24 Oct

Red Umbrella Fund: Who Gets to Choose?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s unbelievable, right?

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

04 Oct

As Rosas Já Falam: My Love Letter to AWID

AWID Daspu lineupFrom September 8th to 11th, many feminist sex workers’ rights advocates and allies made their way to Salvador da Bahia, Brazil and gathered at the AWID Forum. AWID’s forum is a massive global gathering that brought together over 1800 feminists from all over the world this year. While the history of sex work activism in feminist spaces is long, the meaningful and respectful participation of sex workers in these spaces is sparkling new.

“We are whores. We are feminists. And we have rights.” – Cida Vieira, APROSMIG (Brazil)

Ana Luz Mamani, a sex worker activist from Mujeres del Sur in Peru and member of the International Steering Committee of the Red Umbrella Fund, spoke to a large crowd about funding sex worker organising in the plenary “Money and Movements”. And that was just the start of the evening…

It was followed by a DASPU fashion show organised by sex worker activists to raise visibility for the sex workers’ movement and sex work “as work”. DASPU is a Brazilian sex worker-brand that is renowned for its fashion shows filled with humour, pride and advocacy messages. While the audience danced and cheered on their chairs, sex workers and allies from more than twenty nationalities performed on stage.

Let me tell you, it was a blast!

IMG_3058The catwalk celebrated the existence of the Red Umbrella Fund, which was launched at the AWID Forum in Turkey in 2012, and the “growing and showing” sex workers’ rights movements. Since its launch, the Red Umbrella Fund has made 78 grants, totalling over 1.8 million USD of direct financial support to sex worker organising in 45 countries.

Open Arms

The show also symbolised a big “thank you” to AWID for welcoming sex workers into these feminist spaces with open arms. For creating room for a feminist dialogue with sex workers beyond the often overwhelming trafficking and exploitation debates.

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Photo: Sangeeta Ramu Manoji, VAMP (India)

Personally, I was honoured to celebrate sex workers’ lives, experiences, affections, challenges but also opportunities with friends and fellow activists from around the world! I was thrilled with the large amount of positivity I heard about the vibrant moves of the sex worker show at AWID’s arena. Among the comments was a celebration of our ability to bring together the diversity of the sex worker movement – which includes sex workers of all genders, sexual orientations, race, and class – on stage, and to mobilise hundreds of enthusiastic feminists. Sex worker activism does not always get such a response in feminist spaces.

So sex workers fight trafficking?

“Anti-trafficking policy in Canada is anti-sex work policy. Actually, we don’t need the police to rescue us. Sex workers need to know their rights. (…) Migrant sex workers are treated as terrorists in Canada. This year alone, 16 women in our network have been arrested. They have trauma. Not because of trafficking or exploitation, but because of the arrest and police treatment.” – Elene Lam, Butterfly (Canada)

The Red Umbrella Fund co-hosted a session that elaborated on the need to acknowledge sex workers as key allies in the fight against sex trafficking and labour exploitation. Elene Lam (Butterfly Asia and Migrant Sex Workers Project, Canada), Cida Vieira (APROSMIG, Brazil) and Kiran Deshmukh (VAMP, India) shared diverse examples of how they stand up for their rights as sex workers and for the rights of people who have experienced sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.

“Raids [of brothels] in India are very violent. They are often sponsored by anti-trafficking NGOs. They have a lot of money. We struggle to find money to collectivise but they have big budgets. (…) Every woman who opts to be in sex work should have that right and should be able to work in safe work conditions.” – Kiran Deshmukh, VAMP (India)

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Photo: Elene Lam, Cida Vieira, Bandana Pattanaik, Kiran Deshmukh, Aarthi Pai

They expressed the need to talk about labour and migration rights for women and to gain respect for sex workers’ voices and experiences, as well as to value their vast knowledge in the field. Bandana Pattanaik from the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) concluded that the presentations “demonstrated that sex worker organisations are claiming their space, involving communities, and engaging at policy level to combat trafficking”.

Funding Movements

In the session, ‘How Can Funders Most Effectively Support Young Feminist, Trans* and Sex Worker Movements’, the Coordinator of the Red Umbrella Fund, Nadia van der Linde, advocated for more and, importantly, better funding for sex workers’ rights. She then opened the discussion with the sex workers and other activists in the audience about how funders can improve their funding in support of, and together with, their respective social movements.

Some of the needs expressed to funders were:

  • listen to the community;
  • provide long-term and flexible support;
  • support strategies and capacity to overcome closing civil society spaces and bureaucracy;
  • translation support; and
  • introductions to other funders.

No Turning Back!

Photo: Gabriela Leite by Luiz Garrido

Every forum day, sex workers were visible in one or more sessions in the programme, whether from the perspective of fun and pleasure, transgender rights, or artivism. I heard numerous people at AWID say that they believed this was “the tipping point” for the global feminist movement’s embracing of sex workers’ rights. I witnessed a growing understanding that sex work is a human rights issue in which feminists play an important role in pushing a rights-based agenda forward. As stated in the title of Open Society Foundations’ report that was also launched at AWID, there is No Turning Back.  The way forward is jointly with and in support of sex workers.

So this was my love letter to AWID and to all those who made sex worker participation possible and outstanding. To quote Gabriela Leite, a sex worker activist from Brazil and creator of DASPU: “as rosas já falam” (sex workers already have a voice). Just listen. 

