02 Jun

International Sex Workers’ Day 2021 – CEDAW Statement

To the CEDAW Committee: Sex work is work. It is not trafficking.

On 02 June, International Sex Workers’ Day, the Count Me In! Consortium stands in solidarity with sex worker-led organisations and networks advocating for sex workers’ rights

and condemns the discriminatory and potentially harmful measures proposed in CEDAW’s General Recommendation 38.

Sex workers’ rights are central to human rights – particularly women’s rights – and for achieving gender equality. Yet, there continues to be disagreement about how best to ensure that sex workers are free from violence and discrimination. The recent CEDAW General Recommendation 38 on trafficking in women and girls in the context of migration adds to misunderstanding of the distinction between sex work and trafficking and may increase discrimination against sex workers.

Our critique of the General Recommendation is wide-ranging. Expressing disappointment in the General Recommendation, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) highlighted the failure of the General Recommendation to distinguish between trafficking, sexual exploitation, and sex work. They note: “By habitually linking these three distinct phenomena, along with the poorly defined concept of “the exploitation of prostitution1,” this General Recommendation reinforces erroneous conflations of sex work and trafficking which fuel harmful legislation, policies and practices, including an overly broad application of anti-trafficking measures.” Noting how anti- trafficking laws and policies frequently cause harm to sex workers and result in human rights violations, Amnesty International noted that “The general recommendation has not only failed to adequately address this, but risks writing this harsh reality further into the normative framework governing trafficking.2” The wide-ranging and detailed critique of the General Recommendation by International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW AP) noted that the problems in the General Recommendation range from start to finish. They identify challenges even at the level of the legal framework upon which it relies, commenting on its regressiveness because “it not only situates the legal basis of the GR (General Recommendation) in the anti-human-rights, racist, colonial, patriarchal and archaic 1949 Convention on Trafficking, but also vitiates 51 years of progress on legal standard setting on trafficking achieved by the Palermo Protocol which, despite its shortcomings, recognises that trafficking occurs for a wide variety of purposes not limited to exploitation of prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation.3

Inequality, discrimination and violence targeted toward sex workers of all genders is sustained through laws, policies and practices that criminalize some or all aspects of sex work4. All too frequently, anti-trafficking laws and policies directly and indirectly result in real harms for sex workers and individuals perceived to be sex workers5. While we commend and appreciate the efforts being advanced in trying to curb trafficking, such broad legislative and normative frameworks seldom address the structural root causes of trafficking but rather perpetuates the invisible networks that structurally exclude sex workers. Understanding the difference between sex work and trafficking is an essential step for effective anti-trafficking campaigns that both address trafficking and respect and safeguard sex workers’ rights.

  • The difference between sex work and trafficking
    Worldwide, sex workers and sex workers’ rights advocates contend that as consenting adults, sex workers choose to sell sexual services. Sex work is work, and not a ‘social’ or ‘psychological’ condition that requires solving. Rather, it is the conditions resulting from stigma and criminalisation of sex work – not the work itself – that can be exploitative. The risks faced by sex workers are created by punitive laws, policies and practices creating unequal power relationship between ill-intentioned clients, law enforcement or third parties (such as brothel-keepers, managers or anyone else who facilitates sex work) on one side, and sex workers on the other.

Understanding the difference between sex work and trafficking6 is an essential step for effective anti-trafficking campaigns that both address trafficking and respect sex workers’ rights. Evidence confirms that poorly designed anti-trafficking interventions, such as those elements suggested by General Recommendation 38 inaccurately portray sex workers as inevitable victims and add to the stigma attached to sex work7. Indeed, such laws often miss actual trafficking victims who urgently require assistance. Resources are focused on “rescuing” sex workers who do not seek interventions or rescue instead of rights-based funding. An overemphasis on trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation also means less attention is paid to other sectors where trafficking is prevalent – such as the labour or domestic work sector. Finally, such misguided laws and policies discourage sex workers and clients from seeking access to health, justice and reporting abuse in the sex industry or incidences of trafficking because of fears of arrest, persecution or “rescue”.

