27 May

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

by Claire Gheerbrant

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

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

An underestimated sex worker population

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

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

Arrested for “being on the streets at night”

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

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

A caravan to fight police abuse

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hypocrisy as a worst enemy

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

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

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

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

Recipe for Success

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

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

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

08 Jun

STAR: From the Las Vegas of Macedonia to a pop up red light window

Sex work is a topic that receives ‘bad press’ and is often misunderstood. However, we commonly find written articles that use pictures of high heels, red light districts or the eroticised female body to make their own articles against sex work more ‘sexy’.

Some sex workers fight back against the current double morality discourses. This blog is about the human rights defenders of the first sex worker collective in the Balkans; the power of claiming back the use of their own imagery to make a political campaign and how they are expanding.

We are sitting in a small basement bar in Gostivar. An old gas heater and a fake window seem to be the only light on what is a cold January morning. Gligor is sharing a seat with me, also Slavica’s friend, who hardly speaks any English but was happy to join us. On the other side of the table, Dennis –my partner on my first self-funded field visit to one of our grantee partners- talks with other members. STAR’s success is the result of the joint effort of many individuals.

”This city, Gostivar, has so much to offer to sex workers. Why? Because people has so much money. People go out of the city and work hard and then come back to Macedonia and has money to spend. They spend their money with sex workers. These people treat the girls like princesses. … it is very good that this money is spent here in Gostivar,”  comments Slavica, a member of sex worker organisation STAR in Macedonia.

“We have so much good night life, so many bars, clubs, clients and some people from everywhere from Macedonia coming here for sexual services,” continues Slavica. “We have sex workers on the street, in the clubs, on out-call, in front of the Casinos… For this reason, I tell you, Gostivar is like Las Vegas of Macedonia.”

Expanding

It is not a coincidence that STAR is planning to rent a second office here in Gostivar. Training and workshops have been conducted to build the capacity of the organisation in the area. Now they are looking for the best space to rent their second office. STAR just received a second grant from the Red Umbrella Fund, and to expand their focal points seems to be the logical next step to take.

STAR was created in 2008 and got registered in 2010 as the Association for the Support of Marginalised Workers following a year long struggle with state institutions who refused to recognise sex workers as legitimate agents of a collective. Today, STAR is an active agent of the civil sector, striving for ‘a world without violence where sex workers can perform their chosen profession in a democratic and tolerant society’, as stated on their website.

Migrant sex workers

Gostivar is a city based in the Western part of Macedonia, with a population mix of Macedonian, Albanian and Turkish. 

“Most sex workers are not from Macedonia. They are migrants. We have more than half of workers who come from outside Macedonia. We have girls from Kosovo, Albania, Serbia, some girls from Bosnia. They are not officially migrants here because they don’t have a regular status like immigrants. They come here, they work and then, they leave the country”, points Gligor, who works at the STAR office in Skopje

”Some male sex workers from here,”- continues Gligor- “they do the same. They go to Greece to work because the law there affects only women. So, some men can go there and work and then come back and enjoy their money.” 

 Step by Step

Slavica joins again: “Fifteen years ago, here in Gostivar, it was a big taboo to say that you were doing sex work. If a girl said it, she could have had a problem. She had nowhere to go to communicate any of their needs. So, we have started the work that we do at STAR. They can feel good and strong about what they are doing. … These girls now feel they have like a family”.

“Five minutes of talking can change everything… Maybe I can’t help her, but I can listen. It is very good that you have somebody who listens to your problems. It is one step. After that, we are going step by step”, shares Slavica.

I can feel the excitement about the idea of renting a new space and the work of this newly formed branch of STAR, learning from the stories of sex workers here. We have left the bar and we are walking along Vardar River that extends through Gostivar, cutting it in half, passes through the capital Skopje, goes through the country and enters Greece. This river seems to be the moving constant of Macedonian sex work landscape.

Condoms

Gligor joins the conversation and wants to share the importance of having their own organisation.  

‘’Once I was working for a service provider. And everything was different. I was supposed to give condoms only to those people who defined as a sex worker. But a lot of men I reached didn’t want to be referred as such, even if they were doing so. It can be a taboo to define yourself as a sex worker to a stranger. For me, it is not important where people are coming from or if they define as sex workers. It is important to give them condoms, which they need’’, says Gligor with a candid smile.

Close to Parliament

In Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, Borce Bozinov, President of STAR shares with us the story of one of the co-founders of the organization. She passed away two years ago. Her name was Laura Feer. She co-started this group back in 2006. Borce shares his experiences with shared leaderships and involving membership. Decentralising their focal points seems to have been a successful strategy for this group whose members share a passion for the work they do.

