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.


18 Mar

Nothing about us, without us: reversing the power dynamics of philanthropy

Crossposted from OpenDemocracy

If money is power, then control over money has to be democratized. What if grants to social movements of sex workers were distributed by sex workers themselves? This is the eighth article in our series on money and social transformation.

Sex Worker Freedom Fest, India, 2012

‘Money is power’ as the old saying goes, so how do you change the power dynamics surrounding money in an NGO or a foundation? The obvious place to start is by introducing more democracy: for example, what if grants to build the social movements of sex workers were distributed by sex workers themselves? That’s the vision of the Red Umbrella Fund.

“We are the ones whose lives are affected” said one sex worker to me recently (who prefers to remain anonymous), “and we need to be the ones making decisions about how to better our lives. I think it’s helpful to have sex workers making funding decisions, because we understand which projects or groups will really be effective towards positive change.”

The Red Umbrella Fund is one of a new wave of organisations that put people who have experienced oppression in the driving seat of funding organisations, rather than relying on elites who claim to act on their behalf. Other examples include FRIDA, which funds young feminist activists globally, and the Disability Rights Fund, which supports organisations of persons with disabilities in the Global South.

The idea for the Fund emerged during a seminar in 2008, when sex worker representatives, human rights funders, and other advocates gathered to discuss sex work and human trafficking. One of the meeting’s recommendations was to increase support to sex worker groups and their networks. A 2006 report by the Open Society Foundations had found that in 2005, the five largest funders of these groups contributed less than $1 million combined.

According to figures collected in 2010, most sex worker organisations are small, with annual budgets of less than $41,000. In Southern Africa that figure is even smaller, at less than $9,000 a year. Most groups depend on short-term project funding, with a large portion of the budget earmarked for HIV-related services like condom distribution. Costs related to long-term organisational development and coordination are often ignored. Yet groups working within social movements need access to this kind of funding in order to organise, build capacity, and advocate for change.

The Red Umbrella Fund was founded in 2012 and is the only global sex worker-led funding institution in the world. It is governed by an International Steering Committee that includes four contributing foundations, and a majority representation from the sex workers’ rights movement. Members serve two-year terms on the committee, which is based at Mama Cash. The Red Umbrella Fund’s mission is to strengthen and sustain the sex workers’ rights movement around the world by providing and catalysing funding.

Why the ‘red umbrella?’ Red umbrellas were first used by sex workers in Italy in 2001 in a march to draw attention to their working conditions and violations of their rights. Since then they have become an important unifying symbol for the sex workers’ rights movement. The European network of sex workers considers the red umbrella a symbol of both beauty (the colour red) and resistance to discrimination (the umbrella).

Working in the spirit of the old social movement mantra, ‘nothing about us, without us’, sex workers stand at the heart of every key decision that Red Umbrella makes.

How does this work?

In 2013, the Fund received 400 funding proposals from 80 countries. While the Fund’s staff do an initial screening, all decisions are made by a peer review panel consisting of at least 80 per cent of people who are current or former sex workers. The remaining 20 per cent are allies with various forms of expertise. In 2013, the Red Umbrella Fund made 25 grants totalling 462,500 Euros.

Tracey Tully is a former sex worker who was raised in Australia and is now the Co-coordinator for the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers in Thailand. She was part of the latest peer review panel:

“The beauty of having a committee of sex workers coming together was the fact that there was representation from all regions of the world.  We already know that the needs of sex workers are different from place to place, but assembling sex workers to discuss the issues during the determinations brought a modicum of clarity to the proceedings.”

The composition of sex worker representatives in this process is important, as is the support that’s provided to them so that they can participate effectively. The selection process takes all forms of diversity into account, ensuring the inclusion, not only of women, but also of men and trans sex workers who are often forgotten.

The grant selection process also aims to ensure that representatives from the sex workers’ rights movements complement each other’s skills and experience. For example, some are more experienced with local-level organizing, while others are more involved in activism at the national and international levels.

