24 Nov

Interview: From ‘social evil’ to policy influencer – building sex worker leadership in Vietnam

Former Red Umbrella Fund volunteer, Nathan Desvignes, backpacked through South-east Asia just before the Covid19 pandemic and interviewed two sex workers’ rights activists of the Vietnam Network of Sex Workers (VNSW), Hien and Van, in Hanoi. Below is his account of the encounter.

Sex work in Vietnam
Sex workers in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam faced many challenges following the opening of the economy of the country in the 1990s.
Social and economic inequalities increased, shaping the sex market according to class belonging1. Sex workers have been driven out of red-light districts to roads in the outskirt of the cities or hidden as enterprises such as barber shops, making the outreach work more difficult. Police raids (resulting in fines) are still frequent and sex work is still generally seen as negative and considered a “social evil” by public authorities.

Despite policing, stigma and the economic inequalities in the country, sex workers succeeded to set up their own organizations. Founded in 2012, the Vietnam Network of Sex Workers (VNSW) actively campaigned against the repression of sex-workers, resulting in the closure of all sex worker detention centers (called “rehabilitation centers”) in 2013. The network currently unites over fifty sex worker-led organizations from all provinces of Vietnam, reaching a large diversity of sex workers in relation to gender identity, sexual orientation and place of work. Recently, VNSW has been actively promoting the expertise of sex-worker groups in social policies among local governments and working on its own sustainability.


How did the Vietnam Network of Sex Workers (VNSW) start?

Hien: The VNSW was created during the Vietnam Civil Society Platform on AIDS (VCSPA), our annual meeting day where all the key populations can meet and talk about global strategies. Every year in Vietnam, every key population gathers in this meeting. In 2012 the sex worker led organizations realised that they need to build up their own network and not let the movement be represented by non-sex worker-led NGOs. This desire for a common union, which would be able to represent the movement at a national and international scale but also to function as a platform for sex-workers to meet, coordinate and exchange about their practices and activism, was the idea that led to the creation of the Vietnam National Network of Sex Workers in 2012.

This desire for a common union, which would be able to represent the movement at a national and international scale but also to function as a platform for sex workers to meet, coordinate and exchange about their practices and activism, is the idea that led to the creation of the Vietnam National Network of Sex Workers in 2012.”

After the creation of the network, what were the first goals and missions of the organization?

Hien: The main goal of the network is to improve the sex workers life. How to improve their legitimate rights, labor rights and human rights. At the time of creation of the network, sex workers were still forced to go to detention centers and faced a lot of stigma and discrimination. Sex workers couldn’t talk and take decisions by themselves and could not even come out publicly as sex workers without risking being jailed. We were still seen as a social evil both by the society and the public authorities.

At the time of creation of the network […] we were still seen as a social evil both by the society and the public authorities”

Partly thanks to the establishment of the VNSW, we are now confident to speak in conferences and in front of the government as sex workers. We also started to work with the police, while in the past we were very scared of the police because we could go to prison. Nowadays we can negotiate with the police and we can have a talk. We can even offer support to the police! Some of our members are engaged in a collaboration with local police to help the re-identification of sex workers2.

In the past we were very scared of the police because we could go to prison. Nowadays we can negotiate with the police and we can have a talk”.

In the past, sex workers faced a lot of violence from clients and pimps and even from the police. We didn’t know how to report because we thought that we deserved such kind of violence. But now, thanks to the knowledge disseminated to sex workers, sex workers can relate to the law, policies and to our rights. That way we know that we can report violence to our local group or to the network, and then they will support the legal procedure to report to the police. We have the right to be protected by the police!

Now, thanks to the knowledge disseminated to sex workers […] we know that we can report violence to our local group or to the network, and then they will support the legal procedure to report to the police.

Can you tell us a bit more about this re-identification of sex workers?

Van: Sex worker groups support the police to get ID papers for sex workers and other key populations. We do a survey among key populations who have no identification because you need an identification in order to have access to health insurance and HIV treatment. That is why we are supporting all key populations to have access to ID papers and an insurance card.

