Sex workers tackling violence


International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

Today is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.  Instituted in 2003, the Day aims to commemorate victims of violence against sex workers and to raise awareness of this important issue.  Because sex workers are often forced to work in hidden ways, and because of the stigma they face from service providers and law enforcement officers in many countries, they are often more likely to be victims of violence, and less likely to have their complaints taken seriously.  Where the existence of violence is acknowledged, the problem is often seen in a very limited way, as being to do with violent clients or “pimps”.  The reality is quite a bit more complicated. For starters, sex workers very often mention law enforcement officers as the main perpetrators of violence.  What further complicates the issue is the perception, among some, that sex work itself is violence, or that violence is inherent to sex work.  Neither of these are true. This guide talks about how the right legal frameworks, social, and legal support can help sex workers to work safely, and why and how HIV programmes with sex workers should tackle the issue.

Putting the ideas into practice

Many of the towns in Madagascar have a sex worker association, and a few years ago they set up a national network, FIMIZORE, with the aim of coordinating their work and being better represented in discussions on policy and HIV programmes at national level. One of FIMIZORE’s first activities was to develop communication materials to support the outreach work that member associations were carrying out with sex workers. Although the main issue being discussed was HIV (it is hard for sex worker associations to get funding for much else), very early on the members made it clear that it was impossible to do much useful on HIV prevention without addressing violence and stigma in the community.  They sketched out an advice card that they planned to use with sex workers to discuss ways in which they faced violence and what to do in each case. Here’s the sketch:

The film focussed on the fact that one of the main pretexts used by police to extort sex workers was to threaten them with being locked up for not having a national ID card.  So the group also produced a poster to explain that not having identification papers was a problem of lack of fulfilment of civil rights, not an issue of lawbreaking:


And given how difficult sex workers often found it to get taken seriously by health care practitioners, the group also decided to produce a desk calendar for health care workers, showing pictures of sex workers doing “everyday” things (like cooking) and giving instructions as to how to adapt services to best respond to sex workers needs:


So what?

These are all just activities of course. It doesn’t matter how many well-thought out materials get produced: what matters is what changed. Thanks to the creation of the network, sex worker associations gained increasing access to policy discussions, particularly those related to HIV, drawing attention to the need to develop comprehensive programmes, that looked not just at HIV but at the broader context.  On the ground, the associations continued in their dialogue with local officials, law enforcement and health care providers.  But it would be going too far to claim that there was a sea-change in the level of violence and abuse faced by sex workers.  It is important to remember that, in the context of criminalisation and stigma that sex workers experience in many countries, the default setting is “precarious”: small improvements may come from time to time, but they often represent a short-term bonus rather than a categorical change, and things can and do regress, particularly when it is expedient for officials and leaders to be seen to be doing something about sex work.  For the categorical change to take place, there also needs to be a categorical change in the attitudes of societies and states toward sex work, and there therefore needs to be sustained support for the efforts of sex worker groups.  And that’s why, among all the “international days”, December 17th is for me one of the most important.


Credits go to International HIV/AIDS Alliance, which supported the work described in this post, and to the members of FIMIZORE, who had all of the ideas and did all the work. Images and video clips are all (c) FIMIZORE and should not be used or reproduced without permission.



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