29 Sep

Master Thesis – Roles of Regional Sex Worker Networks

The 6 Roles of Regional Sex Worker Networks

By Hester Scholma, Graduating Student,
Master Thesis Sociology, Vrije Univeristeit Amsterdam 

Network means together and together makes stronger. We [regional networks] can make the Sex Worker Movement stronger at the country level, at the regional level and move together to get sex workers’ rights”

Almost a third of the Red Umbrella Fund grantmaking budget goes to regional networks of sex workers because they are seen as important within the Sex Workers’ Rights Movement. But why, exactly? The Programme Advisory Committee of the Red Umbrella Fund has asked for further clarification on the importance of regional networks and a funder demonstrated interest to better understand the roles of networks in social movements. All in all, plenty of reasons to start an exploratory research into the work of regional sex worker networks.

Together means stronger

It sounds obvious: together means stronger. We all know that sowing and harvesting a field of wheat by hand is easier when we do it together instead of alone. Building a house goes much faster with many hands and multiple brains adding skills and knowledge on construction, electricity or design. An individual protesting against municipal policy in front of the town hall can make a statement but protesting in a group usually makes this statement stronger. It may feel logical that regional networks contribute to stronger local and national organisations and a stronger movement, the question is how?

Sex Workers’ rights organising

Many sex worker organisations, focused on promoting the human rights of sex workers, formed throughout the 1980s both in countries in the Global North and the Global South. The Sex Workers’ Rights Movement began to internationalise from the 1980s and the now fully globalized movement is one of the most geographically diverse and intersectional social movements in the world. The movement represents the interests of sex workers from many different countries, with varied races, gender identities and sexual orientations. It includes sex worker-led organisations working locally, nationally and internationally1.

The regional networks

The regional networks are groups of sex worker groups across countries in a particular geographic region. These networks connect organisations, and sometimes individual activists, to each other. They work with their members in the region and also work on a global level, sometimes together with other regional networks. The currently known regional sex worker-led networks are: ASWA in Africa; APNSW in Asia and the Pacific; ICRSE, SWAN and TAMPEP in Europe; and RedTraSex, PLAPERTS and CSWC in Latin America and the Caribbean. In addition, there are a few sub-regional networks and networks that unite sex workers and allies.

The 6 roles

To explore the contribution and relevance of the regional networks, conversations were held with people directly engaged in such regional networks, a representative of NSWP and some funders of sex worker-led organisations. Through these conversations, six regional networks’ key roles came to light: convening power, setting the agenda, platform for sharing and learning, supporting and engaging in advocacy, capacity building and amplifying sex worker voices.


1. Convening power

The regional networks bring people and organisations together from different contexts and backgrounds, physically or online. This can create movement consciousness. Regional networks can also make connections with other international bodies or social movements.


“We had 200 sex workers from about 10 countries. And it was just amazing because we met people from countries we didn’t even [normally] think about. You’re thinking that these are issues we’re facing in our country only, but that was such a powerful moment because sex workers spoke about human rights violations and that was the first time we were like we want decriminalisation. A lot of work had gone to mobilize the countries to bring sex workers to come for this conference. I’m getting goose bumps even as I’m talking about it. It was very, very moving”

 

2. Setting the agenda

The regional networks set a shared agenda together with members. This generates a clear message of the movements’ ideas and demands for both the movement itself and for outsiders. It is clear that one of the main objectives of the regional sex worker networks is the decriminalisation of sex work. This has not always been the case.

I think this is not something to take for granted. It took a lot and a lot of work to come to this unity. And to come to this unified voice and demand, what’s their message. So it definitely speaks to the movement and its success”

3. Platform for sharing & learning

The regional networks create opportunities for members to share experiences and learn from each other. For example, this platform creates the possibility for new sex worker-led organisations to do an ‘internship’ at more established organisations and the possibility to improve strategies together.