Why is direct participation in decision-making so important? Tracey explains:

I think the difficulty of policy officers and programming people working in isolation is possibly why so much sex worker funding is channelled into bad programming.  This is how most proposals are determined, in offices far removed from the grassroots and the populations they serve. Proposals that are technically perfect can contain holes, in particular the potential for human rights violations against sex workers that are invisible to the untrained or inexperienced eye.

As an activist, I know how difficult it is for sex workers to obtain funding. There will continue to be impediments to the empowerment of sex workers so long as people who are detached from the context about which they make judgements are making the critical decisions. This fund exists for sex workers to create and run their own networks and to drive their own agendas within their own organisations. Self-determination is the key to what makes sex worker programming successful.”

In reversing the power dynamics of decision-making over money, the Red Umbrella Fund and other funds like it challenge the practice of accountability in NGOs and foundations.

Funders expect their grantees to be accountable to them, but it’s equally important to ensure that funders are accountable to the groups they support.

As the coordinator responsible for the daily management of the Fund, I know how our peer-led governance structure re-orientates our accountability to the movement we support. Where other funders might take years to evaluate and adjust their grant-making practices and tools, sex worker activists in the Red Umbrella Fund show little patience for bureaucratic arguments that delay improvements in our work. They are right. If we know how to do something better, why wait?

I receive instant feedback when our procedures fail or when communication isn’t clear, because the sex worker community is involved directly. For example, we changed our selection criteria to ensure that underfunded but experienced groups and networks that support newer organisations with their knowledge, experience and partnership could apply.

We are constantly questioned by sex workers about decision-making processes and priorities, as well as the final selection of grantees. This keeps us ‘on our toes,’ and pushes us to improve our transparency, documentation and communications.

A movement so short of money doesn’t let a penny go to waste.

Involving the users of funding in decisions over money goes against the predominant orthodoxy in philanthropy, with its emphasis on ‘value for money’ and ‘efficiency of impact.’ But involving those who are most affected by discrimination and prejudice actually strengthens success in each of these areas.

Unlike traditional models of grant-making in an NGO or a foundation, the Red Umbrella Fund helped to build the capacity and leadership of the sex workers’ rights movement even before the first Euro was granted, because sex workers themselves played such a key role in establishing the institution.

As one of the sex workers on our peer review panel told me, the “bottom line is this: it’s our bodies, our lives, and we should be at the front of all decisions that affect us.”

By Nadia van der Linde, Red Umbrella Fund

04 Mar

Turkish Trans-Sex Worker makes a case for human rights

On 17 December 2013, the Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association in Turkey launched a short video to promote the International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers.

Although it is not illegal, sex work is not considered a legitimate form of employment in Turkey.

This leads to more exploitation of sex workers in every aspect of life. Trans-sex workers are victims of police brutality and social prejudice. Without access to public health care services, they are among the most vulnerable against HIV.

As the Turkish government stays silent, the timing of this video is crucial in terms of increasing public attention before the upcoming national elections in March.


This blog by Red Umbrella Fund is crossposted from http://hivadvocates.net/advocacy-stories/reforming-policy/turkish-trans-sex-worker-makes-a-case-for-human-rights/

02 Feb

Round Table on Decriminalising Sex Work in Guyana

On February 2, 2014, Miriam Edwards of Guyana Sex Work Coalition, Joel Simpson of Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) and Quincy McEwan Guyana Trans United discussed the need to decriminalize sex work in the program Round Table with Janelle Persaud, aired over NCN Chanel 11.


Guyana Sex Work Coalition: Decriminalising Sex Work – The Roundtable

Sex work remains illegal in the country, rendering sex workers vulnerable as they are unable to access health care services, including HIV/AIDS services, and other state services since revealing their profession could put them at risk.

Guyana Sex Work Coalition provides peer-to-peer support and training to sex workers of all genders in Guyana and the wider Caribbean region to build their knowledge and confidence to stand up for their rights. The group advocates for the protection of sex workers, beginning with the recognition of their work as work, their protection against police violence and their access to HIV prevention information and services, anti-retroviral drugs and other health services.

As Miriam asserts, “Sex work is work. Sex workers want to be accepted in society as a human being.”