You need an identification in order to have access to health insurance and HIV treatment. That is why we are supporting all key populations to have access to ID papers and an insurance card.”

Hien, you are currently a Steering Committee member of the VNSW. Can you tell us why did you join the VNSW?

Hien: I was a sex worker, a drug user and I am living with HIV. Before 2014 I was working in a drug user-led organization focusing on people living with HIV and their access to treatment. Since then, I started to work for the sex worker community directly. Because in sex worker-led organizations, we also do support the sex workers to access HIV treatment.

Can you tell us more about the Community Leadership Fostering Program of the VNSW?

Hien: The grant from the Red Umbrella fund was essential in financing the training of a younger team of community leader. Because the members of the steering committee are quite old and worked for quite a long time, we need to build up replacement in order to better represent our community. Young community leaders often have little experience and less skills, so we need to help them with knowledge and skills as well as opening their mind. Those skills and knowledge are necessary for them to take over the functions of the Steering Committee in the future. We are therefore confident and serene about the future of the network and in the fact that it will live long.

Because the members of the steering committee are quite old and worked for quite a long time, we need to build up replacement in order to better represent our community.”

How were the participants chosen?

Hien: We first called for applications from the 50 member organisations of VNSW. Then the members of all organizations were meeting through Skype to discuss and choose the eligible participants. The applicants had to be involved in their own communities, endorsed by their community-based organisation (CBO) and be under 25 years old, as our goal was to promote youth leadership within the sex worker movement.

And in practice, how did the program go? Did it fulfill your goals?

Hien: In the evaluation session, the participants declared that the training sessions were all very useful to them. For instance, in the session dedicated to communication they learned how to catch the attention of the listener and how to be confident in speaking out, not only in front of their peers but also in front of a large and diverse public. They even had training on the best way to talk, measuring the tonality and rhythm of their voices. After the training sessions all felt more confident in their own agency. Those skills are essential when you organize meetings and have to develop an internal and external communication.

“After the training sessions, all felt more confident in their own agency”

So how were these skills developed?

Van: We did many training sessions with different themes. The first one was named: «Seven habits to be highly effective people». The second training was about presentation: how to talk coherently and how to read efficiently reports and diverse type of publications. In advocacy we have to talk a lot, but also read a lot! Reading also needs training and exercise in order to be able to choose which information is useful or not! Communication is not only useful for meetings but also for outreach work in the field. An important mission of VNSW is to disseminate knowledge, especially harm reduction knowledge about safe sex or safe use of drugs among the community.

An important mission of VNSW is to disseminate knowledge, especially harm reduction knowledge about safe sex or safe use of drugs among the community.”

How do you see the future of the programme?

Hien: I think it is very important to develop this kind of programmes further. One problem is that our members are working a lot but they do not have a salary, that is a very precarious position. Capacity building is important for both the current members to be confident in letting in the leadership of younger members and for new leaders to be confident taking over these responsibilities. Only one member per local group could participate to the program due to the limitation of resources but it allowed us to keep a link between the Steering Committee members and the base of the organizations. Links between individuals and groups are important to keep a coherent movement in Vietnam.

The capacity building also made us face the decrease in funding. Seeing how less and less money comes to community-based organizations, we have to empower our members so they can keep working independently. Right now, the Vietnamese government is implementing modules to support sex workers in collaboration with local organizations. But in order to be considered as a partner, local sex worker organizations have to prove that they have the capacities to reach out to their communities and they need to write a proposal and send it to the authorities. That is why the capacity building is so important for the empowerment of sex workers in Vietnam at this moment.

Seeing how less and less money comes to community-based organizations, we have to empower our members so they can keep working independently.”

Knowledge is changing every day. Even the way we outreach to sex workers has changed. We have to permanently update our practices and knowledge. We now have adapted and try to integrate ways of outreaching online to sex-workers. In the past we used to outreach the sex workers in person. That is why we have to update our knowledge every day and to repeat the training sessions and remain updating it. The most important for now is that each local organization has the capacities to be considered as a partner for the local authorities.

