16 Dec

17 December: International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers – Red Umbrella Fund commemorates and looks ahead!

International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers
Red Umbrella Fund commemorates and look ahead

The International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers was created in 2003 by Dr Annie Sprinkle, with support from sex workers’ rights activists including Robyn Few, as a memorial and vigil for the victims of the Green River Killer in Seattle, Washington, United States of America. On this particular day, we take the opportunity to come together, organise against stigma and discrimination that fuel violence, and remember our colleagues who are or have been victims of violence. We also use this day as a moment to reflect on the state of the world and the progress we have made.

As a participatory funding mechanism, Red Umbrella Fund was launched in 2012 from the recognition that too little funding was going to sex worker-led organisations and networks and that this funding often responded to donors’ priorities rather than sex workers’. Eight years after the creation of Red Umbrella Fund, these challenges remain.

In 2017, less than 1% of all human rights funding went to sex workers. Furthermore, recent research carried out by the Sex Work Donor Collaborative pointed out that only a third of grants for sex workers “were tagged “general support,” showing how few foundations are investing in the sustainability of these organizations.” In its latest report, Aidsfonds indicated that “in 2018 sex workers accounted for 6% of all new HIV infections globally. […] Yet programmes for sex workers received only 0.6% of all HIV expenditure”. 

In 2020, because of the global pandemic, many of us lost our incomes, and consequently faced a multitude of challenges. We were also often explicitly discarded from social and economic measures put in place to support workers and from funding decisions affecting our lives. 

This year, sex workers’ movements also grew, became stronger and organised rapidly to respond to this new context. So did Red Umbrella Fund.

  • At Red Umbrella Fund, we published a Solidarity Message in March with a list of sex workers’ initiatives to respond to the Covid-19 crisis, a list of emergency funders and a non-exhaustive list of resources for sex workers.

  • On Sex Worker Pride Day (14 September), we also published our new Strategic Plan, guiding our work until 2025. For greater accessibility, this Strategic Plan was also published in French, Russian and Spanish.

  • Thanks to the support of our donors and of our host organisation, Mama Cash, we were able to carry out a grantmaking cycle, completely online. We received 222 funding applications from 63 countries, 47 more applications than in 2019. 

  • We participated in the Counting Sex Workers In! Campaign aiming to challenge the ways that sex work is most often viewed through a narrow lens of moral judgment, and instead highlight bodily integrity and workers’ rights, especially in “feminist” circles.

  • We continued to strategise with the Sex Worker Donor Collaborative to increase the amount and quality of funding to support sex workers’ rights.

Red Umbrella Fund contributes to a strong, diverse and more sustainable sex workers’ rights movement. Several of our grantees have chosen to use the support they receive from Red Umbrella Fund to respond to violence in all regions of the world with activities ranging from police trainings, trainings for sex workers on safety and security, paralegal trainings, and legal aid services. On 25 November, our grantee Plataforma Latinoamericana de Personas que Ejercen Trabajo Sexual (PLAPERTS) launched a campaign aiming to confront the violence faced by sex workers perpetrated by state actors.

Our vision remains to live in a world where sex workers’ rights are respected as human beings and as workers, so that all sex workers can live lives free from criminalization, stigma, and violence.

To achieve this, funders will play a crucial role. As more and more funders are interested in participatory grantmaking and shifting power, we encourage them to support our work and our experience as the first and only global fund guided by and for sex workers.

Participatory grantmaking is both an ethos and a process ceding decision-making power about funding decisions (including the strategies and criteria behind these decisions) to the communities served. Since its inception, Red Umbrella Fund has been recognised as a creative model of participatory grantmaking, with sex workers being the majority of its International Steering Committee, its Programme Advisory Committee and its Secretariat staff. Because participatory grantmaking is not only about shifting power but also about ensuring good grantmaking decisions, we will continue to promote the systems we developed (and continue to perfect them) as was done in the Guide from Grantcraft entitled: Deciding Together: Shifting Power and Resources Through Participatory Grantmaking.

We look forward to making the Red Umbrella Fund more accessible, more powerful and more resourced in the five years to come.

#shiftthepower

Kay Thi & Tara (Co-Chairs of the Red Umbrella Fund’s International Steering Committee) & Paul-Gilbert (Coordinator)

If you want to support the work of Red Umbrella Fund, click on this webpage (which was also created in 2020!) or contact us.

28 Mar

Funding a Movement

Introducing the New Grantee Partners of the Red Umbrella Fund

The Red Umbrella Fund received 130 eligible applications from sex worker-led groups and networks during our Global Call for Applications last year. All these applications were reviewed and scored by our 11-member Programme Advisory Committee (PAC) and, after many days of deliberation among the sex worker activists, 26 groups were selected for a new grant. We are thrilled to announce that the total grant amount for all our new grants in 2017 was just over 1 million US dollars!

In fact, since the creation of the Red Umbrella Fund in 2012, we have made 129 core funding grants to 91 different groups and networks for a total amount of just under 4 million US dollars.

Selecting diversity

In the selection of grantee partners, the Programme Advisory Committee always confirms that the final selection reaches a diversity of groups and networks, including those working at local level, like Sex Workers Advisory Network of Sudbury (SWANS) in Canada or Asociación de Trabajadoras Sexuales Trans de Quito in the capital of Ecuador, those working more at national level, like All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW) in India, Desiree Alliance in the US, and Organización Nacional de Activistas por la Emancipación de la Mujer (ONAEM) in Bolivia, as well as those working at regional level such as RedTraSex in Latin America. As well as a diversity of reach, the PAC ensures that groups that work with women, men and trans sex workers are all included. Some new grantee partners have a more specific focus, such as Ashraya in India that works with sex workers who are living with HIV or Rainbow Mirrors Uganda that focuses on young trans sex workers. Another grantee partner, TAMPEP, was recently transformed into a regional network of migrant sex workers in Europe.

