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.

Silenced

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.

***

Footnotes:

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.

23 Feb

APROSMIG: A Case Study

[**Texto abaixo em português]

 “From community outreach to political action, the group has made great strides in empowering sex workers and decreasing violence against them.”

Sex workers in Brazil face high levels of stigma, systematic violence and abuse from the police. However, the group has developed a successful relationship with the military police of Minas Gerais which has resulted in a significant decrease in violence against sex workers in the area. This case study (the second in a series of three) is about APROSMIG (Associação das Prostitutas de Minas Gerais), a sex worker-led group in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

“APROSMIG provides legal counselling, promoting access to social benefits, and training participants to deal with situations such as arrest and violence from the police and clients. They have worked with the urbanisation company URBEL to include older sex workers in the social housing system. In workshops on entrepreneurship sex workers learn how to open  a business bank account and use debit and credit machines, which are much safer and help to avoid situations of violence with clients.”

APROSMIG has empowered sex workers through educational and cultural initiatives. The group provided English language classes for sex workers and developed a reference book (“Puta Livro”) for international clients during big international events in the country. APROSMIG organised marches and Daspu (from the whores) and Puta Dei events, demonstrating their pride and successful community building.

The Red Umbrella Fund was the group’s first international and institutional funder.

Read the full case study here [in English].

Read the full case study here [in Portuguese].

Read previous case study about Sisonke here [in English only].

******

APROSMIG: Um estudo de caso

“Da ação comunitária à ação política, o grupo fez grandes avanços na capacitação das profissionais do sexo e diminuição da violência contra elas”.

As profissionais do sexo, no Brasil, enfrentam altos níveis de estigma, violência sistemática e abuso da polícia. Contudo, o grupo desenvolveu um relação bem sucedida com a polícia militar de Minas Gerais, o que resultou em uma diminuição significativa na violência contra as profissionais do sexo na área. Este estudo de caso (o segundo de uma série de três) é sobre APROSMIG (Associação das Prostitutas de Minas Gerais), um grupo de profissionais do sexo de Belo Horizonte, Brasil.

 “A APROSMIG oferece consultoria jurídica, promovendo o acesso a benefícios sociais e capacitando as participantes a lidarem com situações tais como prisão ou violência cometida por policiais ou clientes. O grupo trabalhou com a empresa de urbanização URBEL para incluir profissionais do sexo mais velhas no seu sistema de habitação social. Workshops sobre empreendedorismo ensinam as profissionais do sexo a abrirem uma conta bancária comercial e como usar máquinas de cartão de crédito e débito, que são muito mais seguras do que dinheiro vivo e ajudam a evitar situações de violência com clientes.”

APROSMIG capacitou profissionais do sexo através de iniciativas educacionais e culturais. O grupo ofereceu aulas de inglês para profissionais do sexo e desenvolveu um livro de referência (“Puta Livro”) para clientes internacionais durante grandes eventos internacionais no país. APROSMIG organizou marchas e os eventos Daspu e Puta Dei, demonstrando orgulho e empoderamento da comunidade.

O Red Umbrella Fund foi o primeiro financiador internacional e institucional do grupo.

Leia o estudo de caso completo here[em português].

Leia o estudo de caso completo aqui [em inglês].

Leia o estudo de caso anterior sobre Sisonke aqui [em inglês apenas].

 

11 Jan

Not Victims

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

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

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

The public discourse13336434_10154107603289627_1564694405_n

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

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

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

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

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

Taking action

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Biggest Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

First do no harm

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

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

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


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

 

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

04 Oct

As Rosas Já Falam: My Love Letter to AWID

AWID Daspu lineupFrom September 8th to 11th, many feminist sex workers’ rights advocates and allies made their way to Salvador da Bahia, Brazil and gathered at the AWID Forum. AWID’s forum is a massive global gathering that brought together over 1800 feminists from all over the world this year. While the history of sex work activism in feminist spaces is long, the meaningful and respectful participation of sex workers in these spaces is sparkling new.

