Grantmaking & Accompaniment

Red Umbrella Fund Welcomes its First Grantees

In April of this year (2012), a new innovative global grant-making mechanism for and by sex workers was launched: The Red Umbrella Fund.  During the first call for proposals, the fund received more than 1100 applications from 110 countries and the Red Umbrella Fund is now getting ready to disburse its first grants. Twenty-one sex worker-led groups and networks from all over the world will receive grant support. Decisions as to which groups would receive a grant were made by peer sex workers.

redumbrellafund_logoThe Red Umbrella Fund demonstrates a ground-breaking vision which places policy, strategy and grant-making decisions substantially in the hands of sex workers themselves. This represents a radical departure from traditional philanthropy and grant-making models, and instead puts into practice one of the tenets of social justice philanthropy: “nothing about us, without us”.

Mobilising resources for and raising awareness about the human rights of sex workers is vital. The severe stigma attached to sex work makes it almost impossible for sex workers to access justice, healthcare, and social security systems. It gives license to those who commit crimes of violence against sex workers and deny their humanity. Sex workers would not be at such a high risk of experiencing violence if they were respected as people and as workers, and if they felt free to seek help and protection without fear of being stigmatised, jailed, abused, and disregarded.

History of the Fund

This new fund was born out of an ongoing collaboration between donors and sex workers’ rights activists. Starting in 2008, the Collaboration to Advance the Human Rights of Sex Workers has brought together donors, sex workers and other sex workers’ rights activists from around the world. Over the past years, they have discussed how they could collectively advocate for sex workers’ health and human rights and ensure the availability of resources necessary to build and sustain sex workers’ rights organisations and movements.

A little over a year ago, members of the Collaboration decided to launch the Red Umbrella Fund – with the explicit goal to catalyse new funding for frontline groups fighting for the human rights of sex workers. Initial resources were provided by a number of funders (all committing ‘new’ money to the Fund so as not to ‘replace’ existing funding for sex workers). The high number of applications received confirms the need to find additional funds. This means growing and diversifying the Red Umbrella Fund’s income next year and in the years to come is a key priority.

To put this exciting new philanthropic and grantmaking model into practice, an International Steering Committee comprised of sex workers and donors oversee the strategic vision of the Fund. A Programme Advisory Committee comprised primarily of sex workers makes actual grantmaking decisions based upon transparent review processes. In both these governance structures sex workers form the majority. The Fund is administratively hosted by Mama Cash, an international women’s fund based in Amsterdam.

Rights not Rescue

The Red Umbrella Fund explicitly focuses on supporting self-led sex worker organisations and initiatives that use a human rights approach. These groups struggle to access funding for mobilising around a rights-based paradigm as many donors tend to focus on the health (especially HIV) risks associated with sex work. Sex workers are seen as “vulnerable populations”. Other programmes focus on “rescuing sex workers” which is stigmatising and violates the rights of sex workers, driving them underground and out of reach of prevention, care and support services.

To address this funding gap, the Red Umbrella Fund provides start-up and core funding for both registered and unregistered sex worker-led organisations and networks. The grantees will include organisations and networks of female, male and trans sex workers. Grant amounts range from €4,000 to €40,000.

Drawing on an analysis of applications received, several themes have emerged that sex worker rights groups are seeking funding for:

  • Countering violence, with a focus on ending police brutality and harassment;
  • Addressing stigma and discrimination, including in healthcare settings;
  • Advancing a decriminalisation agenda; and,
  • Building self-esteem and human rights expertise among sex worker activists.

Grants for capacity building, core support and advocacy

Red Umbrella Fund grants will be used by groups and networks of sex workers to inform sex workers about their human rights, document cases of violence and provide legal assistance, and mobilize them to take action. Contacts between sex worker organisations and networks and with other allies – like the labour movements in some places – are an important strategy for successful advocacy.

The grants will also be used by groups to strengthen their management, finance, and fundraising skills and systems, and to support their organisation’s democratic mechanisms by having the funds to organise members’ assemblies and board meetings. Many of these organisations provide a moral and physical safe haven for sex workers, one of few places where they are acknowledged in their existence and respected for who they are.

Beyond resourcing the sex worker’s rights movement through grants and capacity support, the Red Umbrella Fund also seeks to reach out and engage with donors and the broader public on pertinent issues related to sex worker’s human rights.

For instance, the Red Umbrella Fund will actively raise visibility about the work of its grantees in key areas such as the recognition of sex work as work; universal access to health services for sex workers; and the economic empowerment and social inclusion of sex workers as sex workers.

In addition, the Red Umbrella Fund will raise awareness within the donor community about issues like: the conflation of sex work with trafficking; violence against sex workers, particularly state violence; human rights abuses against sex workers, including mandatory testing for sexually transmitted infections and forced rehabilitation; and the stigmatisation of sex workers and their partners and families.

Today, on December 17th, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, the Red Umbrella Fund is getting ready to welcome its first twenty-one grantees. They represent a next step for sex workers in their ongoing campaign for self-determination, recognition, and justice.

By Nadia van der Linde, Red Umbrella Fund

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