A strategy that was shared by one country – and maybe had a few challenges or a few hiccups – when the next country implements that same strategy, they’re able to see the loopholes and be able to address those challenges and make it a better strategy”

4. Supporting and engaging in advocacy

Regional networks support local and national advocacy and bring advocacy to the regional and global levels. Their advocacy is strengthened by the fact that they represent a big group of people. They have the position to gather information, provide numbers and engage in joint advocacy.


“When there were cases of murders of sex workers in Kenya, all other countries came on board to support Kenya and statements were being issued from other countries condemning this. That would never have happened if we did not have that regional platform”

5. Capacity building

Regional networks support local and national organisations to strengthen their skills, knowledge and organisations and in turn build the capacity of the movement as a whole. Regional networks regularly organise trainings and workshops for their membership. ASWA even established an entire training programme, jointly with the Kenyan national network KESWA and with support from the global network NSWP, called the Sex Worker Academy Africa.


“10 years ago there was no leader at the national level, maybe at the regional level one or two leaders. And now look at the countries. Every country has one or two organisations, there is leadership of sex workers, and they are fighting for their rights”

6. Amplifying sex worker voices

The regional networks represent a diversity of sex workers from the region and give local sex workers a platform to speak, both within the movement as well as outside of the movement on a regional or global level.


“[At a regional meeting] One of the sex workers from Myanmar was talking about violence against sex workers by police. In that meeting there were many representatives from the Ministry of Home Affairs and he said: oh my god I don’t know anything about this, I had no idea that this was happening in our country, nobody ever told me that this was happening”

Funding regional networks

The regional networks play an important role in making the movement stronger as a whole and in impacting the international and global level that have an influence on local realities. However, regional networks face multiple obstacles and this makes it difficult for them to fully fulfil all the roles named above. One of the biggest challenges regional sex worker networks face is lack of funding. Without flexible and core funding, the regional networks cannot live up to their full potential to strengthen the Sex Workers’ Rights Movement and to keep working on decriminalisation and the protection of human rights of sex workers.


“There is a general interest of funders to support local initiatives because of the immediate impact. But the problem that those sex workers are experiencing do not only link to their individual situation but also to the legal context of their country and the cultural context of the whole region. Networks are able to use the stories of their members and take it to a higher level and make a larger change. If those networks don’t do this regional effort, it creates a huge vacuum because local organisations often are not able to step up to the next level for policy change”

[1] Chi Adanna Mgbako, The Mainstreaming of Sex Workers’ Rights as Human Rights, 43 Harv. J. L. & Gender 92 (2020)
Available at: https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/faculty_scholarship/1092


This blog post was written by Hester Scholma, a sociology student at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Hester conducted qualitative research in partnership with the Red Umbrella Fund in 2020. If you are interested in this study and want to receive more information or a copy of the thesis, please contact the Red Umbrella Fund at: info@redumbrellafund.org


Illustrations by Hester Scholma

1Chi Adanna Mgbako, The Mainstreaming of Sex Workers’ Rights as Human Rights, 43 Harv. J. L. & Gender 92 (2020)
Available at: https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/faculty_scholarship/1092

27 May

“We are Human Before Anything Else” – Sex Worker Organising in Mauritius

by Claire Gheerbrant

Parapli Rouz, meaning ‘red umbrella’ in Mauritian Creole, is the only community-based organization promoting the rights of sex workers in Mauritius. The group has been a grantee partner of the Red Umbrella Fund since 2015. Working in a small island-nation has its particular challenges, like making yourself visible and heard in the increasingly global and connected sex worker movement. But Mauritian sex workers have a lot to say and are getting people to listen.

Public campaign from Parapli Rouz – “I have the same rights as you”

An underestimated sex worker population

The latest national survey (2014) estimates the sex worker population in Mauritius at 6,223 female sex workers and 1,649 transgender sex workers. Parapli Rouz only comes across a very small number of male sex workers every year. Beyond working in the streets, workplaces include homes, massage parlors, nightclubs, bars, restaurants but also beaches and catamarans. A number of Mauritian sex workers travel back and forth to the neighboring French island of La Reunion, where the pay is better. According to Parapli Rouz, those statistics are copiously underestimated and should be multiplied by two or three to reflect reality. In 2017 alone, Parapli Rouz met with more than 2,000 sex workers through its outreach work.