“We are whores. We are feminists. And we have rights.” – Cida Vieira, APROSMIG (Brazil)

Ana Luz Mamani, a sex worker activist from Mujeres del Sur in Peru and member of the International Steering Committee of the Red Umbrella Fund, spoke to a large crowd about funding sex worker organising in the plenary “Money and Movements”. And that was just the start of the evening…

It was followed by a DASPU fashion show organised by sex worker activists to raise visibility for the sex workers’ movement and sex work “as work”. DASPU is a Brazilian sex worker-brand that is renowned for its fashion shows filled with humour, pride and advocacy messages. While the audience danced and cheered on their chairs, sex workers and allies from more than twenty nationalities performed on stage.

Let me tell you, it was a blast!

IMG_3058The catwalk celebrated the existence of the Red Umbrella Fund, which was launched at the AWID Forum in Turkey in 2012, and the “growing and showing” sex workers’ rights movements. Since its launch, the Red Umbrella Fund has made 78 grants, totalling over 1.8 million USD of direct financial support to sex worker organising in 45 countries.

Open Arms

The show also symbolised a big “thank you” to AWID for welcoming sex workers into these feminist spaces with open arms. For creating room for a feminist dialogue with sex workers beyond the often overwhelming trafficking and exploitation debates.

IMG_3042

Photo: Sangeeta Ramu Manoji, VAMP (India)

Personally, I was honoured to celebrate sex workers’ lives, experiences, affections, challenges but also opportunities with friends and fellow activists from around the world! I was thrilled with the large amount of positivity I heard about the vibrant moves of the sex worker show at AWID’s arena. Among the comments was a celebration of our ability to bring together the diversity of the sex worker movement – which includes sex workers of all genders, sexual orientations, race, and class – on stage, and to mobilise hundreds of enthusiastic feminists. Sex worker activism does not always get such a response in feminist spaces.

So sex workers fight trafficking?

“Anti-trafficking policy in Canada is anti-sex work policy. Actually, we don’t need the police to rescue us. Sex workers need to know their rights. (…) Migrant sex workers are treated as terrorists in Canada. This year alone, 16 women in our network have been arrested. They have trauma. Not because of trafficking or exploitation, but because of the arrest and police treatment.” – Elene Lam, Butterfly (Canada)

The Red Umbrella Fund co-hosted a session that elaborated on the need to acknowledge sex workers as key allies in the fight against sex trafficking and labour exploitation. Elene Lam (Butterfly Asia and Migrant Sex Workers Project, Canada), Cida Vieira (APROSMIG, Brazil) and Kiran Deshmukh (VAMP, India) shared diverse examples of how they stand up for their rights as sex workers and for the rights of people who have experienced sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.

“Raids [of brothels] in India are very violent. They are often sponsored by anti-trafficking NGOs. They have a lot of money. We struggle to find money to collectivise but they have big budgets. (…) Every woman who opts to be in sex work should have that right and should be able to work in safe work conditions.” – Kiran Deshmukh, VAMP (India)

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Photo: Elene Lam, Cida Vieira, Bandana Pattanaik, Kiran Deshmukh, Aarthi Pai

They expressed the need to talk about labour and migration rights for women and to gain respect for sex workers’ voices and experiences, as well as to value their vast knowledge in the field. Bandana Pattanaik from the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) concluded that the presentations “demonstrated that sex worker organisations are claiming their space, involving communities, and engaging at policy level to combat trafficking”.

Funding Movements

In the session, ‘How Can Funders Most Effectively Support Young Feminist, Trans* and Sex Worker Movements’, the Coordinator of the Red Umbrella Fund, Nadia van der Linde, advocated for more and, importantly, better funding for sex workers’ rights. She then opened the discussion with the sex workers and other activists in the audience about how funders can improve their funding in support of, and together with, their respective social movements.

Some of the needs expressed to funders were:

  • listen to the community;
  • provide long-term and flexible support;
  • support strategies and capacity to overcome closing civil society spaces and bureaucracy;
  • translation support; and
  • introductions to other funders.