Registered or not

The grantee selection includes some groups that are relatively new (two years old or less), such as the Surinamese Coalition of Sex Workers (SUCOS) in Surinam and the migrant sex worker group Red Edition in Austria. About one in three grants are made to groups that are not formally registered, like Asociación de Mujeres Liquidámbar in El Salvador. Reasons for not being registered can be multiple; sometimes it is a political choice of the group, in other cases the registration process is complex, lengthy, or registration is simply denied to self-organising sex workers. For just over one-third of the grantee partners, like for Strumphet Alliance Network in Fiji, this is the first international grant the group has ever received. Other groups, like Organisasi Perubahan Sosial Indonesia (OPSI) in Indonesia and Parapli Rouz in Mauritius, have more experience with international funds but need the Red Umbrella Fund grant to support their organizational development and human rights advocacy costs that are hard to cover with the restricted project and services-focused funding more commonly accessible to them.

Safety

Whereas all grantee partners work in countries where sex work is highly stigmatized and criminalized one way or another, the safety concerns differ greatly per country. In some countries violence against sex workers is extremely high, and some groups have a strong focus on violence prevention and trauma healing services. Many leaders in the movement have shared receiving threats or direct violence related to their public identity as a sex worker. This risk is often further increased when someone also identifies with or demonstrates support to LGBTQ communities. Arbitrary arrests, police abuse and brothel evictions are common among many of our grantee partners. HIV/AIDS Research and Welfare Center (HARC) in Bangladesh, for example, has organized strongly around brothel evictions. Numerous groups limit their online presence, and one of our grantee partners remains anonymous in our communications to prevent potential repercussions.

 Visibility

Other groups put in much effort to increase their public visibility. Macedonian sex worker organization STAR-STAR, for example, has organized impressive demonstrations full of red umbrellas and, in December 2017, attracted visibility through their Skopje Red Light District art performance as shown in this video. Also Men Against Aids Youth Group (MAAYGO) in Kenya, Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM) in the UK and Unidas en la Esperanza (UNES) in Paraguay have used video as a tool to get their messages out. AMMAR Cordoba in Argentina consistently shows their presence at demonstrations, events, and local festivals and markets.

Dilemma

We are proud to have been able to contribute to getting more and better money to the sex workers’ rights movements, and we thank our institutional and individual donors for their support. But it is also clear that there is a still a significant gap for the movement in accessing the funds needed for their organizing and activism. For two-thirds of the grantee partners, this is their first grant from the Red Umbrella Fund.

“It is exciting to have a fund where we, sex workers, are in the driver’s seat but also very difficult. Each year, we make new grants to sex worker groups in different parts of the world and these groups do such great and important work. But it also means that each year we have to say ‘sorry you were not selected’ to the majority of the groups that apply and this is hard. We know how hard it is because we have that experience too.”
– Tara Burns, International Steering Committee (ISC) of the Red Umbrella Fund

Whereas it is great to be able to support new grantee partners, it also means opportunities for longer-term partnership from the Red Umbrella Fund have not been available for all groups that we would have liked to continue to support.

More grantmaking

Next month, the International Steering Committee (ISC) of the Red Umbrella Fund will come together to make new decisions about the Red Umbrella Fund’s strategies and priorities. Follow us on social media to make sure you don’t miss our next call for applications.

 

By Nadia van der Linde
Coordinator, Red Umbrella Fund

Additional introductions and information about the new grantee partners can be found on the Red Umbrella Fund’s Facebook page.

03 Nov

Breaking Barriers to Participation

Five Years of Participatory Grantmaking at the Red Umbrella Fund

By Jurre Anema

In the past half year I had the honor of writing my thesis at the Red Umbrella Fund office in Amsterdam. I was introduced to the global movement of sex worker rights activists and had the opportunity to speak with some of the great individuals that are playing a big role in their local, regional or global movement. My objective was to explore how the participation of sex workers at the Red Umbrella Fund has been organized and experienced. As the Red Umbrella Fund just celebrated its fifth anniversary, the Fund is making time to reflect and document its experience in order to further improve its work in the future.

Participatory Processes

“I always thought that the Red Umbrella Fund is what the world needed, because I really love the idea of changing where the power is.” (research respondent)

There is much academic literature about participation, outlining different levels and qualities of participation processes. Analyzing the processes of the Red Umbrella Fund, there cannot be a doubt that the Red Umbrella Fund is a highly participatory organization, functioning in the top levels of all participatory models. Participation is at the heart of the Fund and at the basis of every major process, initiative and decision. The Red Umbrella Fund has made more than one hundred grants to sex worker-led groups and directly involved over forty sex workers from diverse regions in its decision making structures.

Time for Reflections

The Red Umbrella Fund was created in 2012. Five years after its first grants were made, it is now time to share some of the challenges and reflections I captured from people that have been engaged in different decision making processes at the Fund. Many challenges that the Red Umbrella Fund and its participants experience are not easily overcome; they are part of working with a global and diverse movement and a participatory organization.

