From 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!
The 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.
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.
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)
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”.
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!
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