By Dennis van Wanrooij, Red Umbrella Fund

30 Sep

Mind the Gap

What we learned about how funders can be moved in the right direction.

As human rights and social justice funders, we try to reach those people who are most marginalized and excluded from services and protection. Those who are least empowered, least resilient, and hardest hit by inequality. But one group that ticks all those boxes is systematically excluded from funding opportunities: sex workers. Why are not more funders stepping into this gap? What makes even human rights funders so hesitant to take on the human rights of sex workers?
 
Many of the women, men and transgender people around the world who provide sexual services for money face high levels of violence, discrimination and incarceration. Due to the criminalized status of sex work in most countries, combined with high levels of stigma, sex workers are often unable to file a complaint or take legal action. Amnesty International just conducted research on human rights abuses against sex workers to better understand the appropriate, rights based actions that are needed. This has culminated in a global policy in support of decriminalization of sex work. There are other organisations that stand up for sex worker rights, including those led by the community themselves, but these organisations are systematically underfunded.
At a funder discussion at the EFC’s AGM 2016 (Credit: Clair Bontje/Mama Cash)

A funder discussion at the EFC’s AGM 2016 (Credit: Clair Bontje/Mama Cash)

Funder journeys
The Red Umbrella Fund, the only international fund for and by sex workers, partnered with the Free University in Amsterdam to better understand how other allied funders started supporting sex workers’ rights. Sixteen staff were interviewed at twelve foundations to analyse key aspects of these funder journeys.

“I am very conscious of the fact that I did go on a journey. I did not start off talking about sex workers and sex worker rights and understanding the difference between trafficking and sex work. But yeah, I now see sex work as work. It needs to be work that is respected, that is protected, paid for properly. That has all the rights of other work.” (foundation staff, interview respondent)

What happened to bring about this change? And how can we reproduce such developments and scale them up?

Yes, the respondents admitted, academic research was useful as evidence to support sex workers’ rights. And the various UN agreements (like from UNAIDS, UNDP and WHO) on sex work helped too. But there is one other ingredient that seems to be key to any significant change.

Polarised

Although everyone’s story is unique, the following excerpts from interviews with two women leaders in international foundations are exemplary of experiences and insights shared by many others in philanthropy. The fact that their stories are anonymized is illustrative of the sensitivity and high level of stigma that continues to be associated with sex work. Discussions related to sex work are regularly described as “extremely polarized” and “really unpleasant”.

“The debate is so polarized, where the violence against women on one lawn is basically accusing the other side of supporting the sex industry. And you’ve got groups [on the other side] that say there is no violence, that they have never come across a case of trafficking there. And because we can’t have a proper, honest debate about this, it’s like a zero sum game.”

Victims

The two foundation leaders cited in this article have a background in fighting violence against women and trafficking, which seemed to put them strictly on the one side of the debate.

“For me, sex work at that point was a bad thing done to women. I could only see it as oppression. It was a way to control women. It was harmful to women. And I was only really aware that it was about women. I saw it as violence against women.” 

Seeing sex workers first and foremost as victims of violence had implications on the funding strategy they implemented at their respective foundations.

“I made a very quick jump between sex work – well, what I then called prostitution – and trafficking and I put the two together.”

This conflation between sex work and trafficking was reflected in the grantmaking by her foundation at the time, which mainly focused on ‘rescuing’ women from the sex industry:

“the majority of it was really funding those organizations that were trying to get women out of prostitution. That was how I saw it. We were quite proud of that. We thought it was doing good work.”

So what happened that made them recognize that sex workers are people with agency, entitled to human rights?

Sewing Machines

The game-changer for many of the respondents had been coming in direct contact with sex workers. Hearing first-hand experiences from sex workers and better understanding their contexts. And, importantly, seeing sex workers first as human beings. As people with agency.

“For me it was the meeting with the sex workers, hearing them talk about their work. [..] It was this great sense of these women having made informed decisions about going into this work, because whatever options they had involved very high levels of violence.”

Hearing directly from sex workers how they experienced their work, and learning about what they considered their key challenges and needs to be, were significant milestones in determining the direction of the funder’s journey.

“They talked about the economic alternatives that were presented to them by the state, by anti-prostitution groups, and saying: Well, actually I can triple this. If I really want to change the life of my kid, this is the most lucrative way for me to do it. If you want me leave sex work, come back and put me in charge of petrol pumps. Put me in charge of something that you would offer a man. Don’t offer me a sewing machine. Or doing handicraft. Because I will still be trapped in the same cycle of poverty and violence. [..] It certainly was a shift away from viewing women as victims, and seeing them as having agency, about making informed decisions, about becoming politicized” 

In some cases there was no direct contact with sex workers, but other community members or experts functioned as the initial amplifier of the voices of sex workers, widening the funder’s horizon to explore alternatives and listen to the community.

“[They told me] we don’t agree with this [raid and rescue,] approach. They are in fact traumatizing women who are being so-called freed in raids and they are not providing them with alternatives, when they say they are.”

Fears

Both women leaders recognize now how they, and many women they encounter, transfer their own fears and feelings about what they think it would be like to do sex work onto others.