Stigma, discrimination and violence increase the vulnerability of sex workers to HIV/AIDS. While health care is free in Guyana, the attitude of many health providers towards sex workers, gays, and trans persons keep the latter away from availing of existing services. One member of the Coalition was even banned from the main HIV/AIDS clinic and denied access to ARV when he sought medical attention.

Aside from ensuring its visibility in the media, the Guyana Sex Work Coalition partners with existing health facilities including hospitals and trans health providers as a strategy to reduce stigma and discrimination against sex workers. They also equip sex workers with information on HIV and AIDS, correct and consistent use of condom and condom negotiation.

The Guyana Sex Work Coalition is a grantee of the Red Umbrella Fund.

By Nadia van der Linde, Red Umbrella Fund

This is crossposted from http://hivadvocates.net/advocacy-stories/reducing-cultural-stigma/round-table-on-decriminalising-sex-work-in-guyana/ 

10 Dic

Sex Workers in India Launch a National Campaign to End Violence against Sex Workers

In August 2013, sex workers representatives from thirteen states affiliated with the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW) launched a national campaign for the decriminalization of sex work with the ultimate objective to eliminate violence and exploitation of sex workers in the country. The aim is to amend the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act and ensure sex workers’ rights as workers.

India - AINSW

AINSW in India launch a national campaign to end violence against sex workers

Sex work as a profession is not recognized in Indian law. As a result, sex workers are not entitled to a range of public services, protection and benefits other workers enjoy. The working conditions in the brothels are poor and soliciting on the streets is not safe. As Smarajit Jana, adviser of AINSW asserts, “sex workers have to be considered as any other laborer.”

The current legal structure in India is composed of “anti-trafficking” laws designed to prevent the exploitation of women in the sex industry. It ignores the existence of male and trans (hijras or kothis) sex workers and considers all sex workers victims of trafficking.

The Karnataka Sex Workers Union (KSWU) has reported that during a police “raid and rescue” operation on Delhi brothels in 2008, twenty four women were classified as traffickers and fifty one sex workers as victims. However, it later became clear that most of these “so-called victims were adult women who chose to do sex work voluntarily.” In addition, the police operation neither improved the conditions in the brothels nor reduced the number of human trafficking cases but rather victimized self-identified sex workers.

The Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA) has much impact on the lives of sex workers in India but the law is contradictory in itself.

According to the ITPA, sex work performed in the private space is not illegal; yet it is an offense to live off the earnings of a sex worker. Children, siblings or partners of sex workers are prosecuted if they are over 18 years old and financially dependent. The definition of “public space” is so broad that it makes the compliance very difficult. This uncertainty in the ITPA provides a legal framework for police “raid and rescue” operations to arrest sex workers even when sex work is practiced in the private realm.

As AINSW vice president, Patel, points out: “sex workers are not doing anything illegal. Therefore, no one has a right to harass us or our family members because of the nature of our work.”

Violence against sex workers is a constant phenomenon that includes police extortion and torture. Sex workers are arrested, harassed and even raped by the police. Kusum, the general secretary of AINSW: “Police conduct raids and manhandle our children. They insult and beat us and treat us inhumanely and often trump up false charges. Violence by the police is the major problem in our profession and police are the major beneficiary of trafficking in the country.”

In March 2013, they sent a letter to the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) sharing their critique of the IPT and their subsequent lobbying with parliamentarians has successfully prevented further harmful amendments of ITPA to be accepted. The Commission on Women Empowerment and Social Justice has since invited AINSW to be involved in developing policy to empower women, including sex workers, in the country.

AINSW is a national network of over eighty sex worker organizations from 13 states of India. It was formally registered in 2010. AINSW demands the recognition of sex work as work, combats police violence and aims to change laws that discriminate against sex workers. AINSW is a grantee of the Red Umbrella Fund.

by Piril Kazanci, Red Umbrella Fund

This is crossposted from http://hivadvocates.net/advocacy-stories/reforming-policy/sex-workers-in-india-launch-a-national-campaign-to-end-violence-against-sex-workers