Sex Work in a Transnational Context

Monday, April 12th, 10 – 11:30 am

Sex worker organizers from North America and the Global South will join in conversation across four different continents to discuss our separate and overlapping issues, and how our movement goals are and must be transnational. This panel includes speakers from India, Kenya, the Netherlands, and the U.S.: Bharati Dey (AINSW + DMSC), Grace Kamau (ASWA), Carolyne Njoroge (KESWA), and Alexis Briggs (Red Umbrella Fund). Moderated by TD Tso. 

Bharati Dey is a former sex worker who now heads up the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (Durbar), a collective of 75,000 sex workers from across the West Bengal region founded in 1995, managed by sex workers and their children. She also served as president for All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW). Bharati grew up the daughter of an agricultural worker in Kolkata, India. When her parents tried to arrange her to be married, She left home and entered the sex work industry. In her work, she witnessed violence against sex workers and began organizing and advocating for sex workers in 1997. She has been abused and jailed in response to her advocacy. In 2003, she became the project coordinator for an HIV/AIDS-prevention program funded by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Durbar. She was promoted to project director and worked there  for 6 years before she became the president of Durbar. Durbar, which means ‘unstoppable’ in Bengali, aims to strengthen sex workers’ rights through solidarity and reduce the stigma and discrimination they face.

Grace Kamau is the Africa Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA) Regional Coordinator. She is an advocate of health and human rights of key populations including sex workers, LGBTI and people who use drugs. She has 15 years experience in advocacy, resource mobilisation and capacity building. Grace also worked as a consultant for the Global Network of Sex Work Projects where she documented the lived experiences of sex workers and examples of good practices that informed the development of advocacy tools to strengthen sex worker led groups’ engagement with HIV policy makers and programmers to amplifying their voices locally, regionally and globally. Grace holds a degree in Sociology and Political Science from the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. She is also an AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition (AVAC) fellow. The overall goal of the Program is to expand and strengthen the capacity of civil society advocates and organisations to monitor, support and help shape biomedical HIV prevention research and rapid rollout of new effective interventions in low- and middle-income countries with HIV burdens.

Carolyne Njoroge is the programs person at the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KESWA) residing in Nairobi. As a sex worker, Carolyne is passionate about realizing gender equality, community empowerment, capacity building and strengthening and diverse sex workers organizing. An accomplished human rights and HIV prevention advocate for key populations who has facilitated the national government under the ministry of health NASCOP to develop a national guideline on the use of PrEP during my 2015 AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition (AVAC) fellowship. Carolyne has worked as a regional coordinator consultant for the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) to develop a PrEP briefing paper capturing voices from Zimbabwe, Kenya and south Africa. Carolyne has 8 years’ experience working with the national movement of sex workers in Kenya focusing on achieving social justice, inclusive participation, decision making and designing of structural barriers interventions with, by and for sex workers.

Alexis Wilson Briggs joined Red Umbrella Fund in 2019 and is the Programme Associate for Africa, Canada, and USA. Alexis was born in California and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a bachelors in philosophy in 2004. Prior to completing her degree, she worked at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco and was a part of the efforts to unionise the peep show in 1996. In 2007, Alexis earned a Juris Doctor from Temple University School of Law in Philadelphia and returned to California to work as a criminal defense attorney in private practice for 7 years. She provided pro bono mass defense for Occupy Wall Street protesters in California and members of Anonymous in the PayPal 14 case in Federal Court. Compelled by her experience at the Lusty and the over-policing and incarceration of her communities, she has spent over 20 years seeking to abolish prisons and end enforcement of vice and poverty-based crimes through community activism and allying with non-profits within the criminal justice and drug policy sectors. Informed by a multitude of roles as an activist and as an advocate, she supports community-led and harm reductionist theories of change.

Sex Work in a Transnational Context 

April 12, 2021 

Lorelei Lee: Hi all, welcome. We’re starting a little bit later as we figure out some tech things. Please grab some water, bathroom, anything like that. We might be getting started in a few minutes. But we’ll start very soon.

Lorelei Lee: Hi, everyone. Welcome. We’re taking a few more minutes to make sure our tech is set up. So, again, you can grab some batter or whatever you need — water or whatever you need to do. We should start in just a couple minutes. For interpreters, just confirming everybody has what they need. If you want to confirm in the chat. We can go ahead and get started.

