AWID Report Highlights Sex Workers' Projects Transforming Economic Power to Advance Women's Rights

Europe Regional Correspondent

The Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) have published a report sharing highlights from the four recipients of the organisation’s “Innovation Seed Grants” whose projects focused on advancing the rights of sex workers. The recipients were: the Association of Hungarian Sex Workers, Red Umbrella Project (USA), Debolina Dutta, a human rights lawyer, researcher and documentary filmmaker who worked in collaboration with sex worker collectives DMSC and VAMP in India, and Aids Myanmar Association National Network of Sex Work Projects. 

The projects reflect the culmination of a process of engagement and collaboration between AWID and sex worker groups and coalitions around AWID’s 2012 International Forum on Women’s Rights and Development, which was held in Istanbul. AWID say that they were “particularly interested in ensuring strong, meaningful engagement by sex workers in the 2012 Forum” and so collaborated with NSWP and APNSW to do this: “Recognizing that some women’s rights spaces have excluded sex workers or not featured their voices, we felt it important that the Forum ensure recognition and visibility of sex worker voices, proposals and realities and tackle head on some of the divisions within our movements that have prevented stronger solidarity and collaboration.”

NSWP and APNSW collaborated with AWID on assisting sex workers from 15 countries to attend the Forum; co-organising a one-day pre-Forum meeting over more than 40 sex workers, and including four breakout sections either organised by or including presentations by sex workers. A speech by APNSW’s Kaythi Win brought most of the audience to their feet, declaring: “sex work is work!”

AWID report that: “In the Forum evaluation 80% of responding sex workers reported that they felt greater solidarity for the issues or struggle that they focus on.” Later that year, APNSW’s Kaythi Win became the first sex worker to be elected to AWID’s Board of Directors.

AWID launched the seed grant application process after the Forum, saying: “Considering the significant and on-going challenges faced by women’s rights organizations in accessing resources for their work, we feel these seed grants are a particularly important strategy, especially for historically discriminated and excluded groups, such as sex workers, to make their ideas a reality.”

AWID’s report on the four sex worker group grantees offers insights into how sex workers are transforming economic power to advance women’s rights and justice, as well as useful lessons for collaborative organising and engagement between sex workers and other women’s rights and feminist activists, and for funders seeking to support sex worker organising.

The report touches on a number of themes and you can read it in full here. One interesting theme is that of the transformative power of sex workers having the space to tell their own stories, rather than others telling it for them. This was emphasised by projects by NSWP member group Red Umbrella Project (RedUP) and by Debolina Dutta. RedUP organised four different storytelling workshop series, along with numerous drop-in workshops and a theatre production. Personal storytelling, RedUP report, “is key to resilience and resistance in a world where inaccurate and salacious stories are told about sex workers without their input.”

Debolina Dutta – in collaboration with the Indian sex worker collectives, DMSC and VAMP – created space to share stories of fun “with the aim of uncovering the important role that humour plays in sex workers’ everyday lives, and how it contributes to making their work more exciting, enhances financial security, and keeps them and their clients happy and coming back.” Dutta selected 24 voices who were able to draw a connection between a funny real-life incident and their own transformation of economic power, who will be included in an illustrated book that Dutta hope will be used as a tool for advocacy and teaching by the sex worker movement and other activists.

Access to resources and economic empowerment was another theme that emerged from the seed grantees: emphasised by NSWP member group, Aids Myanmar Association National Network of Sex Work Projects (AMA)’s project, which supported sex workers to open bank accounts where they could build up their savings and be better prepared for emergencies. NSWP member group, Association of Hungarian Sex Workers (SZEXE)’s project worked on expanding sex workers’ access to legal aid and social counseling, which they took steps to do by expanding their presence in online forums popular among sex workers. As well as expanding virtual interaction, SZEXE increased its network by conducting outreach on the street and at indoor locations and holding training sessions with those they connected with.