“It would be a problem for me, it will always be a problem for me, but that shouldn’t mean that it cannot not be a problem for other women. [..] But my concern as a feminist should be: does that woman have a voice, does she have rights? Is she able to live life on the terms that she wants? And if she is vulnerable to exploitation and violence, are there things we can do to reduce that? Or even better, to help her stand up for her rights [..] and be able to demand justice.”

Building more open spaces even among peers to talk about these experiences, fears and prejudices can help change the direction we are going in.

“I remember talking to the director of a grantee organisation saying: ‘the worst thing that I can imagine is doing sex work. And therefore, the worst thing I can imagine any woman doing is sex work.’ I remember her saying to me: ‘Do you sit here imagining what it might be like to be a brick-laborer? Or an agricultural worker? No.’

The thing about sex work and prostitution is, it becomes extremely personalized and people apply their own personal lens to it, in a way they might not to other forms of exploitative work. Or work. There are other forms of labour exploitation out there that are horrific, but they don’t seem to carry the same moral outrage as sex work does.” 

Value added

We need more brave funders to step up and help fill the funding gap and also to speak out against prejudice, misinformation and ignorance as the consequences are real in the lives of sex workers.

“I am convinced that if sex workers can have more opportunity to speak for themselves, change would happen faster. [..] That’s where our added value can be. To support them.”

 

Written by: Sanne Bos (Free University, Amsterdam) and Nadia van der Linde (Red Umbrella Fund).


First published by Alliance Magazine here.

02 Sep

Red Umbrella Fund at AWID Forum 2016

Are you attending the AWID Forum 2016 in Brazil?

Come join sex workers and allies on Friday evening the 9th of September for the Celebration of the Red Umbrella Fund’s four-year anniversary! We are honoured to celebrate our anniversary with sex workers in a catwalk organised by Daspu, a Brazilian sex worker-brand that promotes sex workers’ rights through fashion, pride and humour.

Our party will be part of the Money & Movements Plenary from 18.00 to 20.00 hours at Arena Sauípe. Our International Steering Daspu sw show AWIDCommittee member Ana Luz, founder of sex worker organisation Asociación de Trabajadoras Sexuales Mujeres del Sur in Peru, will also be speaking at the plenary.

Four years ago, the Red Umbrella Fund was created and launched at AWID’s Istanbul Conference (2012). Ana Luz was there too. The Red Umbrella Fund is now in itsfifth grantmaking year and has already made 78 grants to sex worker-led organisations and networks in 45 countries so far, with more to come.

To push further the agenda for the rights of sex workers globally, the Red Umbrella Fund is co-hosting two sessions at AWID in Brazil:

Combating Trafficking for Puporse of Sexual Exploitation: Do We Do More Harm Than Good?
Saturday, 10 September, 11.30 – 13.00 in Vera Cruz
This session consists of sex worker rights activists who will share their experience with anti-trafficking initiatives and share their own initiatives to prevent and address trafficking and exploitation.

How Can Funders Most Effectively Support Young Feminist, Trans* and Sex Worker Movements
Sunday, 11 September, 11.00 – 12.30 in Bahia 3
Funders will share information from mappings of funding invested in support of sex worker, trans* and young feminist activism, discuss experiences of involving communities in grantmaking processes, and seek feedback from the audience.

The Red Umbrella Fund will also host office hours for sex workers on fundraising, using the NSWP’s Smart Guide to Sustainable Funding.

Many other sex worker activists are organising sessions at AWID as well, check out the programme for more information.

We hope to see you there!

Red Umbrella Fund team

04 Aug

My Feminism Supports Sex Workers’ Rights

When one of the International Steering Committee members of the Red Umbrella Fund asked me why I chose to volunteer here out of all organizations for the summer, I struggled to come up with an articulate answer on the spot. “I’d always heard rhetoric about including sex workers in feminism,” I told him, “and I wanted to put that into practice.” I only realized later why he was likely so surprised at my decision to volunteer for the Red Umbrella Fund: I’m an American.

When it comes to sex workers’ rights, my home country is about as clueless as the tourists in Amsterdam walking through the bike lanes. Most people don’t know the difference between human trafficking and sex work, and hardly any would include the rights of sex workers in their top political priorities. Before I started volunteer for the Red Umbrella Fund, I wouldn’t have either.

While at the Red Umbrella Fund, I met with an activist for LGBTQ  and sex workers’ rights from China. He lives in a context in which someone can be arrested simply for saying the words “human rights”.

Despite all of this, when I told him I’m from the United States, he said: “Oh. I’ve heard the situation for sex workers there is terrible! Chinese sex workers do not want to go there.”

I knew from my experience at the Red Umbrella Fund that he was right, but my heart still sunk. Throughout my time volunteering here, I’ve learned more and more about the danger and stigma sex workers in the United States face. So why had I rarely heard about it in my country itself, even in spaces dedicated to human rights and social justice? If living abroad has taught me anything, it’s that America has a lot more to be embarrassed about than the success of Donald Trump.

Sex Work Policy

My experience at the Red Umbrella Fund led me to wonder whether sex workers’ rights had ever been addressed in mainstream American politics. For those who, like I was, are clueless about sex work policy and sex workers’ rights, this website does a great job at clearly outlining sex work laws across the world. It clarifies that both buying and selling sex are illegal in most of the US. While some may believe that criminalizing the purchasing of sexual services is a progressive model, sex worker and activist Juno Mac debunks this myth in her viral TED talk here.