Barriers to Break

Based on the interviews I had with people involved in the Red Umbrella Fund I distill five key challenges to participation that the Red Umbrella Fund struggles with: language barriers; distance; knowledge and experience; safety and security; and resource limitations.

  • Overcoming language barriers

Language is seen as one of the biggest barriers by respondents in my study. The Red Umbrella Fund’s peer review panel, the PAC, functions entirely in English. The International Steering Committee (ISC), basically the board, currently works in three languages (currently English, Russian and Spanish) which is quite a feat. But if someone does not speak any of those languages there simply is no possibility to participate in Red Umbrella Fund’s internal decision making processes so far. This excludes the majority  of the global sex workers’ movement.

And for the people who do participate, those who are native English speakers have an obvious advantage. They do not need an interpreter for conversations and can therefore often respond and articulate their statements more easily than non-native speakers can. However, the non-English speaking people on the ISC are well-accommodated: documents are translated for them and at every online and offline meeting an interpreter is present. Furthermore, in both ISC and PAC meetings the participants are aware of the different levels of English and try to articulate clearly and talk slowly. This way the people that actually can participate have the opportunity to fully engage in discussions.

  • Overcoming geographical distance

As the Red Umbrella Fund works globally but has just one small office in Amsterdam, most communications take place online through Skype, phone and email. Online meetings require technology and are complicated to plan when the time difference between participants may be ten hours or more. And there is a recognition that not all sex worker rights activists and groups are able to be equally active online, or are able to safely engage online as sex workers and human rights defenders. Usually once a year, as long as resources allow, a face-to-face meeting takes place. Such meetings provide valuable opportunities to build trust and understanding and have more in-depth discussions and focused time together. But they are also relatively expensive and require much time commitment from all involved. In addition, visa restrictions have challenged the Fund in being able to get all participants together at face-to-face meetings.

  • Recognizing and building knowledge and experience

An extensive educational background and grantmaking experience are not necessary to participate in the Red Umbrella Fund’s processes. Instead, activist experience and knowledge of the movements, also at local level, are highly valued and relevant. But having experience in a board, with strategic planning or with annual budgets can come in handy.

“The International NGOs, they always put barriers for sex workers to apply for things. I don’t see that with the Red Umbrella Fund. They do not ask for degrees, they do not ask for bachelors, they just ask for community people to put in something that makes sense.” (research respondent)

But lack of relevant knowledge and experience are perceived as a barrier for (potential) participants. People with no or limited experience in regional or global networks or processes might not feel confident to apply for the ISC or PAC. This makes sense as strategic decision-making at a global level can be difficult, something that also activists with experience in the global movement admit. However, much can be learned through participating in Red Umbrella Fund committees. Respondents in my study said they gained much knowledge and developed new skills as participants in the Fund’s decision making processes.

  • Safety and Security Concerns

The safety and security risks that many sex workers experience also affect their opportunities for participating in Red Umbrella Fund processes. Because sex work is criminalized and penalized in many places and levels of stigma and discrimination are high, not all sex worker rights activists are willing or able to come out publicly as a sex worker. Or to be potentially identified as such. It is likely to affect future job opportunities if they wish to switch careers. In some countries, children of sex workers are being refused access to schools. Migrant sex workers, particularly undocumented migrants, may opt to stay under the radar as much as possible. Although the Red Umbrella Fund respects the diverse realities of sex workers and understands that not everyone can always identify publicly as a sex worker, this can increase the threshold for some activists to engage.

  • Resource Limitations

Some of the aforementioned barriers can be addressed depending on the resources that the Red Umbrella Fund can make available to address them. There are ways to increase accessibility. For example, adding an extra language to the ISC is possible, but will increase costs and further complicate internal processes. As one respondent argued: “Every time, that requires a balance which is the ISC’s decision around how much money it is worth to have a process be more accessible, or be more participatory, or be more inclusive.”

Accessibility (i.e. mitigating or destroying the barriers) becomes a careful balancing act between allowing as many diverse participants as possible to engage and keeping the organization operational at the same time. It is a well-known dilemma for participatory initiatives. Especially for the Red Umbrella Fund, which aims to have at least 70% of its annual budget spent directly on grants. This means that its overhead and other costs have to remain low.

“I think the Red Umbrella Fund does what it does with the resources that it has, to the best of its ability.” (research respondent)

Inclusiveness

The different barriers described in this blog are a few selected broad categories and do not do justice to all the different challenges and problems faced by sex workers who want to participate in the Red Umbrella Fund’s processes. One so far unmentioned obstacle is the limited number of spaces available for people to participate. Many very relevant and qualified people have applied to join Red Umbrella Fund committees several times but have never yet been selected to join, which can also be frustrating and discouraging.

The diversity within the global movement leads to an unique situation for each and every single activist. But, as one of the respondents from the ISC highlighted:

“There is a big awareness [at the Red Umbrella Fund] of there being a diversity of sex workers and there is a big awareness of trying to be inclusive, and trying to pay attention to sex workers who aren’t usually included, or who aren’t usually heard.”

Overall, the people who have participated in the organization demonstrate strong support for its work and processes. On to the next five years!

 

Jurre Anema is a sociology student at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. As part of his master thesis he conducted research at the Red Umbrella Fund about their participatory processes. If you are interested in this study and want to receive more information or a copy of his thesis, please contact the Red Umbrella Fund at: info [at] Redumbrellafund [dot] org.

07 Jul

Hints for 2017 Applicants

Dear sex worker friends,

[update: Please note that the 2017 call for applications is now closed. We are not accepting new applications anymore this year.]