One of the main challenges sex workers in Mauritius face is the arbitrary arrests of street-based workers. Even if brothel keeping is the only criminalized activity under Mauritian law, street-based sex workers get arrested for “being on the streets at night”, “having condoms in their bags” or “wearing an indecent dress”; although these do not constitute formally punishable offenses.

Arrested for “being on the streets at night”

In order to be released, street sex workers are forced to sign erroneous investigation reports and are often denied their right to make a phone call from the police station. The charges they incur often relate to “soliciting”, “importuning” or “idle and disorderly”. When those cases are brought before the court, sex workers are sentenced with fines from 2,000 to 8,000 Mauritian rupees (50 to 200 euros) and prison terms of up to 3 months.

This comic strip – designed by a group of sex workers and drawn by former Parapli Rouz President Dany – is used as a sensitization tool directed at media, parliamentarians and police. It demonstrates in one page the extent of the challenges and abuses faced by sex workers: clients refuse to pay and are violent, police officers are abusive and charge sex workers for soliciting instead of filing their complaints, and health care providers don’t treat their injuries seriously.

A caravan to fight police abuse

To counter these violations of street workers human rights, Parapli Rouz used parts of its first grant from the Red Umbrella Fund to buy a caravan in 2015. The team uses the caravan to do outreach  once a week at various workplaces around the island. The mere presence of community workers in the areas of street work has visibly helped against the impunity of police officers, who know they are being watched.

On the sign “Despite violence and discrimination, we are still standing strong”

 

After a first court case was won in 2016 – Parapli Rouz provided legal support and a lawyer to the sex worker exposed to charges and those were dropped by the court- a precedent was set and police stations are now aware that Parapli Rouz is standing with sex workers and that they are no longer easy preys.

This work is paying off: recently a sex worker in Quatre Bornes was arrested but was, for the first time, granted her phone call. Sex workers now carry cards from Parapli Rouz which they present to police officers when they have contact with them. These cards send a strong message that sex workers are not alone nor powerless.

In addition to the caravan, Parapli Rouz expects to set up a telephone hotline for sex workers, reachable 24/7 and free of charge. The aim is to be able to react quickly in cases of emergency, such as violence from clients or the police, when the team is not on the ground, and increase safety of sex workers at all times. 

From an HIV/AIDS focus to a lobby and advocacy agenda

Soon after its creation in 2010, Parapli Rouz received funding from the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, to carryout activities related to HIV/AIDS prevention in the sex workers’ community. Sophie Ganachaud, Coordinator of the organization, explained that Parapli Rouz always wished to work more on advocacy, but it was never recognized as a priority by their potential funders and promoting sex workers rights remains highly controversial.

Indeed, funders tend to focus strongly on HIV/AIDS on the African continent (to which Mauritius is attached), which often makes it difficult for civil society organizations to extend their activities beyond health services and to work on a rights-based approach.

On the sign : “’We are human before anything else.Thank you Parapli Rouz”

With Red Umbrella Fund’s flexible core funding, Parapli Rouz decided to restructure the organization and dedicate more time for external advocacy. While still working on HIV prevention, the group now has a comprehensive advocacy plan targeting health providers, politicians, police and media.

The group organized a workshop for journalists to shift the moralizing tone and unrealistic portrayal often used in reporting about sex work. This resulted in more and better coverage of the work of the organization in the local press (in French). Based on this success, Parapli Rouz is hiring a communications officer to further expand their outreach and media presence.