Bringing about social justice in relation to sex work requires that sex work is regarded as work and legally recognised as such. This means repealing the civil and criminal laws that are used to sanction sex work or penalise sex workers. It means bringing sex work under appropriate labour frameworks. It also requires an intersectional lens and incremental approach that challenges stigma as well as social, political and economic exclusion. This will help ensure that sex work is approached in a rights-based manner, make the sex work context safer, increase sex workers’ access to services and the protection of the law, while affirming sex workers’ dignity and rights.8

Sex work is work. It is not trafficking.

Count Me In! is a special joint initiative led by Mama Cash, including the sex worker-led Red Umbrella Fund (RUF), together with the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), CREA, Just Associates (JASS) and Urgent Action Fund – Africa (representing its sister funds in the US and Latin America). The Dutch gender platform WO=MEN is a strategic partner for lobbying and advocacy. 

 

1) See NSWP’s Statement on CEDAW committee general recommendation no. 38 accessible at https://www.nswp.org/resource/nswp- statements/nswp-statement-cedaw-committee-general-recommendatio-no-38-2020
2) See Amnesty International’s Research on the CEDAW Committee New General Recommendation on Human Trafficking accessible at https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/ior40/3755/2021/en/
3) See IWRAW Asia Pacifc’s Thematic Paper on A Critique of CEDAW General Recommendation No. 38 accessible at https://www.iwraw-ap.org/resources/critique-of-cedaw-gr38/
4) See CMI!’s Factsheet on Sex Work and the Law accessible https://www.mamacash.org/en/counting-sex-workers-in-campaign
5) See NSWP’s Policy Brief on The Impact of Anti-Trafficking Legislation and Initiatives on Sex Workers accessible at https://www.nswp.org/resource/nswp-policy-briefs/policy-brief-the-impact-anti-trafficking-legislation-and-initiatives-sex
6) Please see CMI fact sheet on sex work and trafficking at https://www.mamacash.org/media/cmi_/factsheets/cmi_trafficking_final.pdf
7) See GAATW’s report on Sex Workers Organising for Change accessible at https://www.gaatw.org/resources/publications/941-sex- workers-organising-for-change
8) See CMI fact sheet on sex work and the law at https://www.mamacash.org/media/cmi_/factsheets/cmi_law_final.pdf

08 May

Time to Turn Up the Volume

by Nadia van der Linde

Please cite this article as: N van der Linde, ‘Time to Turn Up the Volume’, Anti-Trafficking ReviewAnti-Trafficking Review, issue 12, 2019, pp. 194-199, www.antitraffickingreview.org.

I remember my first self-organised donor panel well. It was at the Global Social Change Philanthropy Conference in Washington, DC in 2013. I had just started work as the first coordinator of the Red Umbrella Fund—the newly established fund for and by sex workers. I organised a session that would clarify the distinction between sex work and human trafficking and emphasise the need to fund sex worker organising. We had a strong panel: an awesome sex worker activist, a knowledgeable academic, a passionate service provider, and a committed funder. I was, however, in for a rude awakening: even though the line-up was great, the audience was scarce. I thought to myself, if we can’t even get funders to show up and learn about sex workers’ rights, how will we ever meet the needs of sex worker organisations fighting for their basic human rights?

Why the Need for Donor Support?

