Tikkun Olam Belize is pioneering human rights investigation, legal advocacy, trial advocacy, and victim’s rights advocacy organisation working for the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls including sex workers.
Tell us about your organisation
Tikkun Olam Belize (TOB) believes in empowering sex workers and stimulating the movement in Belize through investigation and documentation of human rights violations for strategic political advocacy to decriminalise sex work. We do this by advocating for trauma-informed and people-centered systems of care to combat all forms of violence against women sex workers in Belize. One unique characteristic of TOB is that we offer our services of victim’s rights advocacy, trial advocacy, and victim support to non-sex worker women both as part of our civic engagement as well as our core values of anti-discrimination, diversity, and inclusion and secondly as a strategy to humanise sex workers to our communities.
We face severe obstacles of not having the resources needed to more comprehensively advocate for decriminalisation and to cost the unification of sex workers across Belize more effectively.
What is the history of the organisation? How and why was it formed?
Despite adversity, Tikkun Olam Belize was founded in August of 2011 by a group of two sex workers and an ally. TOB has since been the only sex worker-led human rights and social justice non-governmental organisation in Belize. We remain small - it is not easy to find volunteers who can afford and commit to the hours it requires to mobilise and advocate, so we do what we can with what we can for as long as we can. We keep moving forward.
We have been leading in the field of victim’s rights advocacy coupled with legal advocacy and human rights violations investigations.
We also helped with Victim’s Rights Advocacy work and won an international Hague Convention Case in North Carolina where a child was being retained in the USA and the mother was denied her rightful access to the child. The child is now reunited with the mother. This garnered an increase in public support of Tikkun Olam Belize despite the fact that we are sex worker-led.
Which countries and/or regions do you work in?
Tikkun Olam Belize is based in the northern district of Orange Walk in Belize. We have a small national network of sex workers that we consistently work on maintaining active through telecommunications and social media platforms. We travel across the country of Belize working with all sub-populations of sex workers in Belize.
What is the sex work context in your country/region?
To fully grasp the magical little act of revolution that is Tikkun Olam Belize, you must have some context about this little country:
Belize is a nation on the eastern coast of Central America, with Caribbean Sea shorelines to the east and dense jungle to the west. It was a British Colony up until September 21, 1981 - just 39 years ago. So in the context of Global Development, Belize is but a babe.
Belize has a predominantly Catholic or evangelical population, with laws based in common law. The country is culturally diverse with Hispanic, Maya, Afro-descendant indigenous populations. Is is a developing country with a GDP of 1.65 Billion in 2020 and this is expected to grow to 1.8 Billion in 2021.
With a per capita income of $4,906, the World Bank considers Belize an upper-middle income country. Despite this status, however, poverty in Belize is high. Of the nearly 360,000 individuals in Belize, 43 percent live below the national poverty line. Of this percentage, 16 percent face extreme poverty. All these factors are the perfect ingredients for a misogynistic, criminalised approach to sex work and heavy social stigma by religious groups.
Sex work then is prevalent but discriminated and most state-led programs are not sensitised to the needs of sex workers. This results most often in retraumatisation and re-victimisation, particularly in cases of sexual or domestic violence.
About 65% of sex workers in Belize are women who work in bars doing ficheria (drinking companionship service) and are survival sex workers. There is also a healthy population of LGBTQ sex workers as well as indigenous sex workers both from Maya and Garifuna populations. In the last few years there has been an increase in online sex work but the bar sex work remains the most visible and oftentimes the most targeted.
Do you do political work, or campaigns? What kind?
Tikkun Olam Belize has hosted protests and currently does political advocacy that includes documenting, investigating and exposing human rights violations usually perpetrated by gatekeeper State agencies such as police, immigration and health service providers who violate the rights of sex workers or vulnerable women and girls. We have done social media campaigns against gender-based violence and constantly host sensitisation sessions with police and immigration as part of our anti-human trafficking campaign (sex workers against human trafficking).
How are sex workers meaningfully included in the organisation?
- Sex workers are invited to sit as members of the Board of Directors. We currently have 90% Board of Directors being sex workers either active or inactive. 6 of 7 Board members are sex workers.
- Sex workers are primary beneficiaries of services.
- Sex workers are engaged in design, development, and decision of which grants to apply to.
Tell us about a big event or challenge you have worked on recently. For example, a campaign, a big event you worked on, etc. How did it go? What were the challenges?
- We advocated for COVID-19 relief inclusion in State relief programs and got many sex workers approved for COVID-19 Social Security relief aid during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Belize.
- We also collected donations from sex worker members of TOB and fed 15 families during March to June 2020.
What challenges does your organisation face in the future?
TOB is working on re-stabilising after COVID-19. We have major challenges in accessing funding, facing social stigma and discrimination when in contact with criminal and judicial systems.
The following issues have been raised by sex workers in Belize:
- Criminalisation of sex work
- In Family Laws of Belize where it states that if a woman is proven to be a “common prostitute” her children can be removed from her care and control.
- Criminal Code of Belize where the law is unclear and does not explicitly deem illegal the sale of sexual services.
- Systemic violation of human rights in the judiciary and criminal systems
- No Trauma-Informed System of Care in Human Services structures.