Hypocrisy as a worst enemy

Developing relationships with institutional representatives is one of the most challenging aspects of Parapli Rouz’s work. Their experience is that if officials take pro-sex work positions in private meetings, they never share those publicly. The political risk is still high in Mauritius, and religious doctrines too influential. As Sophie Ganachaud, Coordinator of Parapli Rouz, explains: “for Mauritian politicians, supporting sex workers’ rights means signing your own political death warrant and risking the end of your career.”

Public campaign sign from Parapli Rouz Coordinator Sophie that says: “Stop hypocrisy”

In 2016, the Minister of Gender Equality joined Parapli Rouz’s commemoration on December 17th (the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers) and publicly offered to collaborate. Unfortunately, she resigned two days later. Parapli Rouz continues to invite government and police officials, hoping they will one day speak out and take a position outside of closed office doors. On December 17th 2018, Parapli Rouz organized a Pacific March and held a formal speech in the “Jardin de la Compagnie” in capital city Port Louis. This was a huge achievement for Parapli Rouz as it was the first time they got the authorization to demonstrate and march in front of the Parliament house. The demonstration was joined by many sex workers and allies and received good media coverage (in French).

On the sign: “We have the right to take care of our health”

Recipe for Success

Following the restructuring of the organisation in 2018, the team moved their office from the capital of Port Louis to bigger and more affordable offices in the central zone of Beau Bassin which is home to a large part of the island’s population. Following this move, Parapli Rouz has successfully organized community gatherings between sex workers from the two regions at their new center in order to increase solidarity between the two groups and decrease issues of territory and competition. Their recipe for success is a concept they refer to as “co-rity”: a mix of “collaboration” and “solidarity’. It is their goal to join the forces of different sex worker communities (trans sex workers, female sex workers, street-based sex workers and workers working from other venues) to face their common enemies and fight for their rights together. 

This article was written by Claire Gheerbrant based on an interview with Sophie Ganachaud (coordinator), Shameema Boyroo (Community Mobilization Officer) and Mélanie Babet (Community Mobilization Support Officer). 

The comic strips included in the article were designed by Dany, former President of Parapli Rouz who recently passed away, to whom this article is dedicated.

18 May

Sex Workers are Feminists Too

“Today I want to talk about sex workers.”

This was not your regular presentation opening at a meeting with funders. But then, it was not your regular meeting. From 11 to 13 April 2018, a unique encounter of very diverse activists and funders took place in Kenya to talk – and dream – about feminist movement building. The methodology required everyone’s participation while innovative scenario sessions forced participants to get out of their comfort zone, think beyond their organisational priorities, and imagine a different future.

“I am a beautiful woman and I use my body to make a living,” the presentation continues.

The speaker is Phelister Abdalla, Coordinator of the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KESWA), a national network with members in each of the country’s districts. In Kenya, stigma against sex workers is rampant, as is violence from police and others. Although sex work itself is not directly criminalised by law, in practice it is. Sex work can be prohibited by municipal bylaw, and to aid, abet, compel or incite prostitution is explicitly illegal. Phelister is also a member of the International Steering Committee of the Red Umbrella Fund, where, as she says, “it is sex workers who are deciding where the money goes.” Standing up in front of a crowd with over a hundred pairs of eyes looking directly at her, Phelister seems fearless and impressive.

“I make people happy and get money for that,” she adds comfortably.

A hundred pair of eyes looked at her in anticipation. Many people in the room had never (to their knowledge) met a sex worker before. Let alone listened to a sex worker speak.

Money & Movements

The entire encounter, called Money & Movements, was organised by a consortium of organisations called Count Me In! with the aim to get new, more and better (more accessible, sustainable, flexible) money to support feminist movement building. Feminist activists from all regions and diverse backgrounds and communities, including sex worker rights activists from Argentina, Guyana, USA, Uganda, Kenya and Myanmar, contributed to the conversations.

Also in terms of funder presence there was much diversity. Multi-and bilateral funders, private foundations, as well as public foundations including regional women’s funds travelled the globe to contribute, listen and learn.