Juno Mac’s “What do sex workers want?”, TEDx

In the words of Mac:

“if you care about gender equality or poverty or migration or public health, then sex workers’ rights matter to you.”

Anti-Prostitution Pledge

In addition to the laws mentioned above, George Bush implemented a policy known currently as the “anti-prostitution pledge”, which remained in place until the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 2013.  Essentially, it required NGOs funded by the US to adopt an organization-wide policy opposing both sex work and sex trafficking, again failing to make the important distinction between the two. Even after it was struck down in 2013, the law continues to affect affiliate offices of American organizations abroad, such as those fighting HIV in the global South (see here and here). The impact of past US presidents on stigmatized populations across the globe remains far-reaching. This is why it is important as ever to pay attention to the upcoming election.

Hillary Clinton’s Perspective on Sex Work

Coincidentally, as I became interested in the lack of attention to sex workers’ rights in the United States, I was reading a book called False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton. To my surprise, and disappointment, it became even more relevant when I reached Chapter 10: Hillary Screws Sex Workers. For anyone hoping to gain knowledge about the context of sex workers’ rights within the United States, I highly recommend it.

Sex work policy is determined on a state level in the US and therefore rarely addressed in presidential campaigns. But when activists asked Hillary Clinton (in 2007) about her opinion she said: “I do not support legalized prostitution or any form of prostitution” (128).

She conflated sex work with human trafficking and failed to acknowledge that anti-trafficking efforts often criminalize the most vulnerable populations in America: women of color, undocumented people, trans people, and single parents.

While Hillary was Secretary of State, Cambodia introduced a new anti-trafficking program, that “threw workers into rehabilitation programs where they were subject to rape and violence” (130). Hillary granted it an “improved rating”, which meant that it would receive additional funding from the United States. If that’s not “faux feminism”, I don’t know what is. As the author of the chapter, sex worker Margaret Corvid, poignantly explains, “In the United States, there is no national debate where sex workers have a place at the table. By helping to shape the American narrative around sex work, obscuring us as either criminals or survivors, Hillary Clinton has helped to keep us invisible, and she must like it that way” (132).

Police Brutality

Monica JonesAs the #BlackLivesMatter movement gains voice in the fight against police brutality in the US, we must remember that sex workers, particularly trans women of color, often face police violence. Almost one out of every 5 sex workers interviewed by the Urban Justice Center in New York reported sexual harassment and abuse, including rape, by police (INCITE!). Monica Jones, a transgender woman of color, was arrested on prostitution charges in 2014 while simply walking down the street. It prompting the viral hashtag #WalkingWhileTrans.  Alisha Walker, a sex worker from Chicago, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for stabbing a client who attacked her at work.

Ending violence and discrimination, particularly from police, is a top priority for most sex worker organisations. Sex workers, like any other workers, deserve to work in safe environments.

To learn more about how sex work policy in the US negatively impacts people of color, check out the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s newest platform. It includes a demand for the decriminalization of sex work. When we talk about #BlackLivesMatter and #BlackTransLivesMatter, we have to talk about sex workers. And vice versa.

Wake Up Call

Although it seems easy to fall into hopelessness about the current state of the US, the revolutionary work of activists on the ground remind me not to.  Sex workers, though often silenced and erased from the mainstream media, are at the forefront of activist movements all over the world. Learn more about how to be an ally to the sex worker movement. Perhaps, if we turn to activists rather than politicians to re-instill hope, the world will become a little bit less scary.

By Rachel Drucker, summer volunteer at the Red Umbrella Fund

29 Jul

2016 Call for Applications is now closed

The Red Umbrella Fund’s 2016 global Call for Applications is now closed.

Is your group, organisation or network led by sex workers?

Do you agree that sex work should be recognised as work?

Do you contribute to building and strengthening the sex workers’ rights movement(s)?

The Red Umbrella Fund gives grants to sex worker-led groups and networks that are registered or unregistered. In 2016, we expect to make about 20 core funding grants to local, national and international sex worker-led organisations and networks.

Apply for a grant here.

 

Red Umbrella Fund Call2016 poster

Poster: How to apply for a grant from the Red Umbrella Fund?

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11 Jul

In Loving Memory of Sharmus Outlaw

It deeply saddens all of us to have to let go Sharmus Outlaw, our 2016 Programme Advisory Committee (PAC) member, who passed away last week after so many achievements and struggles in her life. Our hearts go out particularly to all her friends and colleagues who have stayed with her in the most difficult of times.

Sharmus PAC_2015Sharmus was part of the Red Umbrella Fund’s 2015 Programme Advisory Committee (PAC), the international peer-led group that reviews applications and selects which ones should get funded. Participating in the PAC was a new international experience for Sharmus, and she took up the challenge with both hands. She contributed to the grantmaking process with eagerness, joy and wisdom.

As a trans woman of colour and sex worker, Sharmus advocated for those who are non-conforming, excluded and often silenced. She was the strong voice of the most vulnerable and marginalised sex workers in the PAC.