Sex workers are criminalised for their means of making a living in all but a handful of countries and jurisdictions. Addressing stigma and violence are key priorities of sex worker groups everywhere. For most sex workers, police are not there to protect them but perpetrate most of the violence against them.[1]Harassment, confiscation of condoms, extortion, arbitrary arrest, and rape are common examples of police violence. Even in the Netherlands, where sex work is regulated, most sex workers do not report cases of physical or sexual violence to the police.[2] A rare exception is New Zealand, where sex work is decriminalised and the government helps fund a sex worker organisation to provide information, services, and support to their peers. The New Zealand Prostitutes Collective and police work together to prevent violence and encourage sex workers to file a report when they experience sexual assault and other violent crimes.[3]

Sex workers across the world are organising against criminalisation, which puts not just their livelihood at risk but their entire lives—and those of their loved ones. They are generally recognised as marginalised and highly vulnerable in today’s societies, embodying multiple layers of stigma because of the work they do, and also because they are often poor, lack formal education, belong to Indigenous or migrant populations, identify as trans or gay, or are single mothers. However, funding to support sex worker organisations and their community mobilisation efforts is scarce.[4] In 2013, foundations invested a meagre USD 11 million in grants to support sex worker rights worldwide.[5] Most sex worker organisations have no funding at all, but those that do receive an institutional grant usually still have annual budgets below USD 70,000 and their reliance on volunteer work remains high. At the same time, raid and rescue programmes and rehabilitation centres continue to be generously funded as, supposedly, models of supporting or ‘helping’ women in the sex industry.

Sex worker organisations call on funders to provide more funding that is long term and covers rent, salaries, trainings, legal services, and advocacy. They also want funders to speak up in support of sex workers’ rights.[6] A conversation I had recently with another human rights funder revealed that, while they had given some grants to sex worker groups before, they had never realised that most peer human rights funders still do not fund such work. We clearly need to more effectively leverage our access and knowledge to educate and activate our philanthropic peers.

Changing Perspective

The best way to educate funders is through people’s lived experiences. We interviewed staff of funding organisations who had changed their perspective from assuming all sex work (or prostitution) is exploitation and trafficking to recognising sex workers as human beings who are entitled to rights, including in relation to their work. This revealed that academic evidence, UN documents, and human rights organisations’ public support for sex workers’ rights are all helpful, but the main lever to a more nuanced understanding comes from direct interactions with sex workers.[7] We need to bring funders and sex workers in the same room.

The international donor-activist dialogue on sex work and trafficking that took place in 2008 was one notable success of getting funders to listen to sex workers.[8] Members of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) played a crucial role in subsequent donor education, speaking from lived experience about the harms of many anti-trafficking initiatives on sex workers. By the end of the event, funders were united in their acknowledgement that sex workers need funding to effectively organise and stand up for their rights. Four years later, the Red Umbrella Fund was launched.[9]

So far, the Red Umbrella Fund has awarded 158 grants to 103 sex worker-led groups in over fifty countries. These investments have resulted in stronger organisations and leadership and increased solidarity and connections within the movement and with other movements. This is not, however, nearly enough to foster real change. For every grant awarded, applications by many other groups had to be declined due to the limited money available.

Self-organising for Labour Rights

Since the fund was established in 2012, our grantee partners have taught us how the conflation of sex work and trafficking plays out in their daily lives. It is not just that anti-trafficking policies often harm them; stigma and criminalisation also create a social climate where sex workers are at greater risk of being trafficked and survivors of trafficking may have few other options to make a living than sex work. Although they hardly ever mention it in their own publications, many sex worker groups provide crucial services and support to people who have experienced trafficking.[10] Similarly, labour unions and women’s organisations that stand up for domestic workers or agricultural labourers who work in poor conditions do not force them to quit their work or support incarcerating them, but instead focus on improving their labour conditions and self-organising capacity. As one sex worker at a donor-activist meeting organised by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) in Bangkok in February 2018 stated:

We are fighting for our rights, for our labour rights, for better working conditions. Sex workers and clients, for the most part, are against trafficking and exploitation. Sex workers support trafficked people, and we protect them from the police.