No Turning Back!

Photo: Gabriela Leite by Luiz Garrido

Every forum day, sex workers were visible in one or more sessions in the programme, whether from the perspective of fun and pleasure, transgender rights, or artivism. I heard numerous people at AWID say that they believed this was “the tipping point” for the global feminist movement’s embracing of sex workers’ rights. I witnessed a growing understanding that sex work is a human rights issue in which feminists play an important role in pushing a rights-based agenda forward. As stated in the title of Open Society Foundations’ report that was also launched at AWID, there is No Turning Back.  The way forward is jointly with and in support of sex workers.

So this was my love letter to AWID and to all those who made sex worker participation possible and outstanding. To quote Gabriela Leite, a sex worker activist from Brazil and creator of DASPU: “as rosas já falam” (sex workers already have a voice). Just listen. 

By Dennis van Wanrooij, Red Umbrella Fund

02 Sep

Red Umbrella Fund at AWID Forum 2016

Are you attending the AWID Forum 2016 in Brazil?

Come join sex workers and allies on Friday evening the 9th of September for the Celebration of the Red Umbrella Fund’s four-year anniversary! We are honoured to celebrate our anniversary with sex workers in a catwalk organised by Daspu, a Brazilian sex worker-brand that promotes sex workers’ rights through fashion, pride and humour.

Our party will be part of the Money & Movements Plenary from 18.00 to 20.00 hours at Arena Sauípe. Our International Steering Daspu sw show AWIDCommittee member Ana Luz, founder of sex worker organisation Asociación de Trabajadoras Sexuales Mujeres del Sur in Peru, will also be speaking at the plenary.

Four years ago, the Red Umbrella Fund was created and launched at AWID’s Istanbul Conference (2012). Ana Luz was there too. The Red Umbrella Fund is now in itsfifth grantmaking year and has already made 78 grants to sex worker-led organisations and networks in 45 countries so far, with more to come.

To push further the agenda for the rights of sex workers globally, the Red Umbrella Fund is co-hosting two sessions at AWID in Brazil:

Combating Trafficking for Puporse of Sexual Exploitation: Do We Do More Harm Than Good?
Saturday, 10 September, 11.30 – 13.00 in Vera Cruz
This session consists of sex worker rights activists who will share their experience with anti-trafficking initiatives and share their own initiatives to prevent and address trafficking and exploitation.

How Can Funders Most Effectively Support Young Feminist, Trans* and Sex Worker Movements
Sunday, 11 September, 11.00 – 12.30 in Bahia 3
Funders will share information from mappings of funding invested in support of sex worker, trans* and young feminist activism, discuss experiences of involving communities in grantmaking processes, and seek feedback from the audience.

The Red Umbrella Fund will also host office hours for sex workers on fundraising, using the NSWP’s Smart Guide to Sustainable Funding.

Many other sex worker activists are organising sessions at AWID as well, check out the programme for more information.

We hope to see you there!

Red Umbrella Fund team

02 Mar

OTS: Mapping Human Rights Violations Against Sex Workers in El Salvador

The Red Umbrella Fund grantee Organización de Trabajadoras del Sexo (OTS) in El Salvador mapped the situation of sex workers and documented the human rights violations they experience. This strategy has resulted in an effective model for legal empowerment and rights advocacy.

OTS implemented a national mapping of the situation of sex workers through self-led community meetings, workshops and in-site visits across the country in 2014. The objective of the mapping was to investigate the current situation of women sex workers in various cities and in a variety of sectors (outdoor and indoor) and settings (street, parks, bars, nightclubs, brothels).

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Photo: OTS “Sex workers have a say as any other women”

Organising for Change

Sex workers created OTS in 2004 to address discrimination, abuse and violence against sex workers at work, within their families, and in society in general. To meet its objectives, OTS educates the general public about sex workers’ rights and provides peer support and HIV prevention information to women sex workers working on the streets and in parks in 15 municipalities.