Nothing about us without us

Already in the introductory session, the right tone was set when participants themselves highlighted the importance of the principle “nothing about us without us”. A bilateral funder sitting at my table nodded. Another courageous funder – not from one of the activist-led funds – emphasized that “we need to shift the power of money.” “Indeed,” added an activist at the same table:

“We often hear inclusion is expensive. But what is the cost of exclusion?”

Transformational Stories

Phelister was one of the key storytellers on the first day, following stories from other women activists from different regions who highlighted passions of women with disabilities (“we have passions beyond our disability!”) and indigenous organising. With every activist who spoke out, the urgency of inclusion and the need for diversity in movements became more apparent.

“This world is full of stigma and discrimination,” continued Phelister. She described how twenty sex workers were killed in just a month time.

“We were not sure we would make it home to our children late at night. Or whether our kids would get the news ‘there is no more mother’.”

That year, on the 17th of December, the international day to end violence against sex workers, they decided to march against violence against sex workers.


“We wanted people to see us. We weren’t sure if anyone would show up, but over 1500 people came. We showed people who we are. We are women who believe in our bodies, who believe in our jobs. Sex work is work.”

In the past year, KESWA has been completing in-depth research of human rights violations against sex workers in preparation of their plan to take the government to court. Already, KESWA supports sex workers whose rights are violated in the litigation of their cases. The rulings in each case, along with the evidence they have been documenting, will be used to push for the repeal of laws that work to criminalize sex work and thus harm sex workers in Kenya.

Another country with high levels of violence against sex workers where sex workers are taking their government to court is the US (for example in Alaska and California). Just as people were getting on an airplane to join the Money & Movements convening new legislation was passed in US Congress called the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). This immediately resulted in the shutting down of websites critical to sex workers for their advertising and safety across the country. By the end of the convening, our social media accounts were flooding with reports from sex workers who lost their main source of income and were left homeless without the ability to pay rent. Levels of violence against sex workers increased immediately.

“And this is not just in the US,” clarified Phelister.

“It’s also happening right here in Kenya. Backpage – a well-known and established adult ads webpage –  has also shut down here. Sex workers use that page to find clients and screen clients and stay safe.”

Phelister set the scene for a multitude of conversations and plans during the three-day meeting around funding for feminist movements. And for a feminist future that includes sex workers.

“Sex workers are feminists too. We belong in the feminist movement. My body, my business!”


By Nadia van der Linde

15 Dec

Minorities in a Movement

OGERA stands with refugee 2017Uniting LBT and Refugee Sex Workers

Red Umbrella Fund’s Programme Associate Louise visited OGERA (the Organization for Gender Empowerment and Rights Advocacy) in Uganda earlier this year to listen and learn from this unique group. Why are they organized specifically around lesbian, bisexual, transgender (LBT) and refugee sex workers? And how do they manage to overcome the many cultural and language barriers within this diverse membership?

Minorities in the Sex Worker Movement

OGERA is a Kampala-based group that unites and empowers lesbian, bisexual, transgender (LBT) and refugee sex workers. The group opposes gender based violence and advocates for decriminalization of sex work. OGERA takes a stand against the ways in which nationality, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and choice of profession negatively impact sex workers’ lives day to day. It is the only sex worker-led organization that reaches out specifically to refugee sex workers in the area. 

Shamilah Batte, a refugee sex worker herself, set up the organization in 2013. She realized that the wider sex worker movement, largely led by heterosexual women, lacked representation of other minority groups within the community. According to Shamilah:

“Sex work is perceived to be done by heterosexual women only. For female sex workers, sexual orientation is often not questioned due to the assumption that they identify as heterosexuals. And the needs of refugee sex workers are neglected altogether. I could not just stand and watch my fellow sex workers face all sorts of violations, mainly because they could not access health information and education, treatment and legal representation. All this inspired me to come out and be a voice for the voiceless.”

