To fuel gender justice, donors must support, not shame, sex workers


Ankit Gupta and Erin Williams


We’ve re-committed, and here’s how you can too.

Fatou Ndiaye lives in Senegal, a majority Muslim country in which ‘the cultural values do not allow for sex work,’ she says. But sex work pays ‘her bills, food, and school fees for her children’ and is decent work, she explains.

Fatou’s story may be difficult to comprehend for those who have not walked in her shoes. But her story is not unique. She is part of a sex-worker led organisation And Soppeku fighting for the decriminalisation  of sex work in Senegal. And Suppeku was borne out of the frustration of sex workers at not being treated as the decision-makers in their own lives.

Despite sex workers clearly voicing their needs and interests, the feminist movement has not always listened. This has caused deep harm, not only to sex workers but to many facets of gender justice. Many have treated sex workers as victims of violence who need to be rescued, rehabilitated, and/or trained in more ‘respectable’ forms of labor, instead of advocating for their bodily autonomy, self-determination, wellness and safety. This in itself reinforces broader stereotypes around women as unable to know and express their own needs and undermines key feminist slogans such as ‘Trust Women.’

Sex workers are people of any gender who receive money or goods in exchange for consensual sexual services. Because sex work is criminalised in many places, it can be hard to find reliable data about who is actually taking part in the practice. But we know that many women, poor folks, trans people, Black, indigenous and people of color engage in sex work — in other words, those most impacted by racial, gender, and class injustice. To ignore their needs is to ignore those for whom gender justice is perhaps most central, transformative, and urgent.

Yet, rather than support their rights and liberation, many people instead conflate their consensual choices with trafficking, and the problem extends to many feminist funders. According to the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, ‘the conflation of sex work, trafficking, and exploitation has formed the centerpiece of many feminist campaigns against sex work, waged under the guise of promoting gender equality and ending violence against women.’ This has meant that less than 1 per cent of global human rights funding goes to advancing sex workers’ rights, leading to sex worker-led organisations that are insufficiently resourced to either provide direct services themselves, like sexual and reproductive health care, or to advocate that others provide care.

Time to turn the tide for gender justice

What if funders interested in advancing gender justice saw supporting sex workers as a critical part of their gender strategy? As a global feminist fund focused on supporting movements for gender justice, Global Fund for Women’s mission depends on supporting sex workers to live free from violence and discrimination, and to access non-judgemental, evidence-based and gender-affirming health care, housing, employment, and more. Sex workers’ rights must be centered in the fight for racial, climate and reproductive justice, to name a few.

At Global Fund for Women, we have developed key learnings in funding sex worker rights — and made mistakes along the way. Here are a few lessons based on our experiences to date. We share our journey in the hopes that it might spark action among fellow funders.

Join other funders to learn and advocate together. We joined the Sex Work Donor Collaborative (SWDC) in 2018, which has been an incredible space for learning and co-conspiracy. One of our main goals is to mobilise more (amount) and better (quality) funding for sex worker rights and sex worker organising through donor education and influencing. Better funding enables sex workers to strengthen their organisations and networks, is responsive to sex worker communities’ priorities, is flexible, sustained, long-term, rights-affirming, and is accessible to sex workers. Any funder or program officer who is interested to join or learn more can do so, even confidentially if they so choose. There is a focus on creating safer spaces for learning and meeting people where they are (in case you are worried that you don’t know enough to join).

Support those most impacted to lead the way. People with lived experiences as sex workers should be taking up space in funding institutions, and we were pleased that Ankit Gupta joined our team for this role – a queer feminist and sex worker activist passionate about sexual and reproductive health and rights, especially for people from marginalised communities, including trans, gender non-conforming, and intersex people. In addition, we joined the Sex Worker Donor Collaborative Learning and Engagement with Sex Workers working group and it has been critical to helping us centre movement actor needs. For instance, sex workers have continued to say that funders must leverage their platforms to make sure sex worker voices are at decision-making tables. And therefore as we make plans for our Feminist Accountability work to hold Beijing+25/26 Generation Equality Forum commitment makers accountable, we will invite sex workers to the process.

Start at home with honest self-reflection. We audited our funding history on the issue to chart a path forward. We found during this assessment, which extended back nearly two decades, that many of our historical grantees were sex worker-led or groups that supported sex worker rights. However, we also found that at least two past grantees were abolitionist groups that conducted harmful activities like police brothel raids. It was important to find out who we funded so we could actively make different decisions moving forward.