Lorelei Lee: Welcome again, everyone. The first thing we’d like to do is have a word from our interpreters. I’m handing it over to you.

Rachel Kuo: I don’t think we’re getting sound from you. I don’t think the sound is coming through.    

 Tiffany Tso: Are you on the main channel?

Lorelei Lee: Rachel, can we turn off interpretation for a moment and see if we can hear — language interpretation is off if you want to try.

Interpreter: Can you hear me now?        

Lorelei Lee and Tiffany Tso: Yes. 

Interpreter: Great.

Interpreter: I was on the English channel, but technical difficulties. We’ll have interpretation today if you are joining from a computer, in order to access interpretation, you select the globe at the bottom of screen and select the language channel you would like to charp and mute the original audio. From a cell phone click the three little dots, click more and then the channel you would like to participate. A reminder about interpretation. Please slowly speak one language at a time and one speaker at a time. Now I’ll do this in Hindi. [speaking Hindi]

Rachel Kuo: And the interpretation should be turned back on now.

Lorelei Lee: Thank you so much, everyone. And hi, I’m Lorelei. Welcome — I’m so sorry. Just the tech difficulties have me a little bit — what I meant to say is — welcome the event in our two-week long conference, “Informal,  Criminalized, Precarious: Sex Workers Organizing Against Barriers.” 

My name is Lorelei Lee and  I’m a sex worker activist, writer and organizer, I’m a co-founder of the Disabled Sex Workers Coalition, a founding member of both the Upstate New York Sex Workers Coalition and Decrim Massachusetts, a researcher and analyst with Hacking//Hustling and a justice catalyst fellow at the Cornell Gender Justice Clinic. 

The “Sex Workers Organizing Against Barriers” conference is co-facilitated by the Disabled Sex Workers Coalition, Hacking//Hustling, Cornell Law School Gender Justice Clinic, Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. 

I am so appreciative of our conference co-organizers, Rachel Kuo, Danielle Blunt, Zahra Stardust and Tiffany Tso as well as of our conference co-sponsors, The Berger International Legal Studies Program, The Dorothea S. Clarke Program in Feminist Jurisprudence, The Cornell Labor Law Clinic, The Cornell Student Chapters of Outlaw, National Lawyers Guild, Women’s Law Coalition and the Black Law Students Association, Justice Catalyst, the Red Umbrella Fund and the Asian American Feminist Collective. Special thanks also to Livia Foldes, Naomi Lauren, Yves Nguyen, and Alexis Briggs for all of your work and support as I think you all can probably tell, this conference was born out of a lot of collective work and a lot of collective dreaming. 

Thank you also to all of you who have donated via our Eventbrite page, our cosponsors and our public donations ensure that we can follow one of our core ethics in this organizing, which is to pay people for their labor, in particular sex worker organizers who do so much work that is unrecognized and unfunded. 

For each of our conference panels, closed captioning is available and the recordings and transcripts will be available afterward on, where you can also find the full events schedule. A recording of today’s panel will also be available afterward on the Berkman Klein Center’s events page. 

Our community agreements are adapted from the Asian American Feminist Collective, Brave Space, Collective Sex, AltDiv Hummingbirds and By Us For Us and are as follows; first, to bring in our histories and to speak from our own experiences, second, to be committed to each other’s  collective learning and growing, third, to be open to learning, forth, to respect the diversity of  our identities, which particularly for this conference, includes not assuming the identities of  organizers and activists for whom sharing every element of our lived experience is not always  safe, fifth, to practice not using ableist language, sixth, to prioritize care for ourselves and each  other, this last agreement in particular, is a disability justice issue and both our panelists and  our audience members should feel free to do whatever is needed to care for yourselves during  this conference, including standing up, moving around, lying down or even disengaging from  any of the events at any time. 

We are very grateful to have panelists Zooming in from most continents on the earth, all of them except Antarctica and many of our panelists are Zooming in from North America or Australia, where we are living on stolen land that is always and still indigenous land. To learn more about the land you are living on, you can look at the resources collected by the Native Governance Center, which are available at

I should say that website is specific to the United States. This panel today, sex work in
a transnational context brings together sex worker organizers from India, Kenya and the Netherlands to discuss our separate and overlapping issues and how our movement
goals are and must be transnational. Our event today will feature approximately 60 minutes of conversation with our speakers and then we’ll open up the floor to questions and answers if we have time. You are welcome to use the Q&A or the chat features on Zoom to ask questions throughout and we’ll answer as many of them as possible at the end. Now I have the great pleasure of introducing today’s moderator and organizer. 