Criminalization, Stigma and Violence

In 2016, the Women’s Organisation Network for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA), a fellow member of the Uganda Network for Sex Workers Organization (UNESO), submitted a report to the United Nations to shed light on the human rights violations sex workers in Uganda face. Ugandan law criminalizes sex work. WONETHA’s report explains how this feeds into structural systems of police abuse, rape, harassment and public humiliation of sex workers.

Refugee women sex workers as well as lesbian, bisexual and trans people not only face similar forms of discrimination and stigma as other sex workers, but they face additional oppression based on their sexual identifies and their status as refugees. For example, the law in Uganda also criminalizes homosexuality. In 2014, the Ugandan parliament passed the Anti-Pornography Act to also operate against ‘prostitution’ which is perceived as immoral. As a result, it increases social stigmas, police violence and harassment. In combination with this bill, criminalization laws and high levels of homophobia contribute to further discrimination that denies sex workers’ access to health services such as HIV treatment.

Group photo OGERA

Stories of Stigma and Abuse

OGERA’s offices are located in a remote area of Kampala. The small but bright office, where the organisation welcomes members and guests, is protected by a high security gate. One of the rooms is used by members to do each other’s hair or make-up, as an additional income generating activity. The staff uses a car to do its outreach work in the refugee camps which are not so close by.

At the office Louise met with five transwomen who shared their personal stories of abuse and physical violence. Mainly from clients but also from the general community. The persecution they face from society due to their sexual and gender identities is a major burden and puts their livelihood and even lives at risk.

At a Refugee Brothel

Later that day, while the sun was blazing outside, Louise was shown around a refugee brothel in a small enclosed neighborhood in Rubaga. While children were running outside and there was ample noise of people passing by, it was relatively quiet inside. In a room that seemed like a shed made of wood, she met with about twenty refugee members of OGERA. They had fled from countries such as Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo or South Sudan.

They all shared stories of their daily realities, such as clients who refused to pay for their services. This is a common and risky situation due the high level of stigma against refugees and sex workers, that is further complicated by language barriers. It can be complicated to clarify services and boundaries with a client when you have no language in common.

They also shared their struggles of finding fulfilling employment other than sex work. There is no state income available for refugees in Uganda and sex work is one of the few ways to earn some money for refugees. Louise noticed how they all listened intently to each other’s experiences as well and continuously combined pain and serious conversation with jokes and laughter.

Successes

OGERA logoOGERA is a relatively well-known sex worker organization in the country, although it has only existed a few years. It has won the “sex work organization of the year” award and currently Shamilah coordinates the national network (UNESO). The group has established strong partnerships with various human rights based organisations and funders and contributed to international human-rights based publications about refugees and sex work (here and here).

One of OGERA’s core activities is to establish dialogues with health service providers and sensitize health workers to the issues faced by sex workers. The aim of this strategy is to overcome discrimination at health facilities. Sex workers also frequently face housing and employment discrimination. This occurs when landlords refuse to rent spaces to sex workers or when employers outside the sex worker community discriminate them based on their work, gender identity, sexual orientation and nationality and therefore hinder sex workers to find work in other fields. OGERA’s direct peer to peer support work and dialogues have improved LBT and refugee sex workers’ access to health and legal services.

World Refugee Day

OGERA World Refugee Day 2017

OGERA celebrating World Refugee Day in Uganda

Many sex worker groups organize around important international days for human rights advocacy, such as 3 March, 2 June or 17 December. When Louise visited Kampala, OGERA was in the midst of planning its activities for World Refugee Day on 20 June. This yearly event is an opportunity to commemorate the strength of the millions of refugees worldwide and to show support for families forced to flee their countries of origin. OGERA’s founder Shamilah has faced such hardship when she was only 6 years old. She grew up in Rwanda during the emerging war between the Hutu and the Tutsi in 1994. When the conflict escalated into a genocide, she and her mother were forced to flee their home to find safety in Uganda.

