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.


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.

24 Nov

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How were the participants chosen?

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

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

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

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

So how were these skills developed?

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

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

How do you see the future of the programme?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do you think funding sex worker organizations is important?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you!

Vietnam, Sex Work and Covid19

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

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

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

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


Resources & further reading:

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

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

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

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

Academic resources:

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

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

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

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

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].


30 Sep

Mind the Gap

What we learned about how funders can be moved in the right direction.

As human rights and social justice funders, we try to reach those people who are most marginalized and excluded from services and protection. Those who are least empowered, least resilient, and hardest hit by inequality. But one group that ticks all those boxes is systematically excluded from funding opportunities: sex workers. Why are not more funders stepping into this gap? What makes even human rights funders so hesitant to take on the human rights of sex workers?
Many of the women, men and transgender people around the world who provide sexual services for money face high levels of violence, discrimination and incarceration. Due to the criminalized status of sex work in most countries, combined with high levels of stigma, sex workers are often unable to file a complaint or take legal action. Amnesty International just conducted research on human rights abuses against sex workers to better understand the appropriate, rights based actions that are needed. This has culminated in a global policy in support of decriminalization of sex work. There are other organisations that stand up for sex worker rights, including those led by the community themselves, but these organisations are systematically underfunded.
At a funder discussion at the EFC’s AGM 2016 (Credit: Clair Bontje/Mama Cash)

A funder discussion at the EFC’s AGM 2016 (Credit: Clair Bontje/Mama Cash)

Funder journeys
The Red Umbrella Fund, the only international fund for and by sex workers, partnered with the Free University in Amsterdam to better understand how other allied funders started supporting sex workers’ rights. Sixteen staff were interviewed at twelve foundations to analyse key aspects of these funder journeys.

“I am very conscious of the fact that I did go on a journey. I did not start off talking about sex workers and sex worker rights and understanding the difference between trafficking and sex work. But yeah, I now see sex work as work. It needs to be work that is respected, that is protected, paid for properly. That has all the rights of other work.” (foundation staff, interview respondent)

What happened to bring about this change? And how can we reproduce such developments and scale them up?

Yes, the respondents admitted, academic research was useful as evidence to support sex workers’ rights. And the various UN agreements (like from UNAIDS, UNDP and WHO) on sex work helped too. But there is one other ingredient that seems to be key to any significant change.


Although everyone’s story is unique, the following excerpts from interviews with two women leaders in international foundations are exemplary of experiences and insights shared by many others in philanthropy. The fact that their stories are anonymized is illustrative of the sensitivity and high level of stigma that continues to be associated with sex work. Discussions related to sex work are regularly described as “extremely polarized” and “really unpleasant”.

“The debate is so polarized, where the violence against women on one lawn is basically accusing the other side of supporting the sex industry. And you’ve got groups [on the other side] that say there is no violence, that they have never come across a case of trafficking there. And because we can’t have a proper, honest debate about this, it’s like a zero sum game.”


The two foundation leaders cited in this article have a background in fighting violence against women and trafficking, which seemed to put them strictly on the one side of the debate.

“For me, sex work at that point was a bad thing done to women. I could only see it as oppression. It was a way to control women. It was harmful to women. And I was only really aware that it was about women. I saw it as violence against women.” 

Seeing sex workers first and foremost as victims of violence had implications on the funding strategy they implemented at their respective foundations.

“I made a very quick jump between sex work – well, what I then called prostitution – and trafficking and I put the two together.”

This conflation between sex work and trafficking was reflected in the grantmaking by her foundation at the time, which mainly focused on ‘rescuing’ women from the sex industry:

“the majority of it was really funding those organizations that were trying to get women out of prostitution. That was how I saw it. We were quite proud of that. We thought it was doing good work.”

So what happened that made them recognize that sex workers are people with agency, entitled to human rights?

Sewing Machines

The game-changer for many of the respondents had been coming in direct contact with sex workers. Hearing first-hand experiences from sex workers and better understanding their contexts. And, importantly, seeing sex workers first as human beings. As people with agency.

“For me it was the meeting with the sex workers, hearing them talk about their work. [..] It was this great sense of these women having made informed decisions about going into this work, because whatever options they had involved very high levels of violence.”

Hearing directly from sex workers how they experienced their work, and learning about what they considered their key challenges and needs to be, were significant milestones in determining the direction of the funder’s journey.

“They talked about the economic alternatives that were presented to them by the state, by anti-prostitution groups, and saying: Well, actually I can triple this. If I really want to change the life of my kid, this is the most lucrative way for me to do it. If you want me leave sex work, come back and put me in charge of petrol pumps. Put me in charge of something that you would offer a man. Don’t offer me a sewing machine. Or doing handicraft. Because I will still be trapped in the same cycle of poverty and violence. [..] It certainly was a shift away from viewing women as victims, and seeing them as having agency, about making informed decisions, about becoming politicized” 

In some cases there was no direct contact with sex workers, but other community members or experts functioned as the initial amplifier of the voices of sex workers, widening the funder’s horizon to explore alternatives and listen to the community.

“[They told me] we don’t agree with this [raid and rescue,] approach. They are in fact traumatizing women who are being so-called freed in raids and they are not providing them with alternatives, when they say they are.”


