When Economic Empowerment Programmes Fail Sex Workers

Source (institute/publication)

Sex workers are often encouraged to take part in economic empowerment programmes to help them exit sex work by requiring that they give up sex work while they learn new skills like hairdressing and sewing. Some of these programmes work but the majority of them fail sex workers to such an extent it is hard to imagine why such programmes are still considered as acceptable by some.

A new briefing paper published by the NSWP - and funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs as part of the ‘Stepping Up, Stepping Out Project’ by Aids Fonds that aims to support the development of advocacy tools around rights-based economic empowerment for sex workers - asks whether rehabilitation works. This briefing paper is the first of two publications in this part of the project with the objective of documenting the experiences of sex workers and the impact of rehabilitation programmes on sex workers. A regional report documenting good practice in economic empowerment programmes for sex workers will be published soon.
The case studies in the briefing paper documents programmes that did not meaningfully engage or consult with sex workers to establish the right goals and objectives; lacked built-in strategies to support the sustainment of sex workers' new income generating activities; lacked sufficient and on-gong training for sex workers once the programmes stopped or when sex workers exited the programme; did not factor in the effects of entrenched stigma and discrimination against sex workers in local communities where sex workers were being "rehabilitated" or "re-integrated" to. In Uganda, for example sex workers who were running small informal businesses were harassed by customers in the communities they worked demanding sex in return for them 'shopping' at their businesses.
The rehabilitation element only served to make sex workers worse off - some had no means of buying the basic necessities for their families when their new small business was not generating an income. Others returned to sex work very soon after completing a programme as their new business was not sustainable.  
There are other reasons these types of programmes fail and those reasons often relate to poorly designed and managed programmes that also tend to be under funded. For economic empowerment programmes for sex workers to succeed, sex workers should be at the centre of the design of programmes that purport to want to help them. They should be included in planning and engaged meaningfully when setting the goals and objectives of these programmes. Sex workers know what will and won't work for them. Without adopting a rights-based approach i.e. an approach to delivering economic empowerment programmes that ensure that the rights of sex workers are upheld in every facet of the programme - economic empowerment programmes are doomed to fail with sex workers bearing the brunt of that failure.
Click here for a short summary with the main findings and recommendations. You can download the briefing paper here. These publications are in English.