It’s time to fund sex worker NGOs
- Published: 13 March 2011
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A number of sex worker organisations across the globe are well organised, transparent and delivering services and advocacy to their community in ways that only sex workers can. Yet they are all too often excluded from funding. It’s time for governments, donors and grant bodies to show sex workers the money, writes Elena Jeffreys.
13 March 2011
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called for the decriminalisation of sex work in 2008 and again in 2009. Not only would this constitute a significant advance in the fight against the spread of HIV, but it would help prevent the trafficking of women and grant sex workers the kind of human rights they only enjoy at present in a small number of jurisdictions, such as New South Wales in Australia, and New Zealand.
I am an Australian sex worker and the President of Scarlet Alliance, the Australian Sex Workers Association, the peak body that represents 12 sex worker organisations in Australia. Together we have a combined outreach of more than 20,000 occasions of service a year.
We believe granting bodies, governments and donors should develop closer relationships with sex worker NGOs, and stop excluding them from funding.
We advocate at top level. A representative from the Scarlet Alliance sits on the Commonwealth Attorneys-General Roundtable on People Trafficking, and was part of the expert committees that put together the Australian National Strategies on HIV and Sexually Transmissible Infections, as well as our own sex worker publications such as the “little red book” on STI’s and HIV transmission.
And, through our member organisations, we also deliver services to the grassroots, such as peer education, occupational health and safety support, condoms and lube, and other safe-sex equipment. We run community development programs and social events, establish steering committees, and provide advocacy and representation.
Similar sex worker organisations in the developing world are doing the same. In fact, in many cases they are ahead of us. The Empower Foundation in Thailand, for instance, is 21 years old; the Women’s Network for Unity in Cambodia is the largest union in Phnom Penh; Friends Frangipani in PNG has been running as a sex worker organisation for five years now; Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee in Kolkata has 60,000 sex worker members; and OPSI in Indonesia has recently formed to represent the sex workers of Indonesia.
All of these NGOs are well organised, transparent, and are delivering services and advocacy to their community in ways that only sex workers can.
In a local area where a sex worker NGO is strong and able to run services, it should be funded to do so. However, just the reverse occurs in some countries, where funding is designed specifically to exclude sex worker NGOs from service delivery. The Bush regime in the US, for instance, banned HIV monies being given to groups that didn’t explicitly oppose sex work. This cut sex worker NGOs out of major funding rounds.
Will Obama finally repeal this ban and allow US AID monies to reach the communities it purports to assist? Sex workers protested to this end at the Vienna World AIDS Conference in 2010, and the campaign continues.
Our aim is clear. It is our right to represent ourselves – in advocacy and service delivery. In the words of Empower Foundation in Thailand: ‘Give us our rights, we can do the rest.’
Sex workers can speak. We can act. We can stand up for our rights. We are here on the world stage participating in delivering the Millennium Development Goals to our own communities. Last year I was doing just that at the UN DPI NGO conference in Melbourne.
The speakers at the conference urged communities to “Step up” to the challenges of global health. And we do.
But how can we do our job when NGOs that are larger than ours, more recognised than ours, louder than ours, and seen to have more ‘legitimacy’ than a bunch of sex workers muscle us out of funding intended to support and serve sex worker communities?
At the UN conference on progress on the health-related Millennium Development Goals held in Melbourne it was apparent that NGOs are competing for funding, airtime and media attention.
When will governments, donors and the UN ensure that sex worker communities, or any affected community, are prioritised to receive aid money to do the work for themselves?
I raised these issues at the Melbourne conference.
“Our voices are central to a human rights-based response,” I said. “Sex work is work, and deserves to be treated as such. This is the basis of effective human rights programs; only decriminalisation of sex work can deliver true human rights to sex workers. How can we ensure community-based organisations are funded to do this work for themselves?”
Claudio Schuftan of the People’s Health Movement noted that sex workers are marginalised and should be congratulated for standing up for themselves. The declaration emerging from the conference also recognised the centrality of affected communities in the design, implementation and evaluation of programs.
It’s time to get beyond the rhetoric. Fund sex worker NGOs as a priority, tailor grants to do so, and end the whorephobic ban on sex worker NGOs receiving funds.
Image: Representatives of Scarlet Alliance, SWOP NSW, Australian Women Lawyers and the Anti-Slavery Project protest against the detention of sex workers in Cambodian "Retraining" facilities in June 2008. See Letter to the Cambodian Government and media release. Photo courtesy of Scarlet Alliance, 2008.