can arrest you, and the police chief decides how many days you will spend in jail.

We have travelled a long way in our fight against the codes. We are taken seriously by the media. The government listens to us, even as it continues to embrace criminalisation policies. The public understands more that sex work is not a crime. We report harassment and mobilise in the streets to stop police repression.

For many years in Cordoba City, sex workers have not gone to jail. But in 2013, some did because the government is becoming more repressive. Prohibitionist polices are becoming tougher all over the world. We need to unite with others and make our voices heard.

We sex workers are oppressed by abolitionist policies that confuse sex work with trafficking. Trafficking of people is about exploitation and lack of freedom.

When sex work is confused with trafficking, the real victims of trafficking are not sought.

Considering the limited options available to working class women, sex work is a practice done by choice by women of legal age. Sex workers are diverse in terms of their education, socio-economic status and vulnerabilities. We are not all the same.

Our human rights are violated when the words of we who choose to do sex work are not valued. As with all other workers in this capitalist system, we work for our subsistence. We demand respect for our right to work.

AMMAR Cordoba in action

AMMAR Cordoba in action

All the poor are harassed when they organise. Alone we can achieve nothing. We need to join other movements and fight together. AMMAR Cordoba knows that when we fight with others, other movements come to support us, and we are stronger.

In our kindergarten, a sex worker can leave her kids for free. People from other movements—it is not just that they demonstrate with us, for instance – they also come to the kindergarten. The kindergarten is open to all the community, not only sex workers.

Our struggle is not only for the recognition of sex workers, but also for the right to land, public transportation, education and health – for all the poor.

And we are getting a response. We no longer feel so alone.”

Stopping police harassment of sex workers is fierce.