The Red Umbrella Fund’s annual call for proposals is open.

If your group or network is sex worker led, recognises sex work as work, and is interested in building and strengthening the sex worker movement – you can apply for funding this year! If you are in doubt about any of these requirements, let us know.

All the information you need is available in our website, including the application forms and guidelines. There are two application forms available – one for groups, and one for networks.

The deadline for submitting applications is 28 July. You still have time to complete an application. And if you have submitted already and want to send an improved version of it, that’s fine too.

We suggest that you carefully read the guidelines we’ve put together. Below we will give you a brief overview and some hints about the process and how you can improve your chances of being selected.

Here is our brief advice:

  • If you have questions about your application, contact the secretariat for more information before 21 July. Don’t submit your application if you are not sure yet. We are glad to give you personalised feedback and advice.
  • Remember that sex workers from different parts of the world will be reviewing your application, so write this applications to your peers. Sex workers know the importance of your work, just remember to describe it really well.
  • Write the application in one of the four languages that we work with – English, Spanish, Russian or French. Applications in Portuguese will also be considered. If you can’t write in these languages, seek help from your community, allies or simply Google translate.
  • Remember that most sex workers reviewing your application are not from your country or region, so you might have to explain things that seem obvious to you!
  • When you select referees, choose people that actually know your group and that will give you a positive feedback. References help Programme Advisory Committee members to evaluate your work and make the best selection, so pick the right ones. Remember to inform your referees about your application and the need of responding to our request.
  • Carefully complete the application form and avoid contradictions. Make sure that the information provided is consistent and relevant for external readers. If it’s only relevant to you and sex workers from your group, explain why.
  • Remember to fill in all fields of the application form and include all the requested details. Groups often fail to explain the nuances of their organisational structures, for instance. Remember that sex workers in the peer review panel don’t expect you to run an NGO with many structures; what they want to know is how you organize your organisation and work and if your group has democratic processes in place.
  • Share your most relevant successes, those that really stand out. The competition is very high and you need to make a case for why those successes are relevant in your context, and how they relate to your vision and future plans.
  • Be clear about describing yourself as a local, national or regional organisation. That helps sex workers reading your application to understand the impact of the work you do. If you claim to be a national or regional organisation, clarify the national and regional scope of your work, membership, etc.
  • Be frank about your challenges and limitations. Sex workers from the Programme Advisory Committee may consider it important to fill in funding gaps and support your group based on your unique needs and challenges.

If you are tired of reading, meet Dennis & just listen:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duLsl4HqIdg

15 May

Funders Need to Let Go

“During the conference, it occurred to me that we do not need everyone to become a participatory grantmaker. It makes sense that some organisations may not fully be able commit to this ethos. Rather, what we need is to scale up participatory grantmaking.”

Dennis van Wanrooij, a Programme Associate at the Red Umbrella Fund attended the 2017 EDGE Funders Alliance annual conference in Barcelona. Dennis was enthusiastic to share information about participatory grantmaking and it turned out that many of the conference’s participants were eager to learn more about it!

Dennis blog photo 2

Dennis speaking the closing panel with Chris Stone (OSF) and Sarah Gunther (Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice)

 

Dennis emphasized the need for funders to let go, and to acknowledge the privilege funders have as funders.

“Let’s stop talking about the risks funders make when they cede power. What I want to talk about is the risks sex workers and other populations take when advocating for their rights in highly criminalized and hostile environments. The risks we take, as funders,  pale in comparison.”

dennis blog photo 1

PAC members and volunteer in 2013.

 

As a former member of the Red Umbrella Fund’s peer review panel and current staff member, Dennis has learned that participation is more than just making decisions about grants—it’s about re-thinking your role as a funder on a daily basis, and seeking community participation in all layers of work. In order to achieve a fully participatory process, funder need to partner with, support and learn with their grantees.

Read Dennis’ full blog post published in Alliance magazine here.

02 Nov

Covering the World with the Red Umbrella – Reflections of a PAC Member

After a few unsuccessful applications by my organization, Bar Hostess Empowerment & Support Programme (BHESP), to the Red Umbrella Fund, I saw it:  the call for sex workers to be part of the Program Advisory Committee (PAC) of the Red Umbrella Fund. That is the group that reviews proposals from sex workers’ organizations from all over the world. I decided to give it a shot.

After all, if I could not make it as a grantee, I would try for a reviewer of the grants!

I knew the process would be enriching and the exposure to well written proposals would really be of help. I knew the selection of PAC members would be very competitive but I hoped my experience as director of one of the oldest sex workers’ organization as well as being the chair of Africa Sex Workers Alliance would help. I also threw in my experience as a proposal reviewer for a local fund.

…and it worked!

I was selected as one of the two representatives of the fund from Africa. The PAC meeting brought together a group of eleven sex work activists from all over the world in Amsterdam for the 5th year of the Red Umbrella Fund’s application review process. Now I sit on the plane home and reflect on the process.

Widespread panic

There was a request from an African country where the HIV prevalence among sex workers is over 50%. The request was to fund the only national sex worker organization in that country. This proposal brought back memories…

It took me back to a sad time in the ‘90s when HIV prevalence was over 30% in the general population. Although there was no data to determine the number of sex workers infected at that time, BHESP put the figure to over 60% in Nairobi among bar hostesses and sex workers. An entire bar lost all her hostesses and other girls. The story was the same in bar after bar. There was widespread panic and desperation.