OTS’s advocacy strategy focuses on legal and policy reform for the recognition of sex work as work and the right of sex workers to be free from violence, stigma and discrimination. Through its networking and advocacy efforts, OTS recently became active in political spaces that had previously excluded sex workers, especially policy dialogue round tables with municipal authorities.

Negative Legal Environment

In El Salvador, municipalities apply public order laws, which impose administrative fines on individuals engaged in sex work. Some municipalities also fine the clients of sex workers.

At the national level, the law does not actually criminalise sex work itself, but all activities related to sex work, such living off the earnings of sex work, are prohibited. In addition, the law prohibits organised prostitution. These laws create a hostile work environment for outdoor and indoor sex workers and increase their vulnerability to violence and abuse.

OTS opposes any form of legal oppression of sex workers and confronts policy makers to review these laws in light of the evidence that the laws contribute to or cause human rights violations and abuses.

Mapping the Situation

Although OTS, an organisation led by sex workers themselves, already knew that sex workers were experiencing human rights violations, the group decided to collect evidence documenting the human rights abuses to more effectively influence the policy debate and counteract the current norms and practices. Over the course of several months, OTS collected information on the situation of sex workers in different cities, sectors and settings through in-person visits.

These face-to-face visits strengthened the connections between sex workers in rural and distant areas and allowed OTS to assess the situation of the most marginalised groups.

The mapping allowed OTS to engage with different communities of sex workers and gain understanding of the structural barriers that put sex workers at risk of violence and abuse. The mapping highlighted the diversity of sex work sectors and settings in El Salvador and the characteristics and specific problems they faced. This self-reflection led to the legal empowerment of these communities. Sex workers became aware of their rights and started to demand them at the local and national levels.

Key Findings

Social stigma and an adverse legal environment create a wide range of barriers negatively impacting the ability of sex workers to enjoy their human rights. The following summary of OTS’s mapping report identifies the challenges and obstacles experienced by sex workers in the country.

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Photo: Sex worker protest organised by OTS

Legal and Policy Environment

  • Most municipalities penalise the selling and/or buying of sexual services. Those municipalities that do not directly penalise sex workers and their clients often create isolated sex work zones, far from schools and churches, instead of safe working spaces for sex workers.
  • The police often arrest women sex workers if they do not have money to pay fines.
  • Police arbitrarily apply municipal ordinances. Some municipalities that do not prohibit sex work, in practice, use public order laws from other municipalities to penalise sex workers.
  • Anti-trafficking laws pose a severe risk to sex workers’ safety and working conditions, particularly those who work indoors.

Health and Support Services

  • Discriminatory and judgmental attitudes of public health workers threaten sex workers’ ability to seek health services and support.
  • HIV/STI clinics, also known in El Salvador as clínicas vicits, do not provide integral health services for sex workers.
  • HIV test results are often not available until one month after the date of the test and sex workers have experienced and documented breaches of confidentiality. In some cases, the sex workers’ health status was disclosed to the police and their clients. This exacerbates stigma against sex workers and violates their human right to health.
  • Municipalities arbitrarily require street-based sex workers to provide health certificates to the police, despite the absence of any law imposing this requirement.
  • Municipalities require that, as a condition of granting a business license (to a bar, disco, etc.), the owner has to disclose the health certificates of sex workers to the police. This practice, which lacks any legal basis, fosters coerced sexual health testing of sex workers.
  • Most sex workers were unaware of their rights and do not know where to seek support.
  • Social services available in the country are not tailored for sex workers, and most of them address only women’s issues generally.

Family Life

  • Some sex workers are abused or violated by their partners, but they rarely receive adequate support from public institutions. Sex workers do not trust the police and the police fail to address violence committed against sex workers.
  • In some cases, sex workers have also lost their children in court and/or have not received social benefits due to their profession.

Building Allies to Achieve Change

Based on these findings, OTS publicly raised the issue of human rights violations against sex workers, especially violations perpetrated by law enforcement.

As part of its effort to influence the policy debate , OTS expanded its external allies and jointly advocated before public institutions.