Now I will share about my own experience. Luckily my CBO is a partner of the local government, under the program about social affairs and vice prevention. This is the program in charge of solving any issue related to sex work in general. My CBO is actually one of the partners of local authorities in Hanoi to pilot the sex work official panel in Hanoi. I have a lot of experience and skills because of working in that field for a very long time. That is why the training sessions are so important: to balance the knowledge and power dynamics between the members and be able to work together. And of course, it is important in order to be a reliable partner for the local government. Not all member organizations of VNSW currently have the capacities to be part of such a project yet.

That is why the training sessions are so important: to balance the knowledge and power dynamics between the members and be able to work together. And of course, it is important in order to be a reliable partner for the local government.”

Why do you think funding sex worker organizations is important?

Van and Hien: Funding is very important for the network and community based organizations in general. Funds are needed to enable capacity building and training programmes. The starting point of our community is very low. Sex workers and key populations in Vietnam may have a low level of education. That is why we need to improve sex workers’ knowledge, skills and capacity to be confident in leading the community.

Funding also allow us to promote harm reduction interventions. Sex workers can then outreach to their friends and their own communities, helping them with how to have safe sex. It helps prevent violence, even how to change work if they want to and sometimes how to get some funding from the government.

Funds also allow us to promote harm reduction interventions. Sex workers can then outreach to their friends and their own communities, helping them with how to have safe sex.”

Funding furthermore enables sex workers to work towards a meaningful engagement in advocacy, allowing sex workers’ voices to be heard. Advocacy is very important, as a representative of the sex work community, the network needs to raise the voices of sex workers in consultations and meeting that concern us directly.

So, what are the priorities in advocacy for the VNSW?

Hien: Advocacy takes a long time. In the past we had a meaningful involvement to close all the detention centers in 2012 and 2013. All the detention centers have closed, and all the sex workers that had been arrested were released. Now sex workers are only fined between 5 to 25 dollars.

In the future we now want to advocate for sex work not to be illegal anymore and not to be considered as negative. That concerns not only the worker but also the buyer and many organizations and individuals around it. This is just like people selling food in the market. They are not recognized as workers, but their occupation is not illegal. Decriminalization, access to the full status of citizens and to human rights, that is what we ultimately fight for.

In the future we now want to advocate for sex work not to be illegal anymore and not to be considered as negative. […] Decriminalization, access to the full status of citizens and to human rights, that is what we ultimately fight for.”

In the future we may train all our member to move to become social enterprises. Because the resources are decreasing and at the moment the CBOs have to adapt and find other income. That is why the idea is now to move to social enterprises, a new way of enabling self-sustainability for the community. That would allow that the profit would directly flow back to our communities – and eventually to the whole society. But we still need more funding in order to launch this social enterprise project.

“Because the resources are decreasing at the moment the CBOs have to adapt and find other resources. That is why the idea is now to move to social enterprises, a new way of enabling self-sustainability for the community.”

We are also focusing on the connection between the local sex worker groups and the local government, now that they have increasingly become partners. That helps to prove that the sex worker led organizations are reliable partners and that sex workers should be protected and not prevented.

Thank you!

Vietnam, Sex Work and Covid19

Missing in this interview is how hard the sex workers in Vietnam have been hit by the Covid19 pandemic in recent months. As described by Red Umbrella Fund grantee partner Strong Ladies in Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam:

In the period before the Covid pandemic the sex worker community worked in diverse settings, such as gathering points, hot spots, massage services, and online services. Transgender sex workers mainly worked in hot spots, online, and in some bars. There have been several cases of transgender sex workers being abused by clients when clients discovered they were transgender. For them, sex work is considered the only way to earn an income and save money for surgeries in order to physically match their gender identity.

During the Covid pandemic the work situation got heavily affected for the sex worker community. Most of us have lost customers leading to serious affects on our income. A lot of the sex workers are originally from neighboring provinces and need to keep making enough money in order to pay the rent for their accommodation. Some are lucky to get some kind of reduction on the rent because of the Covid situation. In Ho Chi Minh City, there are many “Rice ATM’s”, but sex workers are afraid to go out and accept these offered goods. Mainly because when they show up all dressed, it is then considered that they are not in need and do not face difficult situations and therefore are not entitled.”