Tiffany is a freelance writer and producer whose work focuses on Asian American issues, sex work, gender, labor, policy and their many intersections. She’s also a co-founder and leader of the Asian American Feminist Collective. Thank you so much and welcome Tiffany.

Tiffany Tso: Thank you so much, Lorelei. Thank you for bringing us together and for everyone who made this panel across four time zones possible. I think it’s already an incredible feat that we’re all here together. I want to warn everyone first that this conversation may feel short because each of these speakers have an enormous amount of experience and knowledge to share in their organizing work within their localities and transnationally. I want to prioritize getting everyone into the same space rather than delving into every single issue or answering every single question.  So I want to thank these four incredible panelists for joining us for this conference. I really hope that we can continue to communicate and build together. So without further ado, I would like to introduce each speaker briefly, and we can get into the conversation. 

We have Bharati Dey who is a former sex worker who leads up the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee or Durbar, a collective of seventy-five thousand sex workers from across the West Bengal region founded in 1995. It’s managed by sex workers and their children. She served as the President for All Indian Network of Sex Workers (AINSW). When her parents tried to arrange her to be married she left home and entered the sex work industry. She witnessed violence against sex workers and began organizing and advocating for sex workers in 1997. She’s been abused and jailed in response to her advocacy. She became the project coordinator for an HIV/AIDS prevention program funded by the World Health Organization in Durbar. She was promoted to project director and worked there for six years before she became the President of Durbar. Durbar means unstoppable in Bengali and wants to reduce the stigma and discrimination they face. 

We have Grace Kamau who is the Africa Sex Worker’s Alliance or ASWA Regional Director or Coordinator. She’s an advocate of health and human rights of key populations including sex workers, LGBTI, and people who use drugs.  She has years of experience in advocacy, resource mobilization and capacity building. Grace has worked as a consultant for the Global Network of Sex Work Projects where she has documented the lived experiences of sex workers and examples of good practices that informed the development of advocacy tools to strengthen sex worker led groups, engagement with HIV policy-makers and programmers to amplify their voices locally, regionally and globally. Grace holds a degree in Sociology and Political Science from Catholic University of Eastern Africa. She is also an AIDS advocacy coalition fellow. The overall goal of the program is to expand and strengthen the capacity of civil society advocates and organizations to monitor, support, and help shape biomedical H.I.V. prevention research and rapid rollout of new, effective interventions in low and middle income countries with H.I.V. burdens.

Carolyne Njoroge is the Programs Person at Kenya’s Sex Workers Alliance or KESWA. Residing in Nairobi, as a sex worker Carolyne is passionate about realizing gender equality, community empowerment, capacity building, and strengthening the diversity of sex workers organizing. An accomplished human rights and HIV prevention advocate for key populations who has facilitated the national government under the Ministry of Health and A.S.C.O.P. to  develop a national guideline for the use of PrEP during the AIDS vaccine advocacy coalition fellowship. Carolyne has worked as a national — or regional coordinator consultant for the Global Network of Sex Workers Projects to develop a PrEP briefing paper capturing voices from Zimbabwe, Kenya, and South Africa. She has eight years of experience working with the national movement of sex workers in Kenya focusing on achieving social justice, inclusive participation, decision making, and designing of the scope of structural barriers interventions but with, by, and for sex workers. 

Alexis Wilson Briggs joins us from Red Umbrella Fund where she joined in 2019 and is the Program Associate for Africa, Canada, and the U.S. Alexis was born in California and graduated from the University of California Berkeley with a Bachelor’s in Philosophy in 2004 prior to completing her degree she worked at The Lusty Lady in San Francisco and was part of efforts to unionize the peep show in 1996. In 2007 Alexis earned a Juris Doctor from Temple University School of Law in Philadelphia and returned to California to work as a criminal defense attorney in private practice for seven years. She provided pro bono mass defense for Occupy Wall Street protesters in California and members of Anonymous in Paypal 14 cases in federal court compelled by her experience at The Lusty and the over-policing and incarceration of her communities. She has spent over 20 years seeking to abolish prisons and end enforcement of vice and and poverty based crimes through community activism and allying with non-profits within the criminal justice and drug policy sectors informed by a multitude of roles. As an activist, as an advocate she supports community-led harm reductionist theories of change. 