The main STAR office is strategically placed close to Parliament. Their dedicated team divide their tasks between communication, finance and outreach activities. With almost all members having a background in the sex industry, they are the ones in the best position to determine sex workers’ needs combined with strategic lobbying.

From advocacy to access to sexual and reproductive health services and the use of the SWIT tool, STAR is the only sex worker’s group by and for sex workers in Macedonia and beyond.

We got to learn about how they managed to improve their office space thanks to core funding. In the picture, Dennis poses with members from the Skojpe branch.

Pop-up in Skopje

The group is excited to talk about their activities. We sit around a table and colorful pictures appear on the screen of a laptop. They are part of STAR’s latest 17th of December campaign. The community organisation rented an empty beauty and nail shop for a day and converted it in what it could have been a window from the Red Light District of Amsterdam. Some members of STAR did not hesitate to jump in sexy clothes and use their seductiveness to… make a point about the need of safe spaces for work in the city!

Using banners, the performers asked the passers-by if they would like to have consented paid sex. It was only a matter of time before traffic had to be closed due to the numbers of curious viewers.

In a context where sex work is a taboo that is starting to be eroded by the actions of this group, the re appropriation of their own imagery in a political campaign is a powerful strategy. The results speak by themselves: 26 positive appearances in the media, including an interview in-situ to Borce on the National News TV which gave a positive approach to the action. The video has been played over 45.000 times so far.

(МАКФАКС ВО ЖИВО) Шест сексуални работнички преку излози нудат услуги на булевар во Скопје

Think twice

Before you close all your global perspective about sex workers, think twice: Why zero tolerance to the oldest profession??? The feminists should answer this!” highlighted Borce.

I would like to conclude by remembering Laura Freer, for what she co-initiated once, for being a pioneer and a source of inspiration for STAR’s current members, to us and to the movement. Thank you so much to Laura and all STAR members!

 

 

 

 

Skopje Red Light District performance organized by STAR. Photo taken by Vanco Dzambaski, Open Society Foundation – Macedonia.

Text and black and white pictures by Vera Rodriguez

 

 

 

15 Dec

Minorities in a Movement

OGERA stands with refugee 2017Uniting LBT and Refugee Sex Workers

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

Minorities in the Sex Worker Movement

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

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

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

Criminalization, Stigma and Violence

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

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

Group photo OGERA

Stories of Stigma and Abuse

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

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

At a Refugee Brothel

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

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

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

Successes

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

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

World Refugee Day

OGERA World Refugee Day 2017

OGERA celebrating World Refugee Day in Uganda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 Jul

No Bad Migrants

The passport you hold determines a lot of your privileges, access and protection. I have always been able to benefit from a blue American passport— never being questioned while traveling, never having much difficulty obtaining a work or study visa abroad. My passport, white skin, and blonde hair provide me the privilege to exist and move through the world relatively freely. But in Eastern Europe, for example, a sex worker’s passport may determine whether she is – even with a legal residence permit – “targeted for rescue, detention and re-socialisation or deportation programs” by the government or NGOs.


Control

Last year I spent five months researching and writing a master’s thesis on human trafficking prevention campaigns and EU, Dutch, and UN human trafficking policies. I focused on migrant sex workers from Eastern Europe in the Netherlands. Much of the literature review included theories on state control of female sexuality, particularly the control of ‘foreign’ women by criminalising migration and victimizing migrant women sex workers.

This research, in addition to volunteering at the Red Umbrella Fund’s office in the Netherlands for the last eight months, has led me to think more about the status and labour conditions of Eastern European migrant workers, particularly sex workers, in the Netherlands. These experiences, including acquiring a Lithuanian passport for myself, have made me realize that our nationality, as well as our gender, ethnicity, sexual identity, and choice of work can greatly impact how we are perceived by the state. Whether we are feared or welcomed, and which rights we get access to.

Migrant Sex Workers in Europe

“There are stereotypes for instance— the hyper-sexualisation of women depending on [her country of origin]. This is also very harsh for us [sex workers], because when we travel from one country to another or go through airports, they assume we are sex workers just because we come from a specific country.”