Nathan would like to thank Hien and Van for welcoming him in the locals of VNSW and take their time answering all his questions. He would also like to give his thanks and solidarity to all the sex worker activists in Vietnam which work stands to him as one of the bravest examples of raising for social change. Finally, he’d like to highlight the importance of the facilitating organizations, sex-worker led as the Red Umbrella Fund or allies as the SCDI (the host organisation of the VNSW) in Vietnam.


Resources & further reading:

Facebook page of VNSW: https://www.facebook.com/vnswvietnam/

Membership of VNSW to the Global Network: https://www.nswp.org/members/vietnam-network-sex-workers

Report of the Regional Office for the Western Pacific of the the WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION (2001): http://www.wpro.who.int/hiv/documents/docs/Sex_Work_in_Asia_July2001.pdf

Joined report of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), The Department for Social Evil Prevention (DSEP) under the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) facilitated by the United Nations (2012): https://vietnam.iom.int/sites/default/files/IOM_Files/Projects/Migration_Gender/Final_report_Sex_work_and_Mobility_ENG.pdf

Academic resources:

Kay Hoang, K. (2011). “She’s Not a Low-Class Dirty Girl!”: Sex Work in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 40(4), 367–396. doi:10.1177/0891241611403481 

Ngo, A. D., McCurdy, S. A., Ross, M. W., Markham, C., Ratliff, E. A., & Pham, H. T. B. (2007). The lives of female sex workers in Vietnam: Findings from a qualitative study. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 9(6), 555–570. doi:10.1080/13691050701380018 

1 For an extensive study Kay Hoang, K. (2011). “She’s Not a Low-Class Dirty Girl!”: Sex Work in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 40(4), 367–396. doi:10.1177/0891241611403481

2 Re-identification in Vietnam is a public program aiming to issue legal identification to all citizens of Vietnam. The lack of legal identification is often a barrier to access to human rights in Vietnam, especially in rural areas.

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

01 Aug

Artivism: A guerrilla tool for sex worker movements

By Aline Fantinatti

I was 20 when Daspu was created in 2005 by Gabriela Leite, a pioneer of the sex workers movement in Brazil. Daspu is short for “Das Putas”, meaning (designed) by the whores. It is the name of a clothing brand created to raise funds for the sex worker NGO Davida. The name Daspu is also a parody on Daslu (“Dasloo”), a famous luxury department store created by and for socialites from São Paulo, the richest city in Latin America.

Coincidentally, Daspu’s creation was launched just before the rich, elegant and well educated owner of Daslu became the target of a federal investigation against tax evasion crimes. Daspu was thus perceived as a sharp provocation which awarded them much public attention and opportunity to share their political message. Daspu inserted itself into the Brazilian mainstream culture, giving a new meaning to the puta identity by performing fashion catwalks in telenovelas, official fashion weeks, cultural institutions and street events. Sex workers participating in Daspu catwalks recreated themselves as fashion models of their own clothes in a celebratory occupation of the catwalk, a territory that up to then had been reserved to Dasluzettes.

Photo: Daspu Catwalk at Satyrianas theater festival 2016, in São Paulo, Brazil. Credit: Daniela Pinheiro

Reporting on Artivism

During my internship at the Red Umbrella Fund, I analyzed if and how their grantee partners have used artivism in their political and social interventions. I could not help but think back about how I had been influenced as a young woman growing up in Brazil when Daspu reached the mass media. These affective memories helped me to understand the significance of the artivism initiatives described by the 63 Red Umbrella Fund’s grantees whose reports I scrutinized. At least 2 in every 3 sex worker groups reviewed mentioned one or more examples of using artivism in their reports. And this was even higher specifically for national and regional sex worker networks. Using arts in activism is common across all regions, although groups reported it most often in Europe, North America and the Caribbean.

Sex worker activists make use of appealing visual elements such as color and shapes, poetic strategies such as word sounds and repetition, and performance to give strength to the messages. Creative methods such as storytelling and graphic design organize and simplify sex workers’ narrative. By making complex political issues more easily understandable, the targeted audience is finally able to connect and to relate to sex workers. A basic example of how social movements regularly use art to empower their message is the creation of rhythmic political mottos.