It is no surprise that a review of the grant applications we received over the years shows that, although local contexts differ greatly, ending stigma, violence, and criminalisation are the key priorities for sex worker organisations everywhere. Sex worker organisations prevent exploitation and trafficking by providing safe spaces, information, support, and accompaniment to relevant services.[11] Their campaigns for decriminalisation of sex work are crucial to build safer work environments where problems can be reported to police and justice can be sought. And where, as is highlighted by the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, sex workers have the right to say yes, but also the right to say no.[12]

Conclusion

A peer activist funder recently explained the evolution of their donor advocacy strategy to me, which had gone from ‘philanthro-shaming’ (highlighting the urgent need to increase funding in a particular area to avoid or address a certain problem) to unapologetically using the popular concept of FOMO, the fear of missing out. Too often, he shared, we highlight funding gaps and needs, hoping it will persuade funders to fill the abyss. That may help some allied funders to expand their grantmaking, but it will not convince the sex worker rights funding ‘virgins’. The reality is that even many self-identified social justice funders still claim ‘neutrality’ on the topic of sex workers’ rights, or simply lack the courage to speak out. Those funders need to realise that they are not the first sheep to leap over the ditch. In the case of this peer activist funder, their new donor advocacy strategy, therefore, intends to take a ‘jump on the bandwagon or miss out’ approach, highlighting that funding sex worker organising is the thing to do, and now!

I don’t think this bandwagon approach alone will do the trick, but at least we have started forming a band and developing some common tunes. Different funders have started coming together in a new collaborative effort to ensure that more funding is directed to the sex worker rights movements. Now it’s time to turn up that volume and reach the right audience.

Nadia van der Linde is the Coordinator of the Red Umbrella Fund. She holds a Master’s degree in Social Geography from the University of Amsterdam and has years of international experience, particularly in the field of sexual and reproductive rights, advocacy, and (youth) participation processes. Nadia has worked for the Youth Coalition, the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights, the People’s Health Movement, Stichting Alexander, the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). She is the chairperson of the Prostitution Information Center in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Email: nadia@redumbrellafund.org.

Notes:

[1]      M Bhattacharjya, E Fulu and L Murthy, The Right(s) Evidence: Sex work, violence and HIV in Asia. A multi-country qualitative study, UNFPA, UNDP and APNSW (CASAM), Bangkok, 2015, retrieved 19 December 2018, http://www.asia-pacific.undp.org/content/dam/rbap/docs/Research%20&%20Publications/hiv_aids/rbap-hhd-2015-the-rights-evidence-sex-work-violence-and-hiv-in-asia.pdf.

[2]      M Kloek and M Dijkstra, Sex Work, Stigma and Violence in the Netherlands, Aidsfonds, Amsterdam, 2018, https://www.soaaids.nl/sites/default/files/documenten/Prostitutie/Sex%20Work%20Stigma%20and%20Violence%20in%20the%20Netherlands%20Report%28digital%29.pdf.

[3]      E McKay, ‘World-first partnership between NZ Police and Prostitutes’ Collective’, NZ Herald, 17 December 2018, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12178217.

[4]      J Dorf, Sex Worker Health and Rights: Where is the funding?, Open Society Institute, New York, 2006, https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/sites/default/files/where.pdf.

[5]      Mama Cash, Red Umbrella Fund and Open Society Foundations, Funding for Sex Worker Rights. Opportunities for foundations to fund more and better, Mama Cash/RUF, Amsterdam, 2014, https://www.redumbrellafund.org/report.

[6]      Ibid.

[7]      N van der Linde and S Bos, ‘Mind the Gap—What we learned about how funders can be moved in the right direction’, Alliance Magazine, 7 September 2016, https://www.alliancemagazine.org/blog/mind-the-gap-what-we-learned-about-how-funders-can-be-moved-in-the-right-direction.

[8]      CREA, NSWP and SHARP, Sex Work and Trafficking A Donor/Activist Dialogue on Rights and Funding, CREA, NSWP and SHARP, 2008, https://www.redumbrellafund.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Donor_Dialogue_Final_REPORT_December2008.pdf.