Sitting in the room with all these activists, selected to participate as a representative of African sex workers for this fund, I feel I must make a case for this proposal. Surely this is why this great fund was formed, to respond to the cries of such women who suffer so much, unsupported and unrecognized?

PAC

Photo: PAC members reviewing applications

So many proposals

But there are so many excellent proposals from all over the world. From sex workers who use drugs, sex workers locked up in prisons, migrant sex workers and even refugee sex workers. Proposals are from women, men and transgender sex workers. We reviewed proposals from local grassroots groups to regional networks.

Some of the organizations are responding to violence and gaps in access to health. Many of them have only been exposed to HIV programs and are not aware of the kind of support, the core funding, available from the Red Umbrella Fund. So many base their request on HIV commodities and services only. Many sex workers do not yet understand that there can be an organization like the Red Umbrella Fund that just wants to support you as an activist sex worker organization.

A funder that accepts and respects sex worker organizations for what they are. Yes really, no crazy targets here! You can use the money to pay rent and to grow your organization.

Some groups were created just one month earlier while others have more than 30 years of history.  Each PAC member is allocated a set of proposals to score prior to the meeting. Having scored earlier on what I thought were very good proposals, I am faced with even better proposals, compelling cases and persuasive advocates.

Amazing people

I’ve learned a lot from these proposals but even more from the other PAC members. Each one of them is an expert, knowledgeable, experienced and passionate to a fault. We debate everything from Brexit to new laws against sex work. The feelings and opinions are as strong as these amazing people.

I am honored indeed to be in the PAC with an Italian colleague who explains to me how the red umbrella, now adopted as the symbol of sex workers all over the world, came into being in Italy. Grazie to the sex workers’ rights activists in Italy.

Cover the world with red umbrellas

We laugh, argue and score amazing groups, some very local groups, others working at national or regional levels. It is clear that some proposals are well thought out and articulated. They speak to the level of organizing and capacity but also to preparedness and time spent on the proposals. These must surely be rewarded. But we also keep in mind that in many countries English may be a third language or not applicable at all. The entire proposal may have been translated by Mr Google. We all know how that goes! We know the realities of sex worker activism and the challenges of putting together a quality proposal. Our scoring will not be based on just perfect wording and presentation.

The last day is tough because excellent and deserving proposals will need to be left out, due to scarcity of resources and… no other reason.

We seek some form of regional balance in the final selection. The fund is not called the Red Umbrella Fund for nothing; we must cover the world of sex workers!

As I sit on the plane, I reflect on the many things I have learned in my first time as a reviewer of this great fund. I reflect on the huge responsibility bestowed upon me as a PAC member. Among this is the responsibility to be fair and true, to give a chance to thousands of sex workers and their groups to rise in a world that is determined to push them down. A world that sees sex workers as criminals, illegals, or victims. We are determined to uphold our mantra:

Sex work is work.

By Peninah Mwangi, member of the Red Umbrella Fund’s Programme Advisory Committee (PAC)

24 Oct

Red Umbrella Fund: Who Gets to Choose?

This blog was written by Minerva Valenzuela, our Programme Advisory Committee member based in Mexico City. It was initially published in Spanish at the feminist collaborative blog Harén de Nadie. Minerva is a sex workers’ rights advocate and peer reviewed two grant-making rounds of the Red Umbrella Fund. In this blog she shares her excitement and experience in supporting the growing and showing sex workers’ rights movement!

In 2001, there was a huge exhibition at the 49th  Venice Biennale to discuss Sex Workers’ Rights. It included film screenings, roundtables, theatre, performances, personal testimonies and other initiatives, including a demonstration with megaphones, blankets and many red umbrellas to attract the attention of passers-by and make them watch it.

It was a powerful and beautiful image and in 2005 the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe adopted the red umbrella as a symbol of resistance. The global community liked it and since then most groups and organizations related to sex work use it.

Minerva1Nowadays, the red umbrella is the international symbol for sex workers’ strength and unity, as well as for their struggle against stigma and for their rights and the recognition they deserve.

In 2006, sex workers, foundations, donors, human rights experts and other international (and moneyed) institutions embarked on a dialogue that was to conclude only in 2012 with the creation of the Red Umbrella Fund, the first global fund led by and for sex workers.

I learned about the existence of the Red Umbrella Fund during the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival that took place in Calcutta, India, in 2012. It was one of those things that changes the way in which your brain works. That sets something in motion that leads to completely changing your way of thinking.

What I realized was that, if money is power, why don’t we change power dynamics within organizations and foundations? If money is power, then we should democratize control over money. The money aimed at “aiding” social movements related to sex work should be distributed by sex workers and not by who knows who. Who is going to know best which projects can bring effective change to the different sex workers’ communities? Sex workers themselves or the head of a “socially responsible” transnational corporation with money to donate? Sex workers or a woman who wants to “help” them because she sees them as passive, helpless, and victimized, and if they claim to be anything different, well, it’s their false consciousness speaking…?

The Red Umbrella Fund was born out of these ideas and in its first year it received 1147 applications. Many more have been coming in every year, with fantastic and very diverse projects.

All these beautiful projects tell us something very important: that there is a global movement of people engaged in sex work. It works in an informed and organized way. Its members know about law, health, digital safety, video editing, advocacy, self-defence, graphic design, civil disobedience and even nail polish – and when they don’t know, they get advice from those who do.