–Pauline (Whores and Alliances) (link) referring to the abuse and discrimination black migrant sex workers face in Spain.

blog.nika

Red Edition, Austria

Migrant sex workers, depending on where they are from, what they look like, and which passport they hold, are treated differently by law enforcement, border control, and society. Migrant sex workers make up approximately 65% of the sex worker population in Western Europe and about 17% of the sex worker population in Central Europe (link). Migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers have been doing sex work as a means to sustain themselves and their families. The International Committee on the Rights of Sex workers in Europe (ICRSE) recently published a policy brief and recommendations on the rights of migrant sex workers. In this brief, ICRSE highlights that the criminalisation of migration and sex work is extremely problematic and dangerous for migrants and migrant sex workers.

“We want migrant sex workers to be seen and understood, to be acknowledged as migrant sex workers.” (link) -Kemal Ordek, Red Umbrella Turkey

Migrant labour

Structural, political, and economic changes in many regions of the world have led to an increase of migrants, particularly women migrants, seeking work in Europe. May this work be in factories or fields, in domestic or sex work, these are women who are working to support themselves and often times, their families. Migrant sex workers need to be included as part of the larger migration patterns and migrant labour movements, rather than how they are often perceived by the public, law enforcement, and media, as victims of human trafficking. The issue that remains is that sex work is not seen as work, but something that someone ‘must have been forced or tricked into’. So if this is the case, how can migrant sex workers, regardless of which passport they have, be seen as autonomous hard working individuals who moved in order to make a living?

TAMPEP, the European Network for HIV/STI Prevention and Health Promotion among Migrant Sex Workers, advocates for the human and civil rights of migrant sex workers in Europe. When sex work is criminalised and migration is increasingly controlled, migrants and migrant sex workers are forced even further underground. They can no longer trust the police or government officials, in fear of being arrested, detained, or deported. This is when migrants turn to third parties (i.e., friends, neighbours, family members, acquaintances, travel agents) to assist them in their migration process. This dependency and lack of ability or perceived ability to access justice increases the risk of exploitation.

How to become a trafficker

Unlike the UN’s Palermo Protocol (The UN’s human trafficking article) which clearly states that a human trafficking offense requires a form of coercion or deceit, the Dutch article 273F 1.3 essentially criminalises assisting a migrant in their journey to the Netherlands even without any coercion or deceit. Under this article, taking someone across the border to the Netherlands is enough to be considered human trafficking.

blog.nika2

SWARM, UK

Felicia Anna, a Romanian sex worker and blogger living and working in Amsterdam, discusses this issue in her blog Behind the Red Light District. Felicia Anna uses the following example to illustrate how damaging and infuriating this law is. Someone is driving through Germany heading to the Netherlands, and he or she sees a woman along the road who is looking for a ride to Amsterdam because she wants to work in the Red Light District. She’s alone, no one has deceived her of the work she will do there, or coerced her to go to Amsterdam. The driver agrees, since he or she is already heading to Amsterdam, and why not help a fellow passenger? Once they have crossed the Dutch border together, the driver of the car is a criminal according to Dutch law and the woman is a victim of human trafficking.

It is important to note that this law article only applies to individuals working in the sex industry, even though trafficking and labour exploitation clearly take place in other sectors too. This is one way the Dutch government has problematized migrant sex workers coming to the Netherlands to do sex work. But if the majority of sex workers in Western Europe are migrants, and many of them come from Eastern European countries, why criminalise someone assisting someone else who wants to do sex work in the Netherlands if it is legal for them to do so?

Demands

Based on their own research among migrant sex workers in Europe and Central Asia, ICRSE identifies the following key demands to policy makers:

  • Support the decriminalisation of sex work in order to ensure (undocumented) migrant sex workers’ access to health and justice.
  • Support migrants’ regularisation and an end of deportation of (undocumented) migrant sex workers.
  • Ensure that asylum seekers, refugees and (undocumented) migrants have access to welfare support to economic and employment opportunities.

Sex worker organizing

blog.nika3

SWARM, UK

Last October I was able to observe the Programme Advisory Committee (PAC) meeting of the Red Umbrella Fund as a note taker. Each year, the PAC reviews the grant applications from sex worker groups all over the world and select new grants to be made. In last year’s selection process, the PAC members noted that there seemed to be quite a few new migrant sex worker groups applying for a grant. Migrant sex workers face discrimination on multiple fronts. They face challenges as sex workers and as migrants, and have unique needs to be met. But they are often not included in migrant organisations and not sufficiently included in most sex worker organisations either. This rise in migrant sex worker groups makes me hopeful in that migrant sex workers are increasingly organizing and making their demands heard. To policy makers, as well as the larger sex workers’ rights movements.

 

This blog was written by Nika Norvila, who supported the work of the Red Umbrella Fund as a volunteer for eight months in 2016 and 2017.

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.