[9]      Red Umbrella Fund, The Creation of a Collaborative Fund for and by Sex Workers, 2017, https://www.redumbrellafund.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Red-Umbrella-Fund-The-creation-of-a-Collaborative-Fund.pdf.

[10]     See, for example, Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, Sex Workers Organising for Change: Self-representation, community mobilization, and working conditions, GAATW, Bangkok, 2018.

[11]     Ibid.; see also: W Volbehr, ‘Improving Anti-Trafficking Strategies: Why sex workers should be involved’, Open Democracy, 17 July 2017, https://www.opendemocracy.net/beyondslavery/wendelijn-vollbehr/improving-anti-trafficking-strategies-why-sex-workers-should-be-inv.

[12]     NZPC, Our Right to Say Yes, Our Right to Say No, n.d., http://www.nzpc.org.nz/pdfs/Right-to-Say-Yes-or-No-Poster.pdf.

11 Jan

Not Victims

I come from quite a conservative religious background. I remember, as a young girl, feeling upset and sad when walking through the Red Light District in Amsterdam, wishing someday all these women would be ‘free’. No, I could never see myself behind those windows.

Based on my personal ideas and feelings, I assumed that sex work was not a job that anyone would ever choose to do. I imagined that most people working in the sex industry must have been forced somehow. I have learned that my assumptions are not always right.

During my research of sex worker organisations and anti-trafficking measures, I also learned that assumptions can have harmful consequences. I interviewed sex worker activists from twelve organisations about their understanding of and response to trafficking. The stories I heard taught me that sex workers are often far from disempowered. And that all of them are in fact already taking action to influence the debate – as well as the practices – around preventing and addressing cases of trafficking into sex work.

The public discourse13336434_10154107603289627_1564694405_n

In the public discourse, sex workers are often portrayed as women who are poor, powerless victims who have had no other choice but to ‘sell their bodies’. They may be a victim of unfortunate circumstances or they may have fallen prey to abusive boyfriends or criminals who forced them into the sex industry[1].

The latter category, often referred to as ‘human trafficking’ is a popular topic. Millions of dollars are invested into anti-trafficking campaigns and programs every year. However, the topic is widely debated with diverse stories, statistics and popular rhetoric, allowing for a distorted image of reality. Discourses around sex work and trafficking are often linked, based on prejudices, morals and somewhat dramatic rhetoric and images. But repeating this conflation time and time again has harmful consequences.

The European anti-trafficking network La Strada International states that:

“unbalanced media coverage on trafficking can … create false perceptions and damage the interests of trafficked persons rather than servicing them”.

They argue that media coverage on trafficking is problematic because of the ‘portrayal of the scope and nature of trafficking, in particular with regard to estimates of the number of trafficked persons and its occurrence in the sex industry or other economic sectors’.

Taking action

Today, over 200 sex worker-led organizations are members of the Global Network for Sex Worker Projects (NSWP). The Red Umbrella Fund, the only sex worker-led fund for sex worker organizations in the world, has received applications from over 225 different sex worker organizations and networks in the past five years. These diverse groups all stand up for sex workers rights but each have their own priorities, with some more focused on health where others on protection against violence. Others focus on influencing policy-making processes for protective laws and policies on sex work or migration. These organisations generally acknowledge that exploitation and human trafficking happens in their sector, however, not on the exaggerated scale as often suggested by the media and in politics.

Some of these groups have themselves set up programs to combat trafficking in their sector. The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) in India consists of over 65,000 sex workers. Since 1997, the DMSC has been highly concerned with human trafficking and established Self-Regulatory Boards to prevent and counter trafficking. These boards consist of both sex workers and other local professionals such as doctors, lawyers and government officials. They ensure that women who start working in their district are not underage, and not coerced into sex work. The DMSC also provides information about the work and about the services and support that are available for sex workers. They note that:

“there was no existing effective mechanism to combat trafficking in destination (of sex work) sites and only a committed group of sex workers could prevent entry of trafficked underage girls or unwilling women into the sex sector.”

