On November 10th, international women’s social change fund Mama Cash packed the house at the culture and politics center De Balie in Amsterdam for Rights, Not Rescue. The evening-long event about sex workers rights had an interesting selection of international guests. Although I follow the work of Mama Cash closely, it was a pleasant surprise for me to learn that they so actively take a stand in the current debates surrounding sex workers and their position in society.
The second pleasant surprise was to see how many people and experts showed up from the Netherlands and beyond to take part in the discussion. My guess is that about 100 people were there, filling all the chairs and stairs.
While entering the hall a short film played on the screen. It was ‘I am a sex worker’ a short piece which came out of the first Speak Up media training, a unique training for sex workers on how to deal with the media, organized by Sex Work Awareness in New York.
After a powerful introduction by Nikki McIntyre, the executive director of Mama Cash, Mama Cash founder Marjan Sax introduced the guests of the evening: Ruth Morgan Thomas (Scotland), Pye Jakobsson (Sweden), Marianne Jonker (The Netherlands) and Macklean Kyomya (Uganda). Each woman is an expert on sex worker issues in her own country, and each is dealing with both similar and different problems when speaking up about sex worker rights.
Something that became very clear during the discussion was the ways in which the Swedish model, which criminalizes the client, and treats the sex worker as a victim, dominated European political discourse in the past decade. While protests in Sweden against the law are getting louder and louder, it seems like its ghost finally entered the Netherlands this past year with the new law proposed by Minister of Justice Ernst Hirsch Ballin: a law that criminalizes clients and forces sex workers to register with the government to do their work legally.
While this proposal is designed to fight trafficking, panellists agreed that this wasn’t the best approach. Traffickers will be the first to register their women; if they can force them to work, it isn’t difficult to force them to register as well. And by criminalizing clients and asking them to check the registration of the sex worker they are visiting, you might take away the only lifeline these women have to the outside world, as Ruth Morgan Thomas stated. If you take that away, you are hurting the most vulnerable group of sex workers there is.
To make a difference and speak out, sex workers need to organize. Macklean Kyomya talked about the problems she dealt with and is still dealing with as she set up the Women’s Organization Network for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA) in Uganda. She needed to gain confidence with the sex workers in her country and learn how to run a good organisation without proper funding. Although the United States is a major source of funding for HIV prevention work, it restricts funding to rights-based sex worker support organizations in two different ways, via the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Although PEPFAR supposedly promotes a balanced approach, until recently it required that one third of funding to an organizationbe spent promoting abstinence. Now, with the reauthorization of PEPFAR, if funding for abtinence-only education is less than 50% of prevention of sexual transmission funds, then a report justifying why is needed. PEPFAR also contains an Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath (APLO), which requires organizations receiving US HIV/AIDS assistance to formally pledge their opposition to prostitution and sex trafficking. The APLO also prohibits organizational activities that promote or support the legalization or practice of prostitution (“promote” and “support” are broadly defined), with no distinction between privately and publicly funded programs.
In Europe people are very active. Forming trade unions is a possibility; there are eight countries in Europe that accept sex workers trade unions branches in pre-existing unions. But it’s difficult to establish human rights also because the stigmatization that sex workers deal with, even when being organized in a trade union. When in a trade union, sex workers still face different (and mostly unequal) treatment due to the nature of their work.
I was shocked to hear that Dutch government provided 50 million euros for a program to get women out of sex work, but took away funding for almost all the organizations that are providing guidance, help and information for sex workers in the field. Despite the financial challenges faced by organizations represented on the panel (and many of the experts in the audience), the energy in the room was inspiring. There was no bitterness, but the will to move forward and connect was palpable. steer cultures and governments away from the idea that sex workers are always victims of traffickers, of their conditions, of society. As Ruth Morgan Thomas stated in her concluding words: ‘Give us the right to say yes. This automatically gives us the right to say no as well’.
Marije Janssen is a feminist with a key interest in sexual rights and diversity. This interest is reflected in all of her work, if it’s writing for feminist magazine Lover or organizing an event about countermovements in sexuality. Learn more about Marije on her website (mostly in Dutch)
See more photos of the event on Mama Cash’s Facebook Fan page.