This saves us from many pages and hours of groundless discourses about sex workers being passive, helpless, victimized and speaking from their false consciousness if they claim to be otherwise. What a relief! Because when invited to write or speak about sex work this is what worries me the most: that a feminist will approach me in an evil way to explain to me that this is how I am.

This is my second year as a member of the Programme Advisory Committee of the Red Umbrella Fund and I am more in love than ever with the projects I have to assess. Each of them shows specific skills for something, creativity, strategies, team work and, of course, each one responds to its specific context. It is not the same to do sex work in Uganda as it is to do it in China or in Bolivia. Each location has its own particularities, its laws, its gaps and its stories. But there is something that runs through all the projects and that is the fact that stigma is what is bringing the most trouble to sex workers everywhere. None is spared. All the groups and organizations are searching for what to do so that sex workers stop being subjected to mockery, social and police harassment, and being forced to remain underground to preserve their safety and their lives.

It’s unbelievable, right?

Who would do something like that? Who would contribute a bit every day to encourage stigma against sex workers? Cough, cough.

Who says “son of a bitch” to refer to someone despicable? What lies behind this is: Nothing is lower than a whore, worse if she is a mother, and worst if she is your mother.

What is so terrible about mothers who are sex workers and their children?

Minerva2

Photo: This dress belongs to the Barbie of a daughter of a sex worker. This girl likes to dance and to put her hands under fountains.

 

 

 

 

Minerva3

 

 

 

Photo: This kid’s truck was parked in a street where sex workers work. One of them loves the pozole (maize stew) his father cooks. The other one likes small dogs.

 

Are all of you fine? Has anybody fainted after being virtually in touch with sex workers who are mothers and with their children?

But, going back to the Red Umbrella Fund, I encourage all sex workers who are reading this to organize themselves in groups, collectives, organizations. And when you decide to submit a proposal to the Red Umbrella Fund, I would be delighted to advise you. I would love to see a proposal from my country, Mexico, among all those jewels!

By Minerva Valenzuela, Programme Advisory Committee member of the Red Umbrella Fund

*This text was made available in English thanks to Alejandra Sarda.

08 Apr

Are we really listening?

The discussion on funding anti-trafficking initiatives organized by Global Fund for Women (GFW) and South Asia Women’s Fund (SAWF) at the recent San Francisco IHRFG meeting highlighted a few significant gaps that we as grant makers must pay attention to. The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) presented from its latest research on what money is invested in anti-trafficking initiatives and how that money is spent. To me, the most striking conclusion was the paradox of large sums of money going into anti-trafficking initiatives globally but the relative absence, even the unwillingness, of most human rights funders to engage with the issue. It makes me question who we are listening to when setting our funding priorities?

This paradox was echoed by Tulika Srivastava, Executive Director of SAWF, who added that although trafficking is often seen as primarily a problem affecting women and girls, many women’s rights organisations and feminist activists do not engage much with anti-trafficking initiatives due to the conflation of trafficking and sex work and the related sensitivities and polarized debate.

“It all comes down to who controls poor people, particularly poor women, their mobility, and their decisions,” clarified Tulika, “Who decides what’s good for them or not?”

In other words: do we even listen to the people that our funding is meant to support?

Although the adoption of the UN Protocol in 2000 and more recently the ILO protocol on Forced Labour have resulted in some efforts to affirm rights of workers, in many parts of the world anti-trafficking responses limit themselves to carrying out raids in brothels that claim to ‘rescue’ trafficked women. The harmful effects of such initiatives, including harassment, abuse, and arbitrary detention of women who depend on sex work for their income, are well researched and documented as “collateral damage” by the GAATW. There are numerous reports (see for example here and here) documenting abuses in rehabilitation centers and shelter homes that are more like prisons than safe houses. Sex workers in Thailand define raid and rescue initiatives as “action taken by police with TV cameras [and] reporters, where many women are shown sitting on the floor and hiding their faces from camera, or with their eyes inked out like criminals – when the job [is] done, most of us end up in debt and return to [sex] work to pay it off after we are released”(source: Bad Girls Dictionary by Empower, 2007). There is ample evidence of the totally apnsw logo sewing machineirrelevant and unrealistic alternative job options and trainings that are offered to women in shelters. It has even led to the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) developing a logo with a crossed out sewing machine and a film by sex workers in India called “Save us from Saviours”. In the US, the anti-trafficking frame is used to arrest large numbers of sex workers, particularly from black and trans* communities.

All this suggests an important role for human rights funders to ensure the human rights of all workers, regardless of the site and nature of their work and their legal status, are protected.

Interestingly, while many human rights funders stay silent and the feminist movement continues to be divided on the topic, global support for decriminalisation of sex work – including as an essential ingredient to ending violence, exploitation and trafficking in the sex industry – is experiencing an upward trend in recent years with clear endorsement from UNAIDS and WHO and more recently also from Amnesty International. Why then is there so little response from human rights funders to address this global issue of human trafficking? The discussion among funders in the session revealed that the topic is generally considered “too contentious and heated”, “too complex” and “too sensitive” to touch. A story was shared of a programme manager proposing to expand their grantmaking to include this area of work, but facing a blockage by the board of trustees who preferred “not to take a stance” on the issue of sex work.Save us from saviours

Tulika shared her own fund’s recent trajectory of not wanting to get involved in this complex debate, but ending up right in the middle of it. “We heard stories at meetings about women being rescued, supposedly after being identified as trafficked, from sex work as well as domestic work. Our research then showed us that the ‘rescue’ actually provided much risk of abuse, poor labour conditions and less income. It didn’t seem such a good deal for those women.” A key learning of SAWF has been, that decriminalization of sex work and self-organising among sex workers are essential ingredients to an effective and comprehensive approach to end trafficking.