For the World Refugee Day, OGERA rented a football field near a sex worker hotspot in the center of town. The group chose this location because it was accessible enough to draw the community in while secure enough for the safety of the organisation’s team and members.

We later learned that the event had been a success. Sex workers from diverse countries showed up, both members and new contacts, and discussed issues affecting them and spoke about the importance of solidarity amongst the refugee sex worker community. Shamilah shared the following with the African LGBTI media platform Kuchu Times:

“This day means a lot to OGERA considering the fact that this one of our key target groups. It creates awareness about the issues that affect refugee sex workers in a foreign country like Uganda.”

Despite complications due to the language barriers, this event allowed diverse refugee sex workers to exchange experiences amongst each other in a relatively safe space. And despite the hardships they face, OGERA members find strength in shared moments of joy, singing and dancing. These experiences help to build feelings of empowerment and solidarity among the community.

Let’s work together as sex workers to create a bigger voice. However, we should respect, embrace and recognize diversity within the sex worker movement.”
Shamilah Batte

This blog post was written by Josja Dijkshoorn, who supported the Red Umbrella Fund’s grant-making process in the summer months in 2017 after her BA International Studies. She currently studies Gender Studies at Utrecht University.

15 Feb

Sisonke: A Case Study

The Red Umbrella Fund developed three case studies to highlight successful stories of sex workers in their efforts to build strong sex worker movements in three different regions – Africa, Asia and Latin America.

“We are now able to take ownership and leadership of the things we do—to take a lead in everything that we do on our own. As our slogan says, ‘Nothing about Us, without Us.”

This first case study is about Sisonke, the national movement of sex workers in South Africa. This movement was established in 2003 as a response to injustice and to ensure sex workers’ access to health services and rights. Sex workers in this movement have come together to build strong and strategic alliances, and to change the legal framework of sex work in South Africa.

“Sisonke has complemented its advocacy work with creative campaigns and activities aimed at combating the stigmatization of sex workers in its communities… Sisonke has noticed a positive difference where they have a dialogue with the community members.”

Many sex worker organisations and movements face difficulties accessing funding for their human rights advocacy and capacity building work. When funding is available, it is often only provided for programs specifically targeting health and HIV. The Red Umbrella Fund gives core funding grants that allows grantees to decide how to spend the money. With this funding, Sisonke was able to strengthen and expand its organisational and advocacy activities in their  fight for decriminalisation of sex work in the country.

Read the full case study here.

29 Jan

Ohotu means Love

How the sex workers’ movement in Nigeria is “growing and showing” despite violence

The Nigerian Criminal Code penalises sex work with imprisonment, while at the same time the government claims to focus on promoting education and alternative employment for sex workers. However, 65 percent of Nigerians live below the international poverty line, revealing a significant lack of employment opportunities. In the meantime, the criminalisation of sex work has resulted in a lack of protection and rights for sex workers in Nigeria who experience regular violence and abuse from police in addition to the widespread fear and violence spread by Boko Haram.

“There are challenges, but I thank God it puts food on my table”
– sex worker in Nigeria (source here)

Courage and positivity

The South African Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and African Sex Worker Alliance (ASWA) organised an international meeting in 2010 to build sex workers’ knowledge on human rights. The Nigerian participants seized the opportunity to create their own organisation for and by sex workers. The group is now called Ohotu Diamond Women Initiative (formerly known as WOPI). Eva Jansen talked with the group’s coordinator, Imaobong Abraham Udoh, a.k.a Pat Abraham, about the challenges the group faces and how they overcome them.

pat

Coordinator Imaobong Abraham Udoh (Pat Abraham)

“Ohotu means love in one of Nigeria’s local languages,” explains Patt Abraham, “It symbolises the group’s mentality of mutual support and positivity.”

Their positive mind-set and courageous approaches are some of the greatest strengths of the women oganised in Ohotu. The organisation informs sex workers about their sexual and reproductive health and human rights. It organises rallies and media campaigns in support of decriminalisation of sex work and supports women sex workers in Lagos city to claim their rights. Their events help to foster solidarity and empower the sex worker communities.