Research shows that the self-regulatory boards are an effective solution to prevent trafficking, and that sex workers can play a critical role against trafficking.

The example of the DMSC has inspired other collectives to implement similar initiatives, adjusted to their local context. For instance, the sex worker collective Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP) recently published a book about their own anti-trafficking efforts.daughter-of-the-hills

But if these strategies are so successful, why have they not (yet) been widely replicated in other countries?

The Biggest Challenge

One of the challenges faced by sex worker groups is that they are not recognized as partners against trafficking. Because sex workers are often considered ‘victims in need of rescue,’ sex worker organisations tend to spend most of their time and resources in both gaining recognition of sex work as a legitimate profession, and representing the voice of these workers. German sex worker group Berufsverband erotische und sexuelle Dienstleistungen (BesD) has stated that:

“they apparently don’t think it’s important to support sex worker-led organizations in the whole quest of saving and rescuing sex workers”.

Moreover, many anti-trafficking programs in practice are focused on anti-sex work policies, induced by the highly stigmatising popular discourse surrounding sex work. Therefore, many sex worker groups are focused on debunking the myths on sex work and human trafficking, and changing the rhetoric. They feel that the tone of the discussion needs to be changed in order to protect both sex workers and trafficking victims.

“The authorities think that wherever prostitution is practiced, there are women who are forced into it. And we are trying to sensitize the authorities to demystify their myths and prejudices” – representative from sex worker organisation Mujeres del Sur, Peru

Many sex worker organisations monitorlastrescueinsiam_empower and critique existing anti-trafficking initiatives, as they themselves experience the harms resulting from these programmes and campaigns. Sex worker group Empower in Thailand criticises current anti-trafficking ‘raid & rescue’ operations in a playful yet spot-on video.

First do no harm

Although I have adjusted my understanding of sex work and can accept it as a job, I still think I could never be a sex worker myself. Why? Because I think I would feel very uncomfortable setting my own boundaries with my body, my clients and myself. I will never forget the reply I got from a sex worker when I shared this thought: “Well, if you don’t think sex work is for you, then you’re probably right”. And I think he was right. Just like being a banker, a butcher, or a dentist are definitely not the jobs for me either.

donoharm
But I learned that a young woman’s pity based on assumptions is not helpful for anyone. Rather, what sex workers need is to be recognized as workers. We need to challenge and change the current discourse on sex work and human trafficking. We have to be critical of popular discourses that reduce sex workers to victims with no agency. We need to support sex workers’ rights, decriminalise sex work and fund sex workers’ rights organisations. Furthermore, we should invite sex workers as experts in anti-trafficking spaces and acknowledge them as allies in the fight against trafficking.

Not victims. Rather, sex workers are crucial partners in the fight against human trafficking. Only when we take a human rights based approach, stopping the discrimination and recognising the important contribution of sex workers in this area, can we work together to effectively counter human trafficking in the sex industry.


This blog was written by Wendelijn Vollbehr,  who conducted qualitative research in partnership with the Red Umbrella Fund in 2016. Her masters thesis, “Sex workers against human trafficking. Strategies and challenges of sex worker-led organizations in the fight against human trafficking,” was nominated for the FSW Johannes van der Zouwen Masters Thesis Prize 2016 and is available here.

 

[1] Weitzer, R. (2007). The social construction of sex trafficking: Ideology and institutionalization of a moral crusade. Politics & Society, 35(3), 447-475.

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.

