The ‘Red Umbrella Fund’ Donor Collaboration to Advance the Human Rights of Sex Workers

I’m usually on the outside looking in when it comes to political organizing: scrambling to reach an editor before a deadline, coordinating flash mobs to surprise politicos, or cobbling together press releases and teasing the press, hoping for a bite. I have more recently resumed participating in the only real ‘establishment’ activism that is available to sex workers, which is public health research.

While the majority of the work is focused in a general sense on access to HIV prevention and treatment for all sexual minorities, on rare occasions I’m gifted with an offer to work on sex worker organizing. The ‘Donor Collaboration to Advance the Human Rights of Sex Workers’ was such an occasion. I worked with two other consultants to produce a recommendation for the collaborative donor mechanism, as well as its governance and administration. In the end, a number of donors, both veteran funders and those newer to the issue, and sex worker advocates gathered to commit themselves to additional funds to human rights-based approaches to sex worker movement building. Read this summary from Mama Cash for the outcome.

‘Nothing for us without us’
Collaborating to Advance the Human Rights of Sex Workers

Amsterdam, December 9 and 10, 2010

Donors and sex worker activists from around the world gathered in Amsterdam on December 9 and 10 for a historic convening hosted by Mama Cash and the U.S.-based Open Society Institute’s Sexual Health and Rights Project. Calling itself the Collaboration to Advance the Human Rights of Sex Workers, the group is committed to generating new funds and advocating for human rights-based approaches to building sex workers’ movements.

The sex worker-donor collaboration is unprecedented. One of its first activities will be to set up a fund that will attract new resources for sex worker-led organisations that use a human rights framework. The funding will support core costs, capacity building and crisis response.

Because of the stigmatisation of sex work and the widespread assumption that sex workers are always coerced and are in need of rescue, most donor funding worldwide is earmarked for HIV programming or economic empowerment. Sex workers are rarely given the opportunity to present their own agendas and shape their own programmes.

The vision of the collaboration is that societies uphold and respect the health, human, and labor rights and self-determination of sex workers of all genders. This vision translates into support for movement building and an end to the violation of sex workers’ rights and the stigmatisation of sex workers.

MacKlean Kyomya, one of the activists present at the meeting, is the Director of the Women’s Organization Network for Human Rights in Uganda. She had this to say:
‘The stigma and discrimination attached to sex work and blaming us as the vector of HIV really makes me feel disgusted and angry. Our society forgets that HIV is not transmitted through exchange of sex for money but through unsafe sex. Supporting our rights means increasing our ability to negotiate for safer sex. The collaborative meeting marks a turning point. I really see the support and recognition of sex workers from the grassroots to the global without the “Buts and Ifs”.’

Working in the spirit of ‘nothing for us without us,’ sex workers will be at the heart of the grantmaking process for the new fund. In the coming months, the Collaborative will establish its governance structure. The governing body, comprised of both donors and sex workers, will request proposals from existing international funds that want to be considered to administer the pooled fund. The new fund is slated to be set up and accepting donations by the autumn of 2011.

Once the fund is up and running, all proposals from sex worker groups will be reviewed jointly by the administrating fund and regional peer review panels comprised fully or largely of sex worker representatives.

Nicky McIntyre, Mama Cash’s Executive Director, was thrilled about the outcome of the meeting.

‘There was a lot of trust building. And in the end, having a joint grantmaking process with sex workers in the driver’s seat was embraced by everyone in the room. You have no idea how historic this is. We all feel that this fund will contribute significantly to a shift in the relationship between donors and sex workers, will build the capacities of both our communities, and most importantly, will allow for regional movement-building on a scale that was previously unheard of’.

In addition to the new fund, the Collaboration will also be involved in advocacy both within donor communities and in order to assist the sex workers’ rights movement in its long-standing efforts to become more visible at the global level.
The following guiding principles for the Collaboration were hammered out during the meeting:

  • We recognize the self-determination of sex workers.
  • We believe that sex workers must be at the heart of the design, implementation, and evaluation of programmes.
  • We oppose the criminalization of sex work and recognize that sex work is work.
  • We embrace the gender, sexuality and all other types of diversity of sex workers.
  • We recognize the equal value and voice of all participants in the collaboration.
  • We commit to learning and using it to inform our interventions and demonstrate the value of working collaboratively.
  • We commit to support actions that catalyze advocacy for policies, laws and practices that are based on evidence of what works.

We end our report about this exciting development with responses from two more of our activist partners.

Ruth Morgan Thomas - NSWPRuth Morgan Thomas – NSWP

‘The recent donor dialogue marked a historic moment when a number of donors and sex workers activists from around the world came together to discuss the need to support sex worker-led organisations themselves to advocate for the advancement of their human rights. The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) welcomes the commitment of donors given during the meeting to establish a new collaborative fund which will bring much needed additional resources for sex worker organising’.
— Ruth Morgan-Thomas, Global Coordinator, Global Network of Sex Work Projects

Aliya Rakhmetova - SWANAliya Rakhmetova – SWAN

‘The meeting was educational and inspiring. It was amazing to see donors committed to support the sex workers’ rights movement. I hope the commitment and drive of this collaboration between sex workers and donors lasts long years to come’!
— Aliya Rakhmetova, Network Coordinator, SWAN, The Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia


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