“It is not easy; the road to decriminalisation is very long,” explains Patt Abraham.

From police abuse to police approval

The visibility of the group is significant, particularly considering the criminalised status and stigma surrounding sex work. While facing the risk of being arrested, members of the group march the streets with banners to raise awareness about sex workers’ human rights. Patt explains that the only way to be visible as activists and sex workers is to keep educating the police and invest time into building partnerships.

nigeria

Nigeria on the map (source: Wikipedia)

“Before we take any action, we get in touch with one of the commissaries to discuss our plans. We try to explain to them that sex workers also have morals, and that they have children that need to be raised. We want the next generation to be better off than ours. Officers need to realise that the HIV problem is something that hits the entire country. The HIV prevalence will only go down if sex workers have the possibility to work on this problem.”

The group has been successful at building this relationship as the police commissioner usually allows their planned activities and protects them during protests or gatherings. Still, police abuse remains one of the biggest challenges for sex workers in Nigeria, according to Patt.

”The police goes after the girls… Police officers often go to brothels to collect money. If sex workers refuse, they are arrested or abused, depending on the officers’ mood. The system is corrupt, which makes the situation worse than it already is.”

Ohotu advises sex workers to take photographs whenever something bad happens in brothels or at ‘hotspots’ (common locations where women sex workers solicit or meet clients). They use the photos as proof in their claims with other, less corrupt, police officers when they try to pressure them to take appropriate action.

”Yesterday I visited one of the brothels in Lagos. There had been a fight between a costumer and one of the girls at work, which escalated very badly. The costumer cut the girl in her ear and she ended up in the hospital. The police was there but did not do anything.”

Security delays

Other problems faced by Ohotu are the violent conflicts and the political tensions in the country. The postponed elections this year and the fundamentalist sect Boko Haram, which abducted almost 200 young women and girls in April last year and continues to create havoc, caused a lot of tension across the country. Many people, including a lot of sex workers, fled to family in safer areas and small villages. Particularly many migrant sex workers in Lagos are from the area where the kidnappings took place and had personal contact with affected families. Patt recalls:

“Around the time of the events, we had to cancel trainings for security and safety concerns and due to absence of members. Boko Haram was moving from the north-east to the south-west of Lagos. This frightened people because it meant they could be everywhere.”

Pattoo Abraham

Pat leading a protest for sex worker’s rights in Lagos

People stayed away from the streets as much as possible, including sex workers and customers. The sex worker rights day activities had to be postponed. As soon as the situation was slightly more peaceful, Ohotu rescheduled its activities. In June, for example, Ohotu organised an event for sex workers, brothel managers and human rights activists. There was information about sex work and family planning, and sex workers learned new skills such as making clothes and baking cakes.

“The new learned skills can be used to make some extra money,” explains Patt. “For many sex workers it is not easy to combine sex work and raising children. By having other sources of income, for example selling self made jewellery, sex workers do not have to rely on sex work completely. They can work from home a bit more, and find a better balance between work and family.”

It is not an attempt to ‘rescue’ sex workers from their job, but rather provide opportunities to improve their livelihood situation

Expanding its work

Ohotu is ambitious and full of plans. While decriminalisation is the goal, it also works to increase sex workers’ access to health services and HIV prevention. In addition, Ohotu wants to expand its work with children of sex workers:

”They are very vulnerable,’ says Patt. ”They need education and more respect, it is good to bring them together. They are often being bullied by other kids, because of their mothers’ stigmatised job. If we want to help sex workers, we need to help their children too, they are the future.”

Undeterred by the challenging circumstances in the country, the sex workers’ rights movement in Nigeria is growing and increasingly visible because, as Patt says, ”We are tired of dying in silence”.


By Eva Jansen for the Red Umbrella Fund

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.

Sisonke

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 strategic plan for HIV prevention, care and treatment of sex workers last year, SANAC 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.