OTS partnered with FESPAD (Foundation for Research on Legal Application) and ISDEMU (Salvadorian Institute for Women Development) on a research project examining the legal situation and impact of the laws on sex workers in the country. The main outcomes of the research were a detailed analysis on why sex work should be decriminalised and a proposed law decriminalising sex work. Results from the mapping report were used in the analysis.

OTS has also worked with national and local governmental organisations, such as the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights (PDDH), the Office of the Public Prosecutor, the National Civil Police (PCN) and Municipal Security Forces (CAM). OTS established connections with these public institutions in different municipalities across the country through advocacy letters and round tables for policy dialogue.

Additionally, OTS engaged actively with the feminist platform Prudencia Ayala and the LGBT group Fraternidad sin Fronteras, a group that specifically supports trans* sex workers.

Achievements

The legal empowerment of sex workers’ was the greatest achievement of OTS’s strategy of mapping the situation of sex workers and documenting human rights abuses. The participatory and grassroots focused research methodology used improved the group’s advocacy skills, as sex workers learned to demand their rights more effectively.

OTS contributed to the strengthening of the national sex worker movement, engaged new allies and documented human rights violations against sex workers, which the organisation used to influence the legal and policy environment in the country.

Although the barriers remain huge, OTS has proven that sex workers communities can mobilise with limited resources and capacity. They will continue to do so until sex workers are recognised as workers and as people with rights.

By Dennis van Wanrooij, Red Umbrella Fund 

29 May

Learning Visit Reflection: Beyond Victories – Funding Human Rights in Brazil

crossposted from the website of the International Human Rights Funders Group

 

IHRFG recently held a Learning Visit in Rio de Janeiro exploring the changing dynamics of human rights and global philanthropy in emerging economies. Over the coming weeks, IHRFG will share reflections from participants. Click here to read more lessons and join the conversation!

Contributed by Diana Stefanescu, Programme Associate, Red Umbrella Fund

As wealth increases in the so-called “emerging economies”, social, political and further economic development is expected to follow. However, as so often, reality is proving to be indefinitely more complex. What is development? How inclusive can it be? What is the place for human rights and human rights grantmaking in this context?

This year’s IHRFG Funder Learning visit to Rio de Janeiro explored the very junctures of interplay between economics, state power and philanthropy in Brazil. The three intense days of meeting local activists, peer funders, researchers and civil society organizers shed light on a multidimensionally unequal society, marked by both great achievements AND distressing shortcomings.

Brazil’s economic growth and state efforts in poverty reduction have brought great change to the country. A rising middle class concurred with a recovery from the “neoliberal” era of the 1990s and had the government regain its capacity to regulate. Minimum wage, affirmative action and the famous “bolsa familia”, a cash transfer program benefitting millions of the country’s poorest, have even reduced inequality in some ways. But the achievements came at a price and were sometimes accompanied by heavy drawbacks in other issue areas. The prolific re-primarization of the economy meant more mining, more exploitation of resources and increasingly high concentration of land property in Brazil. Neglected urban areas (mostly in the so-called favelas) were “pacified” by resorting to state violence and police brutality, leaving human rights considerations out of the equation.

Religious fundamentalism has had major influence on government institutions in which minorities (Afro-Brazilians, indigenous people) and women continue to be heavily underrepresented. Most investments in infrastructure that were to be realized in the run-up to the two big sport events (Football World Cup 2014 and Summer Olympics 2016) have not been implemented. And all this happened while civil society was grappling with managing the hopes raised by an assumed “friendly” progressive center-left government and the deceptions of international funders “fleeing” the scene. At closer examination, the victories seem to have been accompanied by distressing casualties in Brazilian society.

The dialogues and discussions in Rio de Janeiro made a central theme surface: the need for structural change and reform accompanying economic growth in Brazil.

Inclusive and sustainable development which is respectful of human rights is not an automatic consequence trickling down from economic growth.

The current Brazilian democracy is reasonably well-structured but very young – a mere 30 years have passed since the end of the dictatorship. Its civil society is in dire need of substantial support – not only in the light of the country’s strategic role as an emerging global power – but also because Brazilians are facing a critical timing for political and social action within.