Get on the same page. We released an internal position paper that built on our previous policy on sex work that was essential for helping our institution get on the same page about sex work and form consensus around a common agenda. In this piece that will guide our future work and grantmaking, we state unequivocally that sex workers, like all other workers, should be able to exercise their individual power. This includes sex workers being able to negotiate safely with clients, form unions, and organise for just treatment.

Codify your position. We designated sex workers as a priority population under our Sexual and Reproductive Justice thematic portfolio – a funding envelope that aims to resource movements working towards liberation from sexual and reproductive oppression. We believe that what’s measured gets done, and this dedicated portfolio allows us to better track the funding that goes specifically to sex worker-led groups.

Don’t reinvent the wheel. We wanted to make sure we were amplifying and building upon existing effective efforts for sex workers’ rights, and relied on the Red Umbrella Fund’s guidance – the first and only global fund by and for sex workers. Coordination with them has been and continues to be key.

Put your money where your mouth is. In accordance with our new FY21-24 Strategic Plan, we are doubling down on our mission to move more money, resources, and decision-making power to sex worker movements, and since 2019 we have successfully made 47 grants to sex worker-led groups across all our regions totalling over 1.7M USD. To round out our record-braking year, we plan to fund 10 more sex worker-led groups with an additional 300K USD by June 30, 2022. This money is critical for directly advancing sex workers’ rights. For example, the All India Network of Sex Workers partnered with Global Fund for Women to create spaces to strategise, raise awareness about sex workers’ rights and needs, and mobilise sex workers to advocate directly for their rights.

What’s next

To date, we have found consensus within our institution and with many of our peers about the importance of sex workers’ rights. We have defined our funding strategy and we have taken initial steps to fund sex worker-led movements and groups advancing rights for us all.

But there’s still a lot of work to do…

Moving forward, we want to make sure we are funding sex worker-led groups across a spectrum of portfolios – not just sexual and reproductive justice. Sex workers are workers and are advocates for climate justice, economic security, digital access, racial equality, and other issues.

We are continually organising sessions with our staff and partners on sex workers’ rights, the history of sex worker movements, and our role as feminist funders. This has included a vibrant Sex Work 101 Teach-In that was facilitated by the Red Umbrella Fund. We plan to continue our educational series over the next year and beyond, and we will continue to forge relationships with other funders and organisations working for sex workers’ rights and will open conversations about what they have learned and what we can all learn from each other.

Sex work is still stigmatised, and even among feminist funds and feminist donors, there are lingering concerns about funding these activists. For that to change, funders like you need to start or continue speaking up about your commitment to this important work, making the public case for courageous conversations and learning, and loudly celebrating wins.

‘For many external stakeholders in the women’s movement, engagement with sex worker-led organisations has been a source of significant organisational growth. Not only has this work fostered new connections to sex workers as allies, partners, and collaborators, but it has also deepened approaches to women’s rights from an intersectional lens.’ – Global Network of Sex Work Projects 

Ankit Gupta is a queer feminist activist passionate about rights of marginalized communities including LGBTIQ and sex workers communities. Ankit works with Global Fund for Women as a Program Officer, Sexual and Reproductive Justice and Freedom from Violence, and is the Co-Chair of Red Umbrella Fund.

Erin Williams is a Black mixed-race intersectional feminist activist and trust-based grantmaker who is dedicated to liberation and joy. In June, she transitioned from her role as Global Fund for Women’s Program Director for Sexual and Reproductive Justice, and can now be found at the Center for Cultural Power, overseeing the Constellations Culture Change Fund.

Comments (2)

Jessica Laura

Kiambu sex workers are proud of the noble work being done by Ankit and work that was done by Erin Williams. We are because you are.

Sankalpa Nepal

Sankalpa has adopted the right-based approach at strategic and practical levels because it believes that all people are entitled to the ‘rights’ that are enriched in the National and international laws and conventions. Sankalpa has been addressing the subject of inequality, powerlessness, suffering and material poverty. Sankalpa Darchula Nepal (Sankalpa) is a community Based organizations (CBOs)/ NGO dedicated to Human Rights, Food security, Health and wash, Education, Water Governance, Climate, Peace Building, Media and Development in Sudur Paschiem Province since 1997. It works with a mission to enable rural people to claim and exercise their rights promoting and protecting human rights through the National rule of law, poverty reduction and improved livelihoods through their organization, research, policy advocacy and judicious resources mobilization. It has been implementing various project/programs with the funding support of different community Based organizations (CBOs) and users Groups. Theme area as belows. WASH and Water Governance (Public Health). Resilience and Climate Justice including humanitarian response. Education and Child Protection and Disabilities. Gender and Social Justice and Human Right. Nature-Based Solutions/ River Right.

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