“I used to think that all sex workers were victims too,” confided the director of another women’s fund to me after the session.

As the coordinator of the Red Umbrella Fund, the global fund that is led by sex workers, for sex workers, my position on sex work is obvious. The victimization approach is common but not effective and, in fact, harmful because it robs sex workers of their agency and voice. Our experience of four years of grantmaking at the Red Umbrella Fund tells us that sex worker rights activists’ priorities around the globe are to end the violence and stigma they experience daily. Decriminalisation of sex work is an important strategy to enable sex workers to protect themselves from violence and exploitation and seek justice when needed. As the old saying goes: Only rights can stop the wrongs.

A Bangladeshi woman I spoke with a few years ago put everything in perspective for me. She made her living as a sex worker in one of the country’s largest brothels. She had moved to the city to work, to take care of her children and mother. She had no savings, lacked school diploma’s and had no formal work experience.

“I could have become a waste picker or beggar”, she told me, “but sex work brings more money and gives me more freedom to work the hours that suit me. I take care of my kids, I can send them to school, and I work at night.”

Although she had no prior knowledge of concepts like human rights, lacked access to proper health services due to high levels of stigma and discrimination, and was unable to seek justice against the violence she experienced because the police was the main perpetrator, she was one of the most confident women I have ever met. Although the country’s law makers and popular media try hard to make you believe otherwise, she was not a victim.

While feminists may argue endlessly over the legitimacy of sex work as work, the people who sell sexual services as work make their own decisions based on what they consider their best options to be. Just like you and me. In this world we live it, when it comes to finding a job, poverty limits options. Being a woman or trans* person limits options. Having no formal education or a higher degree limits options. Being from an ethnic minority limits options. The list goes on. But as human rights funders, we have money to facilitate change.

Sex workers and their community organisations are often the first point of support to people who experience trafficking and other forms of abuse or exploitation. But according to our research there are few funders out there to support their work.

To go back to my earlier story, how did the director who just told me she used to think all sex workers were victims change her mind? “Meeting a sex worker, and hearing her side of the story,” she admitted. How about all of us, are we really listening to the people whose rights our funds aims to protect?

By Nadia van der Linde, Coordinator at the Red Umbrella Fund

This blog was initially posted on the Alliance Magazine blog here.

 

17 Feb

Deciding for all or all deciding? Exploring Participatory Grantmaking

 ‘Innovation and iteration’ was the key theme of the January the International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG) conference in San Francisco. In the opening plenary, speakers noted that the ‘innovation’ of community involvement and participation in grant decisions would be one of the topics included in sessions throughout the meeting. It was quickly added, though, that these practices are in fact really not new.

‘Why then’, the panellist remarked, ‘is participatory grantmaking still considered innovative? Isn’t it just common sense?’

Diana Samarasan, Founding Executive Director of the Disability Rights Fund; Nadia van der Linde, Coordinator of the Red Umbrella Fund; Nevin Öztop, Resource Mobilization Officer of FRIDA; and Katy Love, Senior Program Officer at Wikimedia.

Photo (left to right): Diana Samarasan, Founding Executive Director of the Disability Rights Fund; Nadia van der Linde, Coordinator of the Red Umbrella Fund; Nevin Öztop, Resource Mobilization Officer of FRIDA; and Katy Love, Senior Program Officer at Wikimedia.
Since the 2014 publication of Who Decides, the seminal research on participatory grantmaking carried out by Matty Hart of The Lafayette Practice, the philanthropic sector is abuzz with conversation about the value and benefits of participatory funding and, increasingly, participatory funding models. The Who Decides report discusses the benefits of participatory grantmaking, highlighting the contribution of participatory grantmakers in strengthening communities and movements, not just through their grants but also through their grantmaking processes and additional support in areas of capacity building and solidarity.

While participatory funding models have been in existence for several decades, particularly in the US, we have been seeing an increase in international participatory grantmaking initiatives. More and more funders are questioning how to increase their transparency and accountability to the people affected by their grants and recognizing the added value of leveraging the knowledge and insights of the community. This is an exciting trend that will likely continue to grow.

When we organized our first joint session on participatory grantmaking at IHRFG in 2014 in New York, the room was packed, but the questions posed to us focused on understanding the benefits and challenges on the WHY: the general concept of participatory grantmaking. In other words, why go through all that trouble? It was, as we experienced it, not widely understood as ‘common sense’ at all, although some colleagues in the field did express admiration for our courage and innovativeness.

Recognizing the relevance of learning from each other as participatory grantmakers, explicitly opening up to other participatory funders and interested peers, and eagerly aiming to be more strategic in sharing our learning, we established the international donor working group on participatory grantmaking which is hosted jointly by IHRFG and ARIADNE. Through this platform, we share relevant resources and food for thought. Each of our funds routinely fields questions about how we actually do participatory grants, and we are eager to learn and share what we have learned.

At the recent IHRFG conference in San Francisco, four diverse funders (FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund, Disability Rights Fund, Red Umbrella Fund, and the Wikimedia Foundation) convened a session on the practicalities of participatory grantmaking. In other words, the ‘how-to’ of participatory grantmaking. The room was packed with funders, all of whom were either somewhat or completely convinced of the benefits of participatory grantmaking, but only few who had actual participatory grantmaking experience. Most funders acknowledged the potential benefits of participatory grantmaking in areas of movement building and leadership development, and in the shared power and transparency of such approaches, but had very specific questions about the HOW.