Both women leaders recognize now how they, and many women they encounter, transfer their own fears and feelings about what they think it would be like to do sex work onto others.

“It would be a problem for me, it will always be a problem for me, but that shouldn’t mean that it cannot not be a problem for other women. [..] But my concern as a feminist should be: does that woman have a voice, does she have rights? Is she able to live life on the terms that she wants? And if she is vulnerable to exploitation and violence, are there things we can do to reduce that? Or even better, to help her stand up for her rights [..] and be able to demand justice.”

Building more open spaces even among peers to talk about these experiences, fears and prejudices can help change the direction we are going in.

“I remember talking to the director of a grantee organisation saying: ‘the worst thing that I can imagine is doing sex work. And therefore, the worst thing I can imagine any woman doing is sex work.’ I remember her saying to me: ‘Do you sit here imagining what it might be like to be a brick-laborer? Or an agricultural worker? No.’

The thing about sex work and prostitution is, it becomes extremely personalized and people apply their own personal lens to it, in a way they might not to other forms of exploitative work. Or work. There are other forms of labour exploitation out there that are horrific, but they don’t seem to carry the same moral outrage as sex work does.” 

Value added

We need more brave funders to step up and help fill the funding gap and also to speak out against prejudice, misinformation and ignorance as the consequences are real in the lives of sex workers.

“I am convinced that if sex workers can have more opportunity to speak for themselves, change would happen faster. [..] That’s where our added value can be. To support them.”


Written by: Sanne Bos (Free University, Amsterdam) and Nadia van der Linde (Red Umbrella Fund).

First published by Alliance Magazine here.

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.


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.


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 

16 Dec

Funding needed to end violence against sex workers

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Read the full report and infographic here.

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


10 Dec

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

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

India - AINSW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Piril Kazanci, Red Umbrella Fund

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

06 Dec

Sex workers stand up against Russia’s discriminatory and draconian laws

In May 2013, Russia’s national organization of sex workers, Silver Rose, was denied official registration as a non-government organization (NGO) by Russia’s Ministry of Justice. The Ministry declared that “there is no such profession as sex work,” accusing Silver Rose of violating Article 29 of the country’s constitution. Article 29 prohibits “campaigning and propaganda inciting social, racial, national and or religious hatred and enmity.”

Silver Rose

Silver Rose stand up for the rights of sex workers in Russia

Since Putin has taken up second term as president, human rights organizations are facing ever greater challenges when monitoring and reporting human rights violations across the country. Harsh laws have been adopted, including those that persecute of anyone voicing criticism of the regime. In fact, anyone who lives a so-called “non-traditional lifestyle,” such as gays, lesbians, transgender, people living with HIV/Aids and drug users, are exposed to discrimination and stigmatization.

In this light, sex workers, who often belong to a variety of extra vulnerable societal subgroups, are forced to live under equally harsh conditions.

In Russia, sex work is criminalized, leaving sex workers without a social or legal status. Meanwhile, stigma and discrimination against sex workers is encouraged by the Orthodox Church which portrays sex workers as a manifestation of society’s moral decay. Sex workers are seen as sinners and home wreckers, unworthy of raising children. While the widespread HIV/Aids problem in Russia is widely seen as a ‘foreign complot’ and quality treatment is generally absent, sex workers are having an even harder time to guard their health and access affordable medication. Moreover, Russia’s sex workers are extremely mobile and not always in possession of the right documents, thus increasing their vulnerability to harassment from the state and non-state agents.

“We want to pull sex workers out of the grip of violence, social discrimination and corruption,” Irina Maslova of Silver Rose remarked.

By July, Silver Rose’s leader and a former sex worker herself, Maslova sent a complaint to the St. Petersburg district court, reporting a violation of her civil rights and freedoms and requesting the court to dismiss the Ministry’s decision and instead recognize Silver Rose as a legitimate NGO. However, the judge upheld the Ministry’s decision to refuse registration, stating technical inconsistencies in the group’s formal request.

But Silver Rose is not the kind of group to give up. “Official registration will mean that the state acknowledges our existence, that we have same human rights as others, which need protection,” Maslova asserted to the Russian Service of the BBC.

Agora, a human rights association has been assisting Silver Rose to prepare another request for registration, despite the likelihood that this motion will be declined. Nevertheless, Silver Rose’s sex workers are determined to pursue justice at the European Court of Human Rights that is based in Strasbourg.

By Eva Cukier, Red Umbrella Fund

About Silver Rose
Since 2006, civil partnership Silver Rose has fought for the legal recognition of sex workers in Russia. Today, the group has presence in no less than 10 regions, representing the interests of a large part of the estimated 3 million sex workers in the country. Through campaigns, media work and participation in meetings and conferences, the group brings public attention to urgent problems as physical, sexual and economic violence against sex workers in Russia. The group operates a hotline for sex workers and provides legal aid to sex workers in cases of violence and harassment with which sex workers in Russia are confronted on an everyday level. Silver Rose is a grantee of the Red Umbrella Fund.

This is crossposted from http://www.hivadvocates.net/advocacy-stories/sex-workers-stand-against-russias-discriminatory-and-draconian-laws