and —  I’m sorry I’m kind of tripping up on my words uh I’m a little nervous and there’s a lot going on this morning um so first I would love to hear from each of the organizers um feel free to turn on your camera or not that is completely your choice. But what — how has the pandemic impacted your organizing? What are some urgent issues you’re currently addressing in your respective spaces? Um — and just what are you working on? Um, and I would love to start with Grace, and also I would invite everyone to speak slower. I’m sorry if I’m not modeling that correctly but to speak slowly and one voice at a time, so Grace I would love for you to answer, if you are here and available.

Grace Kamau: Okay. Yes, yes thank you for the introduction and thank you for your questions. I’ll go straight to your question on the challenges and how the pandemic has affected our lives. I think number one — has been the greatest — and it’s the loss of — a loss of livelihoods and loss of income amongst our sex workers and that has been the biggest issue and so by that we have seen um a change of of dynamics of work, and you have seen how sex work is changing from the usual that you knew — going to the street, going to the brothel, and now we have seen um in the African context sex workers doing sex work online and so we have seen a gap where uh previous most uh before then uh most of the sex workers um uh were doing uh work not online but uh in the streets and the problem we have seen a gap in digital — uh digital literacy. 

There’s a lot of um gaps when it comes to sex workers using online. Uh even digital safety — sex workers don’t know digital safety so this one is one of the biggest challenges, and then we have seen increased um violence among sex workers because you get someone online, you go have sex with that someone, but you don’t know about the safety, and so we’ve seen increased violence among sex workers. And even due to the COVID everybody is struggling with the economy. It’s difficult economic times so a rise of violence, and also we have seen gender-based violence going up amongst sex workers. 

We have also seen um inaccessible health care services. Currently for example when COVID came we have seen countries imposing things like lockdowns and our transportation and public transport to clinics for sex workers to access treatment is it becomes very hard, so we’ve seen sex workers keeping even on medicine because of lack of transport — lack of even ways to get to that transport, but we have seen some of the groups becoming very innovative and talking to donors to to be able to get for example like motorcycles that can be able to distribute a medicine to sex workers, but it’s been a very big challenge and so one of the question is are we going to go back to the 10 years. 

We have done a lot of gains in HIV programs and ensuring that uh we have put a majority of sex workers on air and on drugs. And education that you have done to sex workers to ensure that our sex workers are responsible with health. Finally I want to say that um we’ve been pushed to a place where we need to reprogram and rethink uh because um we have never experienced something like this, and so we have been doing things as usual and then so we’ve been forced now to know that COVID is here. How do we program with COVID as a pandemic that is here with us so one of the other things is uh we have seen sex workers pushing for is economic empowerment in a way where if there is lockdown and me as a sex worker, I have somewhere I can go to get an extra coin. Viable economic option, economic empowerment for sex workers. These are some of the things. 

I don’t want to go further because there are many, but I want to let the other speakers also contribute to this issue. 

Tiffany Tso: Of course, you know, I also wanted to, you know, make sure that everyone also knew about the, you know, time curfew in Kenya, so if our panelists and audience joining from  Kenya have to leave early, we completely understand. And also a reminder for all   panelists to slow down a little bit more for our Hindi interpreters. 

Speaking of which Bharati, I would love to hear from you about issues you are addressing and how things changed due to COVID.  Bharati?

Bharati Dey: Here.

Tiffany Tso: I wanted to invite you to answer the question.        

Bharati Dey: Should I speak Hindi?

Bharati Dey: Translate to Hindi? Hello?   

Tiffany Tso: Hello.        

Bharati Dey: Translate to Hindi?

Tiffany Tso: Is she on the main channel? I’ll pass it to Carolyne. If you are able to answer that question as well on how the pandemic has impacted organizing and what you are addressing right now   during COVID.