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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10 Dec

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

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

India - AINSW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Piril Kazanci, Red Umbrella Fund


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

24 Oct

Sex Workers stop harmful bill in Scottish Parliament

A young collective of sex workers has successfully opposed the attempts of the Scottish parliament to introduce the Swedish model. Although the Swedish model decriminalizes sex workers, it prohibits the buying of sex and renting of room for the purpose of sex work. The law aims to protect women from violence however it has rendered sex workers more vulnerable to violence, stigma and sexually transmitted infection. In June 2013, parliamentarian Rhoda Grant filed a bill calling for the Swedish model, arguing that sex workers must not regulate themselves.

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But the Sex Worker Open University (SWOU) has consistently lobbied against the proposed measure, bringing with them their own experience on the ground as sex workers and their collective learning as a movement. They emphasize that the Bill conflates sex work and sexual exploitation, and in the process, increases stigma against and denies any agency to sex workers.

As one female sex worker connected to SWOU explains:

“The criminalisation of our clients serves only to make our work more difficult and risky. We as workers are flung into a buyers market, with less ability to negotiate safety and safe meeting with clients – who would be taking a much bigger risk if they were criminalised – on OUR terms. Sex workers who rely on their clients will be forced to let crimes go unreported, lest they harm their income by drawing attention to their other clients. Sex workers under this law would be far more vulnerable and isolated from police in the event of violence”.

She added,

“Lawmakers must listen to us, not speak over our heads. We are the experts on our own lives and to ignore the knowledge we have on issues such as harm reduction and safe working conditions is completely appalling.”

SWOU is a UK-based collective comprised of current and former sex workers that aims to challenge the taboos surrounding sex work, primarily using public events to advocate against prejudice and discrimination. Since its inception in 2009, SWOU has actively created a safe haven where sex workers of all genders and backgrounds can gather, socialize, exchange, learn new skills, build their confidence and self-esteem as workers and develop joint events.

Credit: Jannica Honey

Demonstration against criminalisation of clients of sex workers in Glasgow in 2013. Organised by Sex Worker Open University. Photo credit: Jannica Honey

SWOU organized effective campaigns that made Scottish political parties consider the mounting evidence that highlights the dangers of the Swedish model. Contrary to what promoters of the Swedish model claim, international research has proven the Swedish model to be counterproductive and ineffective in protecting sex workers from exploitation and violence. On the contrary, both sex workers and researchers report an increasingly unsafe environment for sex workers as a result of the criminalisation of clients. Condoms, for instance, are not as accessible to buyers who will be engaged in a supposedly illegal act. Meanwhile, sex workers feel discouraged to report abuses to the police.

“Members of the Sex Worker Open University, in collaboration with SCOT-PEP and the support of many activists, worked tirelessly to create a sex workers’ rights festival in Glasgow in April to give voices to sex workers that would have been directly affected by such a law: loss of income, raids by the police, increased difficulty in screening clients, and increased stigma would have been just a few of the consequences of the criminalization of our clients. We are very proud of what we have achieved and we hope this victory will inspire our comrades to keep fighting such law in other countries,”

shares Luca Stevenson, one of SWOU’s founders.

With pressure from SWOU and other like-minded groups, who have also made substantive interventions, the bill was dropped.

“Achievements like these are pivotal to the struggle of sex workers against policies that purport to protect them but do more harm than good. Groups like the Sex Worker Open University make us understand that sex workers are the ones best placed to judge their position and decide on solutions to their problems,”

Nadia van der Linde, Coordinator of the Red Umbrella Fund points out.

 

Just recently, on 9 October 2013, SWOU sent an open letter, signed by 30 other organizations, calling on the Nottingham Women’s Conference to stop excluding sex workers from the conference, arguing that feminism needs sex workers. The letter provided sharp critiques against the widely held misconception that sex workers are not capable of engaging in a thought-provoking debate. In its response, the Nottingham Women’s Conference apologised and promised to be taking the concerns seriously and to be “continuing to look at the inclusivity of the event”.