Somos lindas, estamos listas, somos puta feministas! We are beautiful, we are ready, we are whore feminists!

Photo: Activists chant during a meeting of Sindicato OTRAS (Sex workers organization in Barcelona). The scene was portrayed in the documentary Crossings: The Stories of Migrant Sex Workers.

Guerrila Tactics

Leila Barreto, former member of the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes and GEMPAC (Women Prostitutes Group of Para State) and researcher of sex workers’ movements in Brazil1, explains that a specific characteristic of the sex workers’ movement is that it is oriented towards a guerrilla fight to occupy new spaces2. Expanding your visibility means to get out of your comfort zone and create and be present in conversations with wider audiences that are distanced from their realities.

Art offers sex worker groups guerrilla tools to achieve political visibility among different audiences. It is also used specifically to fight against the stigma imposed on sex workers, with the understanding that stigma is a collective political problem and not an individual fault. Artivism constitutes a useful strategy for many sex worker groups to establish a dialogue with civil society. As with the case of Daspu, many artivism actions that promote public visibility also target the community itself by introducing or affirming a joint identity as sex workers. To build and maintain strong community engagement in the movement, sex worker organizations are determined to tackle the stigma internalized by sex workers themselves.


Argentinian anthropologist Dolores Juliano describes the mechanisms of silencing used to control marginalized groups of women in hierarchical societies. In these societies, recognizing which discourses are legitimate and which ones are not is a tool to grant or to deny access to power.

“The division between good and bad women benefits the stability of the system. Prostitution stigma has nothing to do with what sex worker are or do. It represents a potent element of control for the women who are not in the industry. The model of the selfless wife and mother demands a lot of sacrifice. […] the only way to make sure that women adapt to it is to ensure that the other possibility is worse.” 3

The social panic about what sex workers can unveil about gender and sexual roles is the reason why sex workers are denied the possibility to speak for themselves. Sex workers’ discourse is thus constantly undermined and only validated when it presents them as victims. According to Juliano, the silencing of sex workers is used as a power maintenance strategy4.Sex worker organisations make use of the multiple conventional political dialogue tools: reports, formal advocacy actions, meetings, and field work, but only a narrow audience is able and interested enough to dive into dry policy reports. Sex worker activists therefore try more creative strategies to get their messages across.

Creativity as a Path to Success?

Georgina Orellano, secretary general of AMMAR (Asociación de Mujeres Meretrices de Argentina) in Argentina, disclosed that a street art intervention in 2013 allowed the organization to realize that sex workers activism should take on a creative path. Together with an advertisement team, AMMAR developed an action to call the attention of the public to their mission using short and incisive communication elements. The campaign was based on data from AMMAR’s community based research which revealed that many sex workers in Argentina were single mothers and their family’s main source of income.

AMMAR came up with a street art intervention to get attention for the need to protect these women from exploitation and police violence. Illustrated black and white decals were placed on some of the busiest corners of Buenos Aires. On one side you could see a sex worker, but once you turned around the corner you could see that she carried a baby stroller or two kids by her hand. The message: “86% of sex workers are mothers – we need a law that regulates sex work”. AMMAR’s name and mission were clearly communicated. The murals went viral on social media platforms and received extensive local and international media coverage, including in The Guardian

“Street Corner Moms showed AMMAR that creative interventions can generate social consciousness among society in general and that it took the movement away from the sectors AMMAR always intervened, amplifying the message of the workers.”
– Georgina Orellano (interview April 2019)

Photo: Street Corner Moms. Credit: AMMAR

AMMAR has since developed many other creative strategies using documentary and cultural festivals to “occupy spaces” beyond the usual, introducing counter narratives to oppose the stigmatizing discourses on sex work. One such example is their collaboration in 2017 with MAMBA (Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires), where AMMAR hosted guided tours during the exhibition of Argentinian painter Antonio Berni. Berni’s 1970s critical realism depict narratives about the world of sex work embodied by his muse Ramona Montiel. AMMAR’s members organized a tour covering different topics such as the street and stigma.