We also remember Sharmus as a pleasant, peaceful and incredibly caring human being. Sharmus was positive, kind and loving. She communicated her strong opinions and feelings in a constructive way, always demonstrating openness and respect to different opinion and democratic process. She firmly believed that together, the sex worker movement is stronger. She was a true sex workers’ rights activist, with a lifetime dedicated to all those who face violence, oppression, stigma and discrimination.

Sharmus, your legacy will continue to be our inspiration and motivation.

RUF PAC_2015

Red Umbrella Fund PAC and staff 2015 (Sharmus is second to the left)

Messages from Red Umbrella Fund staff and PAC members that worked with her in 2015:

 “I am mortified by this news!!!! This is truly, truly, sad!!!! I had hoped her health would improve after being moved to the new facility. Rest in peace Sharmus, You will be missed dearly. Rest in peace our dearly beloved SHARMUS!!”
– Daughtie Oguto, member of the PAC 2015

“I was privileged enough to meet this fabulous lady in Amsterdam. I remember she used to call us ‘PAC family members’, which meant a lot to me. Sharmus was indeed family of all sex workers in the world, someone who would never give up the fight. Her last message to me was: ‘tell everyone I will see them in October’. You’ll always be with us, Sharmus!”
– Dennis van Wanrooij, Programme Associate, Red Umbrella Fund

“I am so upset to hear this news about Sharmus. She had such a strong presence at the PAC last year. We all learned a lot from her and she will be very much missed.”
– Karen Gardiner, member of the PAC 2015

“I remember we talked for hours over Skype during our first orientation session in August 2015. The connection went bad regularly requiring redialling many times. She stayed patient and excited and would regularly pause the session to ask questions, trying to make things real and ensuring she really understood. She was eager to learn and honest in her feedback and questioning, and very warm and thankful to everyone she worked with. The points she raised about applicants during the PAC meeting came straight from her heart, every time.”
– Nadia van der Linde, Coordinator, Red Umbrella Fund

“It was a pleasure for me to work with Sharmus. We were both new to the PAC in 2015. Apart from her thoughts and insights on the proposals that I valued highly, I loved spending time with her in Amsterdam. I remember her buying more souvenirs for her family members then she could possibly carry home. It’s a great lost for all of is that we have to continue without her.”
– Marije van Stempvoort, member of the PAC 2015

“I am so sorry for the loss of an enthusiastic member of the Program Advisory Committee. We shall remember her contribution and continue to work for sex workers right movement.”

– Ray Lam, member of the PAC 2015

 

RUF PAC staff PIC_oct2015

Some Red Umbrella Fund staff and PAC members – including Sharmus (second to the right) – in front of the Prostitution Information Center (PIC) in Amsterdam, October 2015

 

See the following links for more information about Sharmus’ legacy:

30 May

Mind the Gap

As human rights and social justice funders, we try to reach those people who are most marginalized and excluded from services and protection. Those who are least empowered, least resilient, and hardest hit by inequality. But one group that ticks all those boxes is systematically excluded from funding opportunities: sex workers.
Why are not more funders stepping into this gap? What makes even human rights funders so hesitant to take on the human rights of sex workers? 
Many of the women, men and transgender people around the world who provide sexual services for money face high levels of violence, discrimination and incarceration. Due to the criminalized status of sex work in most countries, combined with high levels of stigma, sex workers are often unable to file a complaint or take legal action. Amnesty International just conducted research on human rights abuses against sex workers to better understand the appropriate, rights based actions that are needed. This has culminated in a global policy in support of decriminalization of sex work. There are other organisations that stand up for sex worker rights, including those led by the community themselves, but these organisations are systematically underfunded.

Funder journeys
The Red Umbrella Fund, the only international fund for and by sex workers, partnered with the Free University in Amsterdam to better understand how other allied funders started supporting sex workers’ rights. Sixteen staff were interviewed at twelve foundations to analyse key aspects of these funder journeys.

“I am very conscious of the fact that I did go on a journey. I did not start off talking about sex workers and sex worker rights and understanding the difference between trafficking and sex work. But yeah, I now see sex work as work. It needs to be work that is respected, that is protected, paid for properly. That has all the rights of other work.” (foundation staff, interview respondent)

What happened to bring about this change? And how can we reproduce such developments and scale them up?

(credit: Claire Bontje / Mama Cash)

At a funder discussion at the EFC’s AGM 2016
(Credit: Clair Bontje/Mama Cash)

Yes, the respondents admitted, academic research was useful as evidence to support sex workers’ rights. And the various UN agreements (like from UNAIDS, UNDP and WHO) on sex work helped too. But there is one other ingredient that seems to be key to any significant change.

Polarised
Although everyone’s story is unique, the following excerpts from interviews with two women leaders in international foundations are exemplary of experiences and insights shared by many others in philanthropy. The fact that their stories are anonymized is illustrative of the sensitivity and high level of stigma that continues to be associated with sex work. Discussions related to sex work are regularly described as “extremely polarized” and “really unpleasant”.

“The debate is so polarized, where the violence against women on one lawn is basically accusing the other side of supporting the sex industry. And you’ve got groups [on the other side] that say there is no violence, that they have never come across a case of trafficking there. And because we can’t have a proper, honest debate about this, it’s like a zero sum game.”

Victims
The two foundation leaders cited in this article have a background in fighting violence against women and trafficking, which seemed to put them strictly on the one side of the debate.

