AWID in Istanbul: Linking sex worker rights with feminism and development

The Association for Women’s Rights in Development  Forum will take place in Istanbul in April. It will be an opportunity for women working in international development to come together to  strategize, network, celebrate, and learn from each other. A mix of activists, academics and people from programmes for women will hear presentations and engage in dialogues around this year’s theme which is the impact of economic power on women. This covers issues from negotiating national budgets and changes in labour practice due to the global economic crisis through to women’s economic position in the family.

The Forum will be an important opportunity for sex worker rights advocates to meet  women’s rights activists. The theme of the conference is particularly interesting. Sexual exploitation, trafficking and sexual and reproductive health are all topics which outsiders are keen to debate in relation to sex work. But the monetary or financial aspects of sex work are often ignored or under explored in these conversations.

Although HIV is important, this is a rare and welcome opportunity to discuss sex work without focussing on health. Lack of resources has meant that the contemporary sex worker rights movement has had few opportunities to participate in broader dialogue at the international level.  Small groups of sex workers have managed to attend key events over the years such as the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, World Social Forums and various consultations and meetings on human trafficking; gender and development; religious, economic and social rights. The AWID Forum organisers have purposefully made space for sex worker participation - this is commendable and provides a model that other development actors would do well to follow. Sex workers have been present and organised at previous AWID Forums, and support for sex worker organising within AWID is growing.

What are the burning issues?

Everybody knows there have been some significant ideological disconnects between some women's rights advocates and sex workers. These revolve around important and fundamental questions about sex and sexuality, and labour and exploitation. When safe spaces are available sex workers can engage in important discussions with feminists. The AWID forum is expected to be a safe space this year but that cannot be guaranteed by the organisers with the large numbers of anti-sex work anti-trafficking lobbying groups likely to attend. To try and ensure participants respect sex workers and others the AWID Forum organisers have introduced guidelines for facilitators on appropriate conduct and removal of participants who fail to show respect to marginalised women, including transgender women.

It is to be hoped that there is an opportunity at the Forum for delegates to get beyond debating the rights and wrongs of sex work. Our starting point for AWID should be that ‘sex work is work’ and our strategic aim in coming together should be to join with women to coalition build and strategise about ways of working within our movements to advance the rights of all women and all workers, regardless of what industry they are in, their ethnicity, age, HIV or citizenship status or religion.

To do this a number of critical questions need to be asked: Where is the information that would allow us to understand the economics of sex work better? How do sex workers experience 'economic empowerment' programming, particularly those interventions that seek to empower them right out of the sex industry? What are the impacts of programmes that seek to limit the supply of or demand for commercial sex on public health and development outcomes? What would an evidence and rights based approach to the economic empowerment of sex workers look like and what it would contribute to enhancing sex workers' power?

AWID’s website asks,

“Are you willing to move beyond your comfort zone? To question your  usual thinking? To engage with actors outside of your every day activism or workplace? Are you ready to build alliances across boundaries so that together we can transform economic power?”

Let’s hope that women’s rights activists and sex worker rights activists are listening.