Carolyne Njoroge: Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity. I won’t repeat most of the things that have been said previously because they are much more like the same. But I will speak on how we have been addressing the challenges that we are facing. Some of the challenges that the sex workers have been facing during the COVID pandemic is that the Sex Workers Alliance has been organizing over 75 member groups that are spread across the country, and given that our country is divided into counties and the lockdown and the restrictive measures to contain COVID- 19 that was set, there was no time or any opportunities to have gatherings or be able to be around sex workers which has led to having sex workers who have faced violations, being judged, taken to court, and the process of bailing them out becoming a challenge because of their movement. 

We have also seen that advocacy that has been virtual is not efficient as opposed to physical advocacy that we meet one on one with policy-makers and sensitizations that we’ve been having with the law enforcement and other stakeholders who we target with sensitizations. With COVID-19 when it just came in there was no information about how sex workers are to protect themselves and any other alternative way of the sex workers ensuring that they have their daily bread on the table other than other than hanging out in social joints and other places that they are used to working in. So that was a huge challenge on passing information. So we opted out to have in the digital literacy sessions ensuring that sex workers are able to adequately utilize social media technology to pass information and also to be able to protect on how they are not going to contact COVID-19 by providing COVID-19 PPEs and making sure sex workers have contact to their medication consistently without failure even in the rural and slums area where sex workers sometimes go without food.

As the national movement we came in and ensured that we lobbied for some of the basic necessities to be donated to sex workers. We have been continuously pushing for the decriminalization of sex work that has been happening virtually.  And we are also ensuring that sex workers despite their low commodity supplies including the sexual reproductive health, commodities as such with family planning, that they access the commodities in their respective localities. We have been able to create more synergies and sustaining the networks that we have. That is with women-led organizations and ensuring that sex workers have spaces within their counties that is  — in Kenya we have a government fund that is being led by women, the women representative in the county where we pushed for sex workers to be able to access the funds. And also food and stuff to keep them moving. Thank you very much, TD.

Tiffany Tso: I would love to take the chance — I would love to take the chance — to ensure that Bharati is on the correct channel so we’re able to translate this panel to her.

Bharati Dey: Translate to Hindi?

Tiffany Tso: Do you mind asking her if she’s able to join the Hindi channel?

Tiffany Tso: Mmm okay. Okay. Okay. Yeah, is she able to hear y’all? Bharati can you hear?  

Bharati Dey: I am here.

Tiffany Tso: Oh, I think she’s on the Hindi channel now because I hear her at a lower volume. Okay. So I would love to ask her the question once y’all are on the Hindi channel just to hear how her work has been impacted by the pandemic and what she is urgently organizing around right now.

Bharati Dey: [speaking Hindi]

Rachel Kuo: This is Rachel. I’m going to jump in, so when Bharati is speaking — I think everybody,   participants and attendees can hear on the main channel so we just need simultaneously like Hindi and then one of interpreters to switch over to English then translate Bharati to English.

Bharati Dey: No interpretation to Hindi? Go to Hindi channel. [speaking Hindi]

Tiffany Tso: Thank you, everybody for bearing with us. This is what happens, of course, whenever we work across languages and we want to make sure everyone has access. 

Bharati Dey: [speaking Hindi]

Tiffany Tso: I don’t know if we should try to figure this out on the spot or if we should — because I also don’t want to delay Bharati getting on the correct channel.

Rachel Kuo: If we want, we could do simultaneous, have Bharati speak, take a pause and have them interpret in English so we’re on the same channel and it would be slower potentially.

Bharati Dey: [speaking Hindi] Hello? Hello? Okay. [speaking Hindi]

Tiffany Tso: I’m hearing both.

Bharati Dey: [speaking Hindi]

Tiffany Tso: Thank you. I’m so glad we were able to make this work technically and I really appreciate you sharing. For captioning purposes, I’m going to remind people that — I’m going to remind Nicole, you can join the English  channel for interpreting. I’m glad you were able to join and we were able to make this work. I do, yes, we were able to hear you. Both of you at once.

Alexis, I would love to  allow you a chance to speak since you’ve been patiently waiting. I would love to hear how your international and transnational work is impacted, especially from your side working for Red Umbrella Fund.