“For me, sex work at that point was a bad thing done to women. I could only see it as oppression. It was a way to control women. It was harmful to women. And I was only really aware that it was about women. I saw it as violence against women.” 

Seeing sex workers first and foremost as victims of violence had implications on the funding strategy they implemented at their respective foundations.

“I made a very quick jump between sex work – well, what I then called prostitution – and trafficking and I put the two together.”

This conflation between sex work and trafficking was reflected in the grantmaking by her foundation at the time, which mainly focused on ‘rescuing’ women from the sex industry:

“the majority of it was really funding those organizations that were trying to get women out of prostitution. That was how I saw it. We were quite proud of that. We thought it was doing good work.”

So what happened that made them recognize that sex workers are people with agency, entitled to human rights?

Sewing Machines
The game-changer for many of the respondents had been coming in direct contact with sex workers. Hearing first-hand experiences from sex workers and better understanding their contexts. And, importantly, seeing sex workers first as human beings. As people with agency.

“For me it was the meeting with the sex workers, hearing them talk about their work. [..] It was this great sense of these women having made informed decisions about going into this work, because whatever options they had involved very high levels of violence.”

Hearing directly from sex workers how they experienced their work, and learning about what they considered their key challenges and needs to be, were significant milestones in determining the direction of the funder’s journey.

“They talked about the economic alternatives that were presented to them by the state, by anti-prostitution groups, and saying: Well, actually I can triple this. If I really want to change the life of my kid, this is the most lucrative way for me to do it. If you want me leave sex work, come back and put me in charge of petrol pumps. Put me in charge of something that you would offer a man. Don’t offer me a sewing machine. Or doing handicraft. Because I will still be trapped in the same cycle of poverty and violence. [..] It certainly was a shift away from viewing women as victims, and seeing them as having agency, about making informed decisions, about becoming politicized” 

In some cases there was no direct contact with sex workers, but other community members or experts functioned as the initial amplifier of the voices of sex workers, widening the funder’s horizon to explore alternatives and listen to the community.

“[They told me] we don’t agree with this [raid and rescue,] approach. They are in fact traumatizing women who are being so-called freed in raids and they are not providing them with alternatives, when they say they are.”

Fears
Both women leaders recognize now how they, and many women they encounter, transfer their own fears and feelings about what they think it would be like to do sex work onto others.

“It would be a problem for me, it will always be a problem for me, but that shouldn’t mean that it cannot not be a problem for other women. [..] But my concern as a feminist should be: does that woman have a voice, does she have rights? Is she able to live life on the terms that she wants? And if she is vulnerable to exploitation and violence, are there things we can do to reduce that? Or even better, to help her stand up for her rights [..] and be able to demand justice.”

Building more open spaces even among peers to talk about these experiences, fears and prejudices can help change the direction we are going in.

“I remember talking to the director of a grantee organisation saying: ‘the worst thing that I can imagine is doing sex work. And therefore, the worst thing I can imagine any woman doing is sex work.’ I remember her saying to me: ‘Do you sit here imagining what it might be like to be a brick-laborer? Or an agricultural worker? No.’

The thing about sex work and prostitution is, it becomes extremely personalized and people apply their own personal lens to it, in a way they might not to other forms of exploitative work. Or work. There are other forms of labour exploitation out there that are horrific, but they don’t seem to carry the same moral outrage as sex work does.” 

Value added
We need more brave funders to step up and help fill the funding gap and also to speak out against prejudice, misinformation and ignorance as the consequences are real in the lives of sex workers.

“I am convinced that if sex workers can have more opportunity to speak for themselves, change would happen faster. [..] That’s where our added value can be. To support them.”

Nadia van der Linde is the Coordinator at the Red Umbrella Fund.
Sanne Bos works at the Free University, Amsterdam.

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21 Apr

Why Sex Work should be Decriminalised

Sex work (or prostitution as many know it) is a subject surrounded by fierce discussion, often about human trafficking. In much of the discourse, the line that separates the concept of sex work from human trafficking seems to have all but disappeared.

Discrimination, indignity, violence and diseases – all issues sex workers in many countries face regularly. But not because it necessarily is ‘part of their job’, but because society condemns and criminalises them.

A 17-year old girl from Thika (Kenya)has been arrested by the local police for soliciting sex. She gets assigned a police cell . The chief commands one of the officers to deliver him the girl the following morning. She is raped repeatedly. When the chief is done with her she can go back to her cell. Two other officers  follow this pattern for  days. Then finally, the girl is released.

I can imagine you thinking of sex work as  something a bit strange. When you hear that 85% of women working in the Red Light District does so against her will, it makes sense to wonder why we still accept this in the Netherlands. I can imagine you might turn against  sex work if you hear only about exploitation and abuse. And I can even understand that, in terms of your religion, or values around sexuality, you find it strange that some people use sex to earn money. It is easy to follow the mainstream media who present you this information on a silver platter. Before I learned differently, I believed the same.

June 2015. It’s the first time I’m on the phone with Nadia, Coordinator of the Red Umbrella Fund. Nadia tells me that the Red Umbrella Fund supports sex workers in order to improve their work and living conditions. I think about a documentary I once saw: ‘Jojanneke in de Prostitutie’. It was supposed to be about sex work, but all that I saw were conditions that made me think of human trafficking. I wonder why someone would support something degrading like sex work? This required some research. Disbelief turned out to be naivety and ignorance changed to  knowledge.