Their fierce communication and recent success in policy advocacy makes SWOU a great example of an innovative self-led sex workers’ initiative. Through its communications work and trainings, the group has given a voice to sex workers and makes sure that this voice is heard in decision-making spaces. SWOU’s projects range from organising debates and workshops on sex work in public spaces and universities. It organizes public film festivals portraying the lives and struggles of sex workers around the world and engages in academic research on the effectiveness of national policies on sex work. SWOU is one of the grantees of the Red Umbrella Fund.

By Cherise Balentin and Eva Cukier, Red Umbrella Fund

International Sex Workers’ rights Festival in Glasgow:

In April 2013, SWOU, together with the Scottish sex workers’ collective SCOT-PEP (http://www.scot-pep.org.uk/), organised an international Sex Workers’ Rights Festival in Glasgow. In this five-day event, sex workers from various European and international sex workers’ organisations (such as STRASS from France, Scarlett Alliance from Australia and the NSWP) came together to discuss and share experiences, to show films, documentaries and art exhibitions produced by sex workers, workshops sharing information on the sex workers’ rights movements, and peer learning sessions by and for sex workers. The event was a great success and contributed to public awareness of sex workers’ rights in the UK.

17 Oct

Sex workers defend UN recommendations

In 2012, as the result of lengthy and consultative processes, a number of UN agencies published two reports *) that recommend the decriminalisation of sex work to help address human rights abuses faced by sex workers, and call for better access to health services.

Sisonke march on International Sex Worker Rights Day in Cape Town

Sisonke march on International Sex Worker Rights Day in Cape Town

Recently, Equality Now, a USA based NGO working to end violence against women and girls, has critiqued this recommendation claiming that it is “in direct opposition to international human rights standards” and “jeopardizes efforts to prevent and address sex trafficking and promote gender equality”. Instead, Equality now prefers to promote the so-called “Swedish model” which criminalizes the purchase of sex services.

In response, local and international sex workers’ rights groups have issued statements in defence of their human rights. Red Umbrella Fund grantee Sisonke from South Africa has issued a statement in collaboration with the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA) and Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT).

“When Equality Now suggests “we listen” – who are they suggesting we listen to?”,

Kholi Buthelezi, National Coordinator of Sisonke questioned.

“I would like them to listen to me, and other sex workers who participated in the deliberations of the Commission [on HIV and the Law]. The Swedish model has failed, criminalisation does not prevent nor enable anyone to address trafficking – rather it enables stigma and drives violence against sex workers”.

In the statement, Sisonke addresses the many misconceptions raised by Equality Now and makes a case for a revised report.

“The UN together with a spectrum of experts, researchers and advisors have made knowledgeable and powerful recommendations based on hundreds of testimonies, and on evidence based on rigorous research. Its recommendations should be supported – not labelled as jeopardising gender equality.”

Sisonke presents itself as the national movement of sex workers in South Africa. Based in Cape Town, Sisonke currently has active representation in seven provinces and fights for the decriminalisation of sex work and improvement of working and living conditions for sex workers. The network’s activities comprise the mobilisation, organisation and sensitization of sex workers through outreach activities, trainings and workshops and campaigns on human rights. Through advocacy campaigns, public events and meetings, Sisonke has been successful in addressing issues of violence, discrimination and unsafe working conditions for sex workers. They have also secured better access to services and advocate forthe inclusion of sex workers in decision-making spaces.

Sisonke is hosted by SWEAT and is a founding member of the African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA). With the one-year core grant from the Red Umbrella Fund, Sisonke is able to expand its work throughout South Africa and strengthen its internal structures by setting up a National Steering Committee of sex workers.

By Eva Cukier, Red Umbrella Fund

 

*) HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights and Health (2012), the Global Commission on HIV and the Law’s report published by UNDP and Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific (2012) by UNDP, UNFPA and UNAIDS.

An excerpt from Sisonke's Work Wise booklet

An excerpt from Sisonke’s Work Wise booklet


Related statements by international networks of sex workers:

  • Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP)
  • Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW)
  • African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA)

Crossposted from Mama Cash