Alexis Wilson Briggs:  Thank you, Tiffany. It’s my pleasure. It’s new to me since Asia is not within my region. I appreciate hearing  from — hearing from Bharati as well. Thank you for your efforts to include the global movement in this event. Thank you for having me Lorelei and Tiffany. It’s a pleasure to join Grace and Carolyne. The Red Umbrella Fund core mission and strategy was developed by sex  workers primarily based in Europe, after Africa and Asia the same year as the sex worker freedom festival. With the support of a few dedicated funders including Mama Cash, the organization, and the American Jewish World Service and a few committed individuals like Heather Doyle when she was at Open Society Foundation. 

COVID has revealed in the last year how well sex worker leadership serves the movement. The   pandemic affirmed the important focusing on core flexible funding and influencing other funders to give more and better funding to sex worker led organizations. As you heard from the other panelists, the ability to reach directly to communities in ways that the communities themselves are directing is a critical response when events like this unfold. What was different this year was shifting budgets that were earmarked for travel. Part of this included influencing donors, including part — we’re part of a global consortium called CMI. We advocated within that consortium to shift money earmarked for travel to be converted to grants for sex worker led  organizations current grantees of the consortium. And the PAC which is the grant making   decision body which is sex worker led met online this year. We shifted all the money that would have gone to the logistics and the put that into stipends for the leadership.  

Bharati Dey: Hello.

Alexis Wilson Briggs: We hear you on the English channel.

Bharati Dey: [speaking Hindi] Sorry, sorry.

Alexis Wilson Briggs: No problem. 

Bharati Dey: [speaking Hindi]     

Alexis Wilson Briggs: Sure, yeah, now we’re preparing for a second year of online grant making that includes the call for applications and that will be in June through the end of July and then we’ll be putting out a call this year. We paused for a year, but this year we’re resuming our process of replacing PAC members as they cycle out and two of our international steering committee members, which is also sex worker led. We’ll have finished their terms. We’ll be putting out calls on social media in the next few months for that. And then our urgent issues is to expand beyond human rights funders to reflect the diversity of the movement to include more places like labor rights and LGBTQI plus and other organizations not yet committed resources to support sex workers’ rights.

Tiffany Tso: Thank you. And I also want to say thank you to Alexis for doing so much of this like outreach work. Without her we wouldn’t have as much of a global network for this conference anyway   just being in touch, right, with so many leaders from different organizations. You know, I’m really grateful that you are able to like use your position also to help us, you know, get into conversation. 

I’m really hoping that Bharati is back on the Hindi channel now. My next question is very much centered on the work that has come out of India. Bharati, are you on the Hindi channel? 

Okay. Great.

But, yeah, so I wanted to get into this transnational work of the sex worker movement. We know that the criminalization of sex work is a nearly global issue. It certainly is in the U.S., Africa and  India. It’s important to acknowledge that sex workers rights is truly an international movement.  One thing I sadly only learned this year is that the International Sex Workers’ Day, which was last month on March was born from an event organized by Durbar when when in 2001 over 25000, sex workers gathered in India for a festival despite anti-sex work groups working to revoke permits. In 2012, when sex workers were excluded from attending the International AIDS conference in DC due to U.S. immigration policies, Durbar, AINSW and Asian Specific Network of Sex Workers held an alternative event in Calcutta, India —  the Calcutta Freedom Festival in which sex workers took part in five days of discussions and workshops and protests and more. So I’d   like to hear some insight about the learnings from these international events or other transnational/international sex worker exchanges. How does communicating across borders inform your organizing? I would love to open it up for anyone who is able to speak on it, and Grace and Carolyne, if you all have time constraints, please feel free to speak first. 

Bharati Dey: [speaking Hindi]

Interpreter: So people thought that if all the people came then the street would get corrupted. All these people are coming, all these sex workers are coming. We went and discussed a lot with the minister and after that we got permission to do the fair. We had to take on a lot of challenges.  We were very worried. We thought that the fair would be rejected, and we got permission for it.  We decided  that from that day onwards would be Sex Workers’ Rights Day. We had to do this fair,  this event,  that we got permission and ever since that day, we called it International Sex Workers’ Day. There was a lot  of —  there were a lot of challenges.  It was very difficult. But we were able to get permission. Ever since then  — that’s why ever since then we celebrate March as International Sex Workers’ Day. 

Tiffany Tso: I would love to hear from Grace or Carolyne, too. I know that, you know, the first Sex Worker Freedom Festival really impacted a lot of international and like transnational movement, you know, building, or capacity building. So I would love to hear, you know, how the work in like Kenya or Africa has been informed by this kind of international work.

