Sex Workers Share Knowledge During AWID

Many sex workers from all over the world attended the 13th AWID International Forum from the 8-11 of September in Costa do Sauípe, Bahia, Brazil. This was an opportunity for sex workers to meet with members of the women’s rights movement.

Throughout the forum, a lot of attention was drawn to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. The impeachment has had detrimental effects on sex workers in Brazil, because human rights advocates within the government were removed from office and now Brazil has an all-male cabinet. People constantly chanted Fora Temer (out with Temer) who is the current president of Brazil. Most plenary sessions, and panels that included sex workers, spoke of the political climate in Brazil and the impeachment of Rousseff.

Georgina Orellano from Sindicato de Trabajadoras Sexuales de Argentina (AMMAR-CTA) spoke of the challenges faced by sex workers in Argentina on a panel with Amnesty International, CREA, and Sexuality Policy Watch. The panel focused on the criminal regulation of sexual identities, sex work, and reproduction. “The law forbids where we work and advertise,” said Orellano. “The police apply the laws arbitrarily in Argentina,” continued Orellano, “sex work should not be regulated by criminal laws. Sex work in Argentina should be legalized and regulated through labour laws so we can get social and health benefits,” she finished.

In a panel on punitive drug laws in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Olha Ponomarova spoke about the challenges faced by sex workers who use drugs in Ukraine. She spoke about her own personal experiences of victimisation and police oppression. Sex workers who use drugs face stigma, discrimination, and legal oppression because of both whorephobia and drug-userphobia. This was recently explored by NSWP and INPUD in a joint briefing paper on sex workers who use drugs.

In the panel on how to create a trans-inclusive feminist movement, Boglárka Fedorkó from Transgender Europe and the Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network Board, spoke about the need to view violence against trans people as gender-based violence. “We always think of gender-based violence in a very specific way. How can we widen this lens to include trans people?” asked Fedorkó.

Kemalita Ordek from the Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association spoke about the violence faced by trans sex workers in Turkey. She highlighted the murder of Hande Kadar, and how a hate crime such as this are committed against the entire community. She also discussed how the police let organised hate groups commit violent acts against trans people. “During the Ishtanbul Pride March, Hande Kardar stood against the police and became a public figure,” said Ordek. “We need to continue highlighting her murder and drawing international attention to the murder of trans sex workers in Turkey,” said Ordek.

Many sex workers at the Forum participated in Daspu, a sex worker-led fashion show during one of the plenary sessions. Daspu started in 2005 when Brazil turned down 40 million US Dollars in funding from USAID because it would require Brazil to sign the anti-prostitution pledge. In a panel about Daspu, representatives from Davida, Associação Mulheres Guerreiras, APROSMIG and GEMPAC spoke about the fashion show. Both allies and sex workers are welcome on the catwalk, to blur “the lines between who is and who isn’t a prostitute,” said Flavio Lenz Cesar from Davida.

On the same panel, Maria Menezes Vieira from APROSMIG spoke about Putadei (International Sex Workers’ Day) on the 2nd of June, and how Brazilian sex workers have celebrated this day. The panel concluded with a video of the late Gabriella Leite from Brazil who passed away three years ago. In the video, she explains why she prefers the term ‘puta’ (prostitute) to ‘sex professional’ (sex worker).  

Davida also participated on a panel with Best Practices Policy Project and NJ Red Umbrella Alliance on how to advocate for sex workers’ rights at the United Nations Universal Periodic Review. Brazil will be reviewed by the United Nations in 2017. Sex workers from Brazil are calling on the international community to support them throughout this process. Davida has asked sex workers to lobby their governments to make recommendations to Brazil about sex workers’ rights once they make their submission to the Universal Periodic Review.

Joyce Oliveira Santos, a sex worker from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was also on the panel. She spoke about her personal experiences in Brazil. Since the 23 of May 2016, she has been on the run from the police because she spoke out against them after they raided the brothel where she worked in Niterió. “I’m always on the run from the police,” she said, “but I want to go to the UN to give them our report on human rights abuses in Brazil.”

Elene Lam, from Butterfly, Kiran Deshmukh from VAMP, and Cida Vieira from Davida, were on a panel about anti-human trafficking initiatives. Kiran Deshmukh gave a presentation on their publication “Daughter of the Hills.” The cartoon tells the story of Kopisha, who was sold into a brothel where she experienced exploitation. She ran from this brothel and eventually worked for a new brothel but was very unhappy. The brothel owner connected Kopisha with VAMP and in collaboration with SANGRAM, they eventually reunited Kopisha with her family. This story tells the complexity of migration and trafficking in India, and also the important of sex worker-led organisations in addressing exploitation.

Elene Lam from Butterfly discussed the importance of including migrant sex workers in the sex workers’ rights movement and provided similar arguments to her article in Research for Sex Work 15.

Cida Vieira from Davida is on the National Committee Against Trafficking in Brazil. She spoke about how Brazilian sex workers often migrate to Italy to work. “What if the working conditions are not what you thought they would be in Italy?” asked Cida Vieira. Davida and APROSMIG provide services to sex workers before they migrate abroad. “Often people know they are going to work in the sex industry when they go abroad, but when they come back the Brazilian government considers them victims of trafficking,” she concluded.

Thanta Laovilawanyakul and Chatchalawan Muenjan from Empower Foundation explored art and performance to document the realities of sex work in Thailand. They showed various films and asked audience members to actively participate in their presentation. The films showcased what negotiations between clients and sex workers look like, and the activities asked audience members to put themselves in the shoes of sex workers through theatre and art.