The recent criminalization of protests illustrates the government’s inability to productively deal with contestation. In view of the upcoming Football World Cup, entire quarters in inner cities have been “cleaned up” – a development by which marginalized communities such as sex workers are touched most heavily.

During IHRFG’s visit to Rio, a local group of self-organized sex workers that cooperate closely with a grantee organization of the Red Umbrella Fund, was brutally arrested and abused in a large-scale police operation. Sex work is not actually illegal in the country but the violent crackdown was part of a downtown re-urbanization (hygienization) campaign.

This case illustrates well how right the timing was for a learning visit. It’s time to turn our attention beyond the economic victories, to where there’s plenty left to do for human rights funders in Brazil.

15 Apr

Sex workers mobilise in Cordoba City, Argentina

Interview with María Eugenia Aravena, the Secretary General of AMMAR-Cordoba (Asociación de Mujeres Meretrices Córdoba) by Mama Cash, published in the Annual Report 2013.

Eugenia has been an activist with AMMAR-Cordoba since late 1999. AMMAR-Cordoba is a provincial level, self-led network of 1,000 sex workers determined to support the health and well-being of sex workers and advocate for the recognition of sex worker labour rights. In 2013, AMMAR opened a centre offering sex worker-friendly health services. They created a network of sex worker organisations in Argentina for mutual support and in order to do more effective advocacy, including at the national level.

“I went to the first meeting of sex workers in Cordoba when I was 19 years old. We were protesting because the police were working with some nuns who were fighting against sex workers.

AMMAR Buenos Aires came and spoke. They said sex work is not a crime and that we should organise. It had a huge impact on me to hear that we were not criminals, and there was no reason to take us to jail.

I had felt powerless. I always heard the elder sex workers telling stories. They told about the cruelty and hardships they experienced in the street. Each of them had a story of abuses, beatings, and some had even been murdered. Then I heard AMMAR saying we are not criminals. I thought: Why then did my elders face so many injustices?

I knew I was a person with rights. Nobody was entitled to insult me, abuse me, take me to jail or take away my earnings.

In Argentina there are misdemeanour codes in each province. Sex work is not criminalised in the Penal Code, but in the Misdemeanour codes, engaging in prostitution in public carries the heaviest punishment.

The police can arrest you, and the police chief decides how many days you will spend in jail.

We have travelled a long way in our fight against the codes. We are taken seriously by the media. The government listens to us, even as it continues to embrace criminalisation policies. The public understands more that sex work is not a crime. We report harassment and mobilise in the streets to stop police repression.

For many years in Cordoba City, sex workers have not gone to jail. But in 2013, some did because the government is becoming more repressive. Prohibitionist polices are becoming tougher all over the world. We need to unite with others and make our voices heard.

We sex workers are oppressed by abolitionist policies that confuse sex work with trafficking. Trafficking of people is about exploitation and lack of freedom.

When sex work is confused with trafficking, the real victims of trafficking are not sought.

Considering the limited options available to working class women, sex work is a practice done by choice by women of legal age. Sex workers are diverse in terms of their education, socio-economic status and vulnerabilities. We are not all the same.

Our human rights are violated when the words of we who choose to do sex work are not valued. As with all other workers in this capitalist system, we work for our subsistence. We demand respect for our right to work.

AMMAR Cordoba in action

AMMAR Cordoba in action

All the poor are harassed when they organise. Alone we can achieve nothing. We need to join other movements and fight together. AMMAR Cordoba knows that when we fight with others, other movements come to support us, and we are stronger.

In our kindergarten, a sex worker can leave her kids for free. People from other movements—it is not just that they demonstrate with us, for instance – they also come to the kindergarten. The kindergarten is open to all the community, not only sex workers.

Our struggle is not only for the recognition of sex workers, but also for the right to land, public transportation, education and health – for all the poor.

And we are getting a response. We no longer feel so alone.”

Stopping police harassment of sex workers is fierce.