 

15 Feb

Sisonke: A Case Study

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full case study here.

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.

O

21 Apr

Why Sex Work should be Decriminalised

Sex work (or prostitution as many know it) is a subject surrounded by fierce discussion, often about human trafficking. In much of the discourse, the line that separates the concept of sex work from human trafficking seems to have all but disappeared.

Discrimination, indignity, violence and diseases – all issues sex workers in many countries face regularly. But not because it necessarily is ‘part of their job’, but because society condemns and criminalises them.

A 17-year old girl from Thika (Kenya)has been arrested by the local police for soliciting sex. She gets assigned a police cell . The chief commands one of the officers to deliver him the girl the following morning. She is raped repeatedly. When the chief is done with her she can go back to her cell. Two other officers  follow this pattern for  days. Then finally, the girl is released.

I can imagine you thinking of sex work as  something a bit strange. When you hear that 85% of women working in the Red Light District does so against her will, it makes sense to wonder why we still accept this in the Netherlands. I can imagine you might turn against  sex work if you hear only about exploitation and abuse. And I can even understand that, in terms of your religion, or values around sexuality, you find it strange that some people use sex to earn money. It is easy to follow the mainstream media who present you this information on a silver platter. Before I learned differently, I believed the same.

June 2015. It’s the first time I’m on the phone with Nadia, Coordinator of the Red Umbrella Fund. Nadia tells me that the Red Umbrella Fund supports sex workers in order to improve their work and living conditions. I think about a documentary I once saw: ‘Jojanneke in de Prostitutie’. It was supposed to be about sex work, but all that I saw were conditions that made me think of human trafficking. I wonder why someone would support something degrading like sex work? This required some research. Disbelief turned out to be naivety and ignorance changed to  knowledge.

In no time,  I am transformed in a firm advocate of decriminalisation. Why? Because the ‘degrading ’ part is in the way sex workers are treated, not in  the work itself.

The story of the girl from Thika is just one small example of what I read in Open Society’s report on violence and abuse against sex workers in Kenya (2008). In Kisumu, another city in Kenya,  sex workers are often directly claimed by senior police officers. One women was kept imprisoned and abused in the house of one of the agents. After four days, when a new victim was arrested who could take over her place, she was released. The way female police officers treat sex workers isn’t much better. Arrested sex workers are not aloud to walk, but have to crawl. They are forced to perform stripteases in order to be humiliated. Often they have to sleep on the ground and don’t get proper food. At night they get ordered to mop the floor with urine and water mixed together, for no other reason than it being possible.

'Only rights can stop the wrongs.' Credits: Dale Kongmont, APNSW

‘Only rights can stop the wrongs.’ Credits: Dale Kongmont, APNSW

This doesn’t only happen in Kenya. Rape and violence by police and customers is common in many countries. Sex workers are regularly banished from their community and denied access to healthcare. In Cambodia, for example, sex workers can’t reach out for HIV medication. Are we ever going to solve the worldwide HIV problem if the most vulnerable group to this disease can’t receive any help? I don’t think so. One sex worker declared that she has accepted a two dollar offer for sexual intercourse because if she didn’t, her child wouldn’t eat that night. Without labor rights and basic human services, she has no choice but to agree to such low prices.

The stories hit home, injustice is something that always touches me very deeply. The problem is actually pretty simple: with such a lack of respect respect, sex workers aren’t seen as worthy human beings. If society doesn’t accept you, you don’t have much money and your job is illegal, you end up in very vulnerable positions. Violence and exploitation then become inevitable.

Why do we have such a problem with sex work?

Sex work is ‘the voluntarily sexual exchange  between two people upon payment.’ In my opinion nothing is wrong with this. If free sex is accepted, why isn’t payed sex? Or are we struggling with the addition of the word ‘voluntary’ which is a word that doesn’t seem to exist when people think of sex work?  We all know human trafficking is horrible. However, by criminalising sex work we create an ‘underground world’ where it is extremely difficult to separate wrong from right. It won’t only do harm to those that voluntarily work in the business, but also, and maybe even more, to the ones that don’t. This already existing underground will grow, and real human trafficking victims will disappear in the mass. This is an underground world wherein rights don’t exist. A world that’s hard to reach for rescue teams. A world wherein sex workers become even more vulnerable to addiction, violence and disease.

A great example of this underground world involves the issue of HIV. In countries like Tanzania and China, but also in the United States, sex workers are being arrested by the police, simply for carrying condoms.

If the choice is getting arrested or taking a risk and working without condoms in order to feed your child, what would you do?