In no time,  I am transformed in a firm advocate of decriminalisation. Why? Because the ‘degrading ’ part is in the way sex workers are treated, not in  the work itself.

The story of the girl from Thika is just one small example of what I read in Open Society’s report on violence and abuse against sex workers in Kenya (2008). In Kisumu, another city in Kenya,  sex workers are often directly claimed by senior police officers. One women was kept imprisoned and abused in the house of one of the agents. After four days, when a new victim was arrested who could take over her place, she was released. The way female police officers treat sex workers isn’t much better. Arrested sex workers are not aloud to walk, but have to crawl. They are forced to perform stripteases in order to be humiliated. Often they have to sleep on the ground and don’t get proper food. At night they get ordered to mop the floor with urine and water mixed together, for no other reason than it being possible.

'Only rights can stop the wrongs.' Credits: Dale Kongmont, APNSW

‘Only rights can stop the wrongs.’ Credits: Dale Kongmont, APNSW

This doesn’t only happen in Kenya. Rape and violence by police and customers is common in many countries. Sex workers are regularly banished from their community and denied access to healthcare. In Cambodia, for example, sex workers can’t reach out for HIV medication. Are we ever going to solve the worldwide HIV problem if the most vulnerable group to this disease can’t receive any help? I don’t think so. One sex worker declared that she has accepted a two dollar offer for sexual intercourse because if she didn’t, her child wouldn’t eat that night. Without labor rights and basic human services, she has no choice but to agree to such low prices.

The stories hit home, injustice is something that always touches me very deeply. The problem is actually pretty simple: with such a lack of respect respect, sex workers aren’t seen as worthy human beings. If society doesn’t accept you, you don’t have much money and your job is illegal, you end up in very vulnerable positions. Violence and exploitation then become inevitable.

Why do we have such a problem with sex work?

Sex work is ‘the voluntarily sexual exchange  between two people upon payment.’ In my opinion nothing is wrong with this. If free sex is accepted, why isn’t payed sex? Or are we struggling with the addition of the word ‘voluntary’ which is a word that doesn’t seem to exist when people think of sex work?  We all know human trafficking is horrible. However, by criminalising sex work we create an ‘underground world’ where it is extremely difficult to separate wrong from right. It won’t only do harm to those that voluntarily work in the business, but also, and maybe even more, to the ones that don’t. This already existing underground will grow, and real human trafficking victims will disappear in the mass. This is an underground world wherein rights don’t exist. A world that’s hard to reach for rescue teams. A world wherein sex workers become even more vulnerable to addiction, violence and disease.

A great example of this underground world involves the issue of HIV. In countries like Tanzania and China, but also in the United States, sex workers are being arrested by the police, simply for carrying condoms.

If the choice is getting arrested or taking a risk and working without condoms in order to feed your child, what would you do?

The consequence is, as you can imagine, that many sex workers start working without condoms.

An honor to sex workers all over the world, statue Belle in Amsterdam. Source: Mariska Majoor

An honor to sex workers all over the world, statue Belle in Amsterdam.
Source: Mariska Majoor

Some say sex work should be replaced by ‘normal work’. Actresses like Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep agree. They oppose Amnesty International’s new decriminalization policy. Ignoring the fact that some sex workers actually do enjoy their work, it is also very easy to make statements like these when you live in Hollywood, where money flows. Think of the woman who accepted two dollars for her services in order to feed her child. How will she find a ‘normal job’ in a country where there is a shortage in jobs? Factors such as poverty, lack of education, health and social status have a lot of influence on freedom of choice. That is why we have to realise that alternatives to sex work, if desired, are only possible when the economy allows it.
Forcing a sex worker to do 12-hour shifts in a textile factory for a pittance, which happens a lot, is definitely not the right solution. That looks more like human trafficking than sex work. NGOs who support these so-called ‘rescue operations’ should be ashamed. The woman who wants to feed her child needs nothing more than human rights and protection of her safety.

Amnesty International posted a video in which a women speaks about sex work, the money she earned doing it, and how it made it possible for her to save her children from a violent father. It reminded me of an interview with Marjan Wijers, researcher on human trafficking and sex work, which she did for magazine De Groene Amsterdammer:

‘Feminists should be the ones fighting for the rights of sex workers. The stigma on prostitution touches every women. It keeps the idea alive that the right of protection against violence depends on their honor or sexual purity.’

What is more powerful than a women saving her children from an abusive father? That doesn’t deserve discrimination or a jail sentence, only respect.

Eva Jansen, for the Red Umbrella Fund
This post was translated from Dutch. You can find the original post here.

08 Apr

Are we really listening?

The discussion on funding anti-trafficking initiatives organized by Global Fund for Women (GFW) and South Asia Women’s Fund (SAWF) at the recent San Francisco IHRFG meeting highlighted a few significant gaps that we as grant makers must pay attention to. The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) presented from its latest research on what money is invested in anti-trafficking initiatives and how that money is spent. To me, the most striking conclusion was the paradox of large sums of money going into anti-trafficking initiatives globally but the relative absence, even the unwillingness, of most human rights funders to engage with the issue. It makes me question who we are listening to when setting our funding priorities?