“A lot of the images settled by art history is present in sex workers narratives until today. For instance, people still think that we are always wearing high heels and fishnets. We were there to intervene in this narrative.”
– Georgina Orellano (interview April 2019)

Mock Arrests and Condom Seizures

Empower, a longstanding sex worker organization in Thailand, develops street performances through its Honey Bee Troupe to create awareness among the local public on sex workers’ issues. They pressure policy makers through media exposure and direct interactions with relevant stakeholders. By using basic props and costumes that are understood across cultures and languages, the group gets their message across in diverse locations.

The organization further developed their format to directly respond and to influence political decision makers during conferences. At the AIDS Conference in 2018, in order to protest against the “condom as evidence” policies used in many countries, the group dressed as police officers and performed mock arrests of delegates to get them to sign a ‘subpoena’ demanding end to the use of condoms as evidence and to decriminalize sex work. Approaching ‘suspects’ with typical verbal and gesture commands, the police characters seized over 1,000 condoms and attracted much attention.

Photo: Honey Bee Troupe during AIDS Conference 2018. Credit: English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP)

Establishing a puta conversation

As I grew up in a conservative suburban town around São Paulo, Daspu was my first point of contact with the sex workers’ movement in Brazil. Sex workers’ artivism sparkled in me a reflection on gender roles long before I came across feminism. The sex worker movement needs guerrilla tactics to occupy new spaces, as this struggle is not won with conventional strategies. Artistic elements in activism contribute to empathy and call attention to different and often larger audiences. Art has allowed sex worker activists to create opportunities to build support, influence opinions, and to challenge longtime encroached ideas.

What if I would never have seen sex workers perform on a Daspu catwalk?

…Perhaps I would still have become a sex worker ally, but there would certainly be fewer chances for sex workers’ political messages to be seen and heard without such artivism.



Aline volunteered as a research student at the Red Umbrella Fund while completing her masters degree in Gender Studies at the Utrecht University. She also a BA in International Relations from Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo. After working for 10 years in the corporate sector, she started to investigate and to write about sexual rights related issues. During her work at the Red Umbrella Fund, Aline investigated how sex workers use art to create and to sustain a wider debate about labour, exploitation, agency, class and gender roles.


With special thanks for the generous interviews offered by Georgina Orellano, Secretary-General at AMMAR in Argentina, Liz Hilton from Empower Thailand and Leila Barreto, former member of GEMPAC (a sex worker group from the State of Para) and the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes.



1 Barreto also likes to point out her identity as a Filha da Puta, daughter of a whore. Barreto is the daughter of Lourdes Barreto, one of the founders of the sex workers movement in Brazil. Leila Barreto also created the annual cultural political event Puta Dei which takes place in various cities of Brazil since 2012. It is organised along with the International Sex Workers’ Day, celebrated by the global sex worker community every 2nd of June.

2 Barreto, L. (2016). Prostituição: a história recontada: transas sociais e institucionais em Belém (Prostitution, a retold story: social and institutional intercourses in Belém)(Specialization in Education in Human Rights and Diversity). Universidade Federal do Pará.

3 Juliano, D. (2002). La prostitución: el espejo oscuro. Barcelona: Icaria.

4 Juliano, D. (2017). Tomar la palabra: mujeres, discursos y silencios (To take over the word: women, discourses and silences). Barcelona: Edicions Bellaterra.

06 Mar

China: A Case Study of Sex Worker Organising

Sex work is illegal in China and it is difficult to effectively organise online due to censorship and repercussions. The large geographic distances in China make it difficult to come together in person. This is the Red Umbrella Fund’s third case study, highlighting the work of a sex worker-led organisation in China to improve access to health care and legal services for highly mobile cis men and trans women sex workers.

“People can come in and share. They have a sense of belonging. A sense of identity. We talk about their work and encourage them to share. So we have an environment of people talking with us.”

For the safety of all those involved in the work of this organisation and to avoid jeopardizing the organisation’s important work, the name and details have been anonymized in this case study.

“Academic partners are useful for their expertise in the theories and concepts surrounding sex work and gender. The group has always promoted sex work as work, but has more recently used academic theories gained from partnerships with researchers to improve their approach to advocacy.” 