The concept of participatory grantmaking puts decision making in the hands of activists on the ground, who, we believe, hold a type of expertise that funders will probably never have. But the model can also be threatening and challenging. There are many technical and operational issues to unravel, such as cost and conflict of interest. And also, internal politics, as was shared by some brave private foundations with a healthy sense of self-criticism and a twist of humour. How can we develop a model that allows us to (cost-)effectively share power, while effectively staying in power? Because honestly, how can a Board of Trustees of a foundation aimed at ending social inequalities ever be convinced of the benefits of a more effective grantmaking strategy that requires sharing power? Organizational change takes time and for foundations that are not explicitly set up within or in support of a social movement, the thought of community leadership within their own decision making structures may be daunting, but step-by-step processes and hybrid models can be considered.

There is still much room for innovation and iteration in the field of participatory grantmaking. While we have taken action to assess, document, and share our good practices and lessons learned (see for example from ‘Funding Knowledge the Wiki Way‘ about the Wikimedia Foundation and about the FRIDA Fund, ‘Letting the Movement Decide’), it is clear that the need is high as funders are eager to get the tools to feel more comfortable moving from rhetoric to practice to actually iterate participatory grantmaking.

Members of the IHRFG/ARIADNE participatory funder working group are planning next steps, including creating a FAQ on participatory grantmaking, developing a guide for grantmakers, and expanding the venues where discussions on this funding model occur. Stay tuned and join us!

17 Apr

Exploring the How and Why of Participatory Grantmaking

The very first session of the funders’ Working Group on Participatory Grantmaking was organised at the International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG) meeting in San Francisco on 28 January 2015. While we had prepared to welcome just a handful of interested colleagues from peer foundations, we were instead welcomed by a room filled with around forty grantmakers and philanthropic advisers. Participatory grantmaking seems to be ‘hot and happening’ on the West Coast.

The audience represented a diverse spectrum of grantmakers varying from peer-led participatory funds, to grantmakers with some experience involving communities or grantees in some grantmaking processes, to more traditional funds that do not involve communities or grantees in their grantmaking at all. What participants had in common was an interest to learn more about: the how of participatory grantmaking, seeking to explore diverse models and options as well as the why of participatory grantmaking, looking for the arguments to convince managers, boards or trustees to potentially “do something more in that direction” in the future.

About the Working Group

The Working Group on Participatory Grantmaking was created in 2014 with two key objectives:

  1. to build a community of practice to share and increase effectiveness of participatory grantmaking models; and
  2. to encourage other grantmakers to increase the involvement of the community the intend to reach in their practices.

The session at the IHRFG meeting was organised by three distinct participatory and peer-led funders: Disability Rights Fund, which involves persons with disabilities in their grantmaking processes and provides grants to Disabled Persons Organisations in the developing world; Red Umbrella Fund, a collaborative peer-led fund launched in 2012 that supports sex worker-led groups and networks worldwide; and Wikimedia Foundation, the largest known participatory grantmaker that supports initiatives that promote free access to information as a human right.

Catalyst

An important catalyst for these participatory grantmakers to come together to set up this Working Group has been a research by The Lafayette Practice in 2014 comparing the operations of eight international participatory grantmakers.

The report finds that the funds, regardless of the focus of their specific missions, share a belief that people impacted by the fund’s programme should be involved in decision making on allocation of grants. Not only because there is a common belief that it will actually lead to better results but also because that involvement in itself is believed to be important to achieve the social change the respective funds seek to achieve. The researchers encourage additional research on the effectiveness of participatory grantmaking and the possibilities for reproduction and moving to scale of existing models.

Changing power relations

In his paper called “Beauty and the Beast” Michael Edwards explores a diversity of funding models – not limited to philanthropy – and experiments that have the potential to not only fund local activists and groups but also change the power relations that surround money. And that is an essential ingredient to tackle the root causes of poverty and discrimination and contribute to lasting social change.

Andrea Armeni, Executive Director of Transform Finance, added his experiences with participatory or community-led impact investing and how that relates to participatory grantmaking. Impact investing is about giving not a grant but a loan or investment (which is expected to have also financial returns) with the explicit intention of reaching social or environmental impact. Transform Finance fosters a social justice approach to impact investing that rests on deep community engagement around co-design and shared ownership that creates more value than it extracts from communities.

By sharing our experiences and evidence that community involvement works, we can benefit from and support each other across the philanthropic and investment sectors.

Recommendations from an impact investor

Andrea argued that exploring hybrid models of grantmaking instead of considering them in isolation may be the most effective strategy for change: in some cases,  a combination of a grant and a loan or investment might actually be most relevant and effective. Concretely, Andrea recommended funders to:

  • Embrace the ‘nothing about us without us’ principle in all you do;
  • Consider participation an investment in the success of a project, not a cost, and push for a view of participation that goes beyond mere consultation;
  • Improve transparency of decisions and provide feedback to groups that are declined for funding;
  • Consider including community members on investment committees of your board (for large foundations that have capital to invest);
  • Appreciate that participatory grantmaking and participatory investing represent continuums along which you can select what fits best for you at a certain period of time.

It clearly is time to invest more in participatory grantmaking.

 

By Nadia van der Linde, Red Umbrella Fund

This blog is a slightly adapted version of the blog by the same author published by IHRFG (here)