This paradox was echoed by Tulika Srivastava, Executive Director of SAWF, who added that although trafficking is often seen as primarily a problem affecting women and girls, many women’s rights organisations and feminist activists do not engage much with anti-trafficking initiatives due to the conflation of trafficking and sex work and the related sensitivities and polarized debate.

“It all comes down to who controls poor people, particularly poor women, their mobility, and their decisions,” clarified Tulika, “Who decides what’s good for them or not?”

In other words: do we even listen to the people that our funding is meant to support?

Although the adoption of the UN Protocol in 2000 and more recently the ILO protocol on Forced Labour have resulted in some efforts to affirm rights of workers, in many parts of the world anti-trafficking responses limit themselves to carrying out raids in brothels that claim to ‘rescue’ trafficked women. The harmful effects of such initiatives, including harassment, abuse, and arbitrary detention of women who depend on sex work for their income, are well researched and documented as “collateral damage” by the GAATW. There are numerous reports (see for example here and here) documenting abuses in rehabilitation centers and shelter homes that are more like prisons than safe houses. Sex workers in Thailand define raid and rescue initiatives as “action taken by police with TV cameras [and] reporters, where many women are shown sitting on the floor and hiding their faces from camera, or with their eyes inked out like criminals – when the job [is] done, most of us end up in debt and return to [sex] work to pay it off after we are released”(source: Bad Girls Dictionary by Empower, 2007). There is ample evidence of the totally apnsw logo sewing machineirrelevant and unrealistic alternative job options and trainings that are offered to women in shelters. It has even led to the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) developing a logo with a crossed out sewing machine and a film by sex workers in India called “Save us from Saviours”. In the US, the anti-trafficking frame is used to arrest large numbers of sex workers, particularly from black and trans* communities.

All this suggests an important role for human rights funders to ensure the human rights of all workers, regardless of the site and nature of their work and their legal status, are protected.

Interestingly, while many human rights funders stay silent and the feminist movement continues to be divided on the topic, global support for decriminalisation of sex work – including as an essential ingredient to ending violence, exploitation and trafficking in the sex industry – is experiencing an upward trend in recent years with clear endorsement from UNAIDS and WHO and more recently also from Amnesty International. Why then is there so little response from human rights funders to address this global issue of human trafficking? The discussion among funders in the session revealed that the topic is generally considered “too contentious and heated”, “too complex” and “too sensitive” to touch. A story was shared of a programme manager proposing to expand their grantmaking to include this area of work, but facing a blockage by the board of trustees who preferred “not to take a stance” on the issue of sex work.Save us from saviours

Tulika shared her own fund’s recent trajectory of not wanting to get involved in this complex debate, but ending up right in the middle of it. “We heard stories at meetings about women being rescued, supposedly after being identified as trafficked, from sex work as well as domestic work. Our research then showed us that the ‘rescue’ actually provided much risk of abuse, poor labour conditions and less income. It didn’t seem such a good deal for those women.” A key learning of SAWF has been, that decriminalization of sex work and self-organising among sex workers are essential ingredients to an effective and comprehensive approach to end trafficking.

“I used to think that all sex workers were victims too,” confided the director of another women’s fund to me after the session.

As the coordinator of the Red Umbrella Fund, the global fund that is led by sex workers, for sex workers, my position on sex work is obvious. The victimization approach is common but not effective and, in fact, harmful because it robs sex workers of their agency and voice. Our experience of four years of grantmaking at the Red Umbrella Fund tells us that sex worker rights activists’ priorities around the globe are to end the violence and stigma they experience daily. Decriminalisation of sex work is an important strategy to enable sex workers to protect themselves from violence and exploitation and seek justice when needed. As the old saying goes: Only rights can stop the wrongs.

A Bangladeshi woman I spoke with a few years ago put everything in perspective for me. She made her living as a sex worker in one of the country’s largest brothels. She had moved to the city to work, to take care of her children and mother. She had no savings, lacked school diploma’s and had no formal work experience.

“I could have become a waste picker or beggar”, she told me, “but sex work brings more money and gives me more freedom to work the hours that suit me. I take care of my kids, I can send them to school, and I work at night.”

Although she had no prior knowledge of concepts like human rights, lacked access to proper health services due to high levels of stigma and discrimination, and was unable to seek justice against the violence she experienced because the police was the main perpetrator, she was one of the most confident women I have ever met. Although the country’s law makers and popular media try hard to make you believe otherwise, she was not a victim.

While feminists may argue endlessly over the legitimacy of sex work as work, the people who sell sexual services as work make their own decisions based on what they consider their best options to be. Just like you and me. In this world we live it, when it comes to finding a job, poverty limits options. Being a woman or trans* person limits options. Having no formal education or a higher degree limits options. Being from an ethnic minority limits options. The list goes on. But as human rights funders, we have money to facilitate change.

Sex workers and their community organisations are often the first point of support to people who experience trafficking and other forms of abuse or exploitation. But according to our research there are few funders out there to support their work.

To go back to my earlier story, how did the director who just told me she used to think all sex workers were victims change her mind? “Meeting a sex worker, and hearing her side of the story,” she admitted. How about all of us, are we really listening to the people whose rights our funds aims to protect?

By Nadia van der Linde, Coordinator at the Red Umbrella Fund

This blog was initially posted on the Alliance Magazine blog here.