Despite all the challenges and risks of organising in China, the group has managed to create a drop in centre specifically for cis men and trans women sex workers. This has created a sense of community and a safe space where sex workers can feel comfortable being themselves and where they are able to share experiences and exchange advice. News of the group has been spread by word of mouth through the networks of sex workers.

Read the full case study here.China sex worker organising case study

Read the second case study about APROSMIG in Brazil here.

Read the first case study about Sisonke in South Africa here.


21 Apr

“Stop using condoms as evidence” say sex workers in China

Prostitution is illegal in China where sex workers experience regular police raids and forced detention in rehabilitation centres. As a result, women deal with unsafe and unhealthy working conditions and lack of access to health care, including HIV prevention.


The few programmes and services that actually reach sex workers in China mostly focus on addressing health concerns, especially those related to the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STI’s) and HIV.

“These NGOs can not relate to sex workers and their particular needs”, says Lanlan, the founder and head of Xin’ai, a community based support group for sex workers that received one of the Red Umbrella Fund’s first grants in 2012.

After the birth of her daughter in 2000, Lanlan herself turned to sex work to support her child and aging parents. The particular needs of sex workers motivated her to start an organisation in Tianjin that provides support for their unique needs. “We conduct outreach to sex workers, providing them with occupational safety training, health training and legal training”, she says. The mission of the organisation is centred on self-confidence, self-respect, and mutual support. Since its establishment, Xin’Ai has reached over 3000 sex workers in Northern China who have experienced various kinds of violence. Job options are limited in their region and many people lack formal education.

Sex workers work on the street but also in massage parlours, sex shops, and through escort services. Because the whole Xin’Ai staff has a background in sex work, they know how to approach sex workers and get in touch with new sex workers through their network and mouth-to-mouth information sharing. “The government has invested a large amount of money into the HIV prevention programmes for sex workers.

But low income sex workers usually work in secluded and scattered places where sanitation conditions are very poor and not easy to access to. Besides, not many sex workers work in the same place, usually just one to three people, thus making it difficult for CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] employees to access the low income sex workers population”, Lanlan says.

A recent report by Asia Catalyst highlights that fewer sex workers are using available health services provided by NGO’s, out of fear of exposure. Many sex workers mention not using condoms, the report states, because police use condoms as evidence for sex work.

In the name of “education” and “rescue,” large numbers of sex workers and their clients are detained for periods of six months to two years without any form of judicial oversight. During detention, the women are subjected to forced labour and compulsory testing for STI’s, while they are not informed of the results of the tests. Sex workers are even obliged to pay the costs of their incarceration. They are not given the opportunity to learn labor skills that might enhance their future job opportunities while, ironically, the detainment centres are officially called “Custody and Education Centers”. For many sex workers, the stigma surrounding sex work is daunting and the punishment is too harsh to risk exposure.

“I am aware that I might catch a disease if not using condoms”, one sex worker who recently tested positive for syphilis tells Lanlan, “but I don’t have a choice. The clients are unwilling to wear one and there is no time to drop them once a policeman comes to you. If I get caught, there is a six month detention waiting for me, long enough for my family to know what I am doing and I couldn’t carry on living by that time”. “Xin’Ai initially focused only on HIV prevention”, Lanlan says, “but soon we realized that there were additional issues that needed to be addressed during these outreaches. For example, the refusal of some of our sisters to use condoms, because the police are using them as evidence of prostitution.

We’ve collected cases of sex workers who got caught, and found that 19 out of 40 sex workers were punished because of condoms used as evidence.” With this realization, Xin’Ai adjusted its aims, and prioritized working with sex workers on how to work under safe conditions. “Only through putting ourselves in a sex worker’s position could we successfully perform outreaches. From then on, more female sex workers were receptive to our services.”

By Alexandra van Dijk for the Red Umbrella Fund

Related readings

This blog is crossposted from http://hivadvocates.net/advocacy-stories/reducing-cultural-stigma/stop-using-condoms-as-evidence-say-sex-workers-in-china/

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