The consequence is, as you can imagine, that many sex workers start working without condoms.

An honor to sex workers all over the world, statue Belle in Amsterdam. Source: Mariska Majoor

An honor to sex workers all over the world, statue Belle in Amsterdam.
Source: Mariska Majoor

Some say sex work should be replaced by ‘normal work’. Actresses like Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep agree. They oppose Amnesty International’s new decriminalization policy. Ignoring the fact that some sex workers actually do enjoy their work, it is also very easy to make statements like these when you live in Hollywood, where money flows. Think of the woman who accepted two dollars for her services in order to feed her child. How will she find a ‘normal job’ in a country where there is a shortage in jobs? Factors such as poverty, lack of education, health and social status have a lot of influence on freedom of choice. That is why we have to realise that alternatives to sex work, if desired, are only possible when the economy allows it.
Forcing a sex worker to do 12-hour shifts in a textile factory for a pittance, which happens a lot, is definitely not the right solution. That looks more like human trafficking than sex work. NGOs who support these so-called ‘rescue operations’ should be ashamed. The woman who wants to feed her child needs nothing more than human rights and protection of her safety.

Amnesty International posted a video in which a women speaks about sex work, the money she earned doing it, and how it made it possible for her to save her children from a violent father. It reminded me of an interview with Marjan Wijers, researcher on human trafficking and sex work, which she did for magazine De Groene Amsterdammer:

‘Feminists should be the ones fighting for the rights of sex workers. The stigma on prostitution touches every women. It keeps the idea alive that the right of protection against violence depends on their honor or sexual purity.’

What is more powerful than a women saving her children from an abusive father? That doesn’t deserve discrimination or a jail sentence, only respect.

Eva Jansen, for the Red Umbrella Fund
This post was translated from Dutch. You can find the original post here.

16 Dec

Funding needed to end violence against sex workers

Each year on 17 December, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, sex worker rights activists and their allies come together to remember the colleagues they have lost and bring attention to the need to end the stigma, discrimination and violence against sex workers. It is time for more funders to speak out in solidarity and provide more and better funding.

RUFreportSW2014

Sex workers around the world face high levels of stigma, discrimination and violence. In many countries, sex workers have organised themselves to speak out against the injustices they face and demand that sex work be recognised as work and that sex workers be recognised as persons before the law. Many sex workers are human rights defenders who reach out for support and solidarity and advocate for legal and policy changes that will improve the well being of the women, men and trans people active in the sex industry.

“Sex workers tell me they are fed up with being seen as victims. Sex workers do often get exploited. Not because it is inherently part of the job, but because their work is criminalised and their working conditions unsafe. This feeds stigma and discrimination and hinders their access to health, social services, and justice,”

says Nadia van der Linde, Coordinator of the Red Umbrella Fund which aims to support sex worker-led organisations to stand up for their rights and strengthen their movement(s).

But in order to make lasting social change the organisations that mobilize and voice the concerns and demands of sex workers need resources. To pay for meetings, trainings, research and materials. And although foundation funding for human rights has grown in the past years, the funding that supports organisations to stand up for the human rights of sex workers is still minimal. If we want to end violence against women, end the spread of HIV, end gender discrimination and labour exploitation, then sex worker rights organisations must be supported to speak up and invited to share their solutions.

In 2014, the Red Umbrella Fund partnered with Mama Cash and the Open Society Foundations to commission a mapping of global grantmaking for sex worker rights by public and private foundations and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The researchers contacted foundations and organisations working with sex workers to better understand what is being funded and to identify the main gaps.

They identified 56 foundations and NGOs that altogether invested a total of €8 million (US$11 million) in support of sex worker rights in 2013.

This may sound like a lot to an individual organisation but it is just a fraction of overall spending on development and human rights. Most organisations working in support of sex worker rights are small; 53% of organisations receiving funding to support sex worker rights have budgets of less than €50 000 (US$68 500) per year and many organisations have no income at all. Volunteer work and in-kind or individual contributions play an important role in the sex worker rights movement.

“The political struggle against criminalisation, the battle against violence done to us, the work of building organisational structures to link us and support us better – these are long-term efforts that need sustained steady financing”
– Sex worker organisation from Latin America, survey response

Because sex work is criminalised in many and stigmatized in all countries, organisations that speak out against the violence and exploitation experienced by sex workers and for improved access to health services for sex workers have a hard time getting funding from their government.

Foundation funding is crucial to support the human rights of sex workers and help build the movement.

  • Read the full report and infographic here.

  • Read the article “Sex workers missing out on development funds” published by The Guardian here.