Grace Kamau: Okay sure. I want to share about the learning that has existed for some time because I want to talk about back in — it was when sex workers went to the freedom festival and from the freedom festival, sex workers from African learned from the Asian sex workers. And from there we —

Bharati Dey: [speaking Hindi]        

Interpreter: [missing audio]

Grace Kamau: Okay, so —  

Tiffany Tso: Sorry, Grace. Continue. 

Grace Kamau: I want to say from the freedom festival that happened, as sex workers we learned a lot of knowledge amongst the sex workers. It might not exist on the continent, but there’s a lot of learning that exists across the continent. So as sex workers we felt that it’s something that you  wanted to pursue it. So after the freedom festival, we got a few people who supported for sex workers for learning. So when about five sex workers went back to India and learned about the model sex workers were using and how sex workers are implementing and as sex workers from Africa, we took the learning. And because of  different context, we realized that some of the things that Indian sex workers were doing it was practical. We took it and put in the context as Africans and from there we get the African sex workers academy. And the academy is a program   that brings together sex  workers from Africa. So we have now editions of African sex workers academy. We have transform activists across Africa and we have trained sex workers in African countries. And so in that learning, the Indian sex workers used to come to Kenya because the academy is done in Kenya — used to come to Kenya and help us shape the academy. So I want to give a lot of credit to the Indian sex workers because the academy was coined from the Indian sex workers. And one of the things that we also learned through the procession is a lot of learning that the Indian sex workers were learning is something that was practical to us.

But there were things that were different. For example, Indian sex workers call organizing as collectives. For us, we call them organizations, organizing, movement, building. So such names we were able to change names, but those names that resonated to us and I’m proud to say that we have a very vocal African sex workers academy doing a lot of building of activists. With that as the African sex worker  we did an evaluation and learned that the sex workers want academy to go a notch higher. We want to see how do we continue with the academy but continue impacting different skills of sex workers. This is because of the context we’re living in because we’re seeing now COVID coming in. We have seen that there is things about mental health issues. We have also seen that there’s a lot of  organizations that have been developed in the — as people come [lost audio] 

Tiffany Tso: I think I lost audio for Grace. But was very inspired by everything that she was saying before her audio cut out. We’ll give her a chance to come back, but I would love to hear from Alexis or Carolyne about the same. I love the case study of transnational sex worker moving, making progress of cultural exchanges between India and Kenya and Africa as a whole, as a continent. And, yeah, I would love to invite any of the other panelists to also weigh in on that cultural exchange, and Grace is back. I didn’t know if Grace had a chance to finish her thought that she was in the middle of. 

Grace Kamau: I apologize for that. The sector wants to take — we incorporate some of the  issues that sex workers are telling us and also opening up a learning how in Africa where other sex workers can come, learn from us, because we have seen — we ‘ve taken — we’ve done an academy for ten years so sex workers can learn from us and take what they can. I also want to say the international AIDS events calendar days that sex workers celebrate, we’ve seen visibility of organizing of sex workers before, putting  [inaudible] these days you see that due to the calendar events, there’s an online platform where there’s visibility of sex workers where they talk about their issues. Also finally, in our collective advocacy platform, we as sex workers can come  together and say as African sex workers the issue of decriminalization or liberation for sex workers. We come together and do a campaign and use this as a collective advocacy platform. It’s been a plus and learning and this is something I encourage even people who support the initiative to take the initiative of learning from each other so we don’t continue reinventing the wheel. There are things on the ground. How do we encourage learning from each other? Thank you.         

Tiffany Tso: Thank you. Thank  you. Yeah, so once again, I would love to also allow any other panelists to weigh in, and I think it’s so powerful the intercultural and international work they all do.

Alexis Wilson Briggs: This process is something that Red Umbrella Fund sees light up each year with the applications and the PAC and the ISC. As you mentioned Tiffany, the funds globally and our PAC and ISC have representatives from all over with individual seats for specific regions. A lot of applications are viewed by at least one PAC member from within the applications region and at least one from outside of it. During the decision making, the secretariat gets to hear as the PAC shares our insights as activists and strategists and grant makers and provides the basis for strengthening the role for the movement.  When we get the applications in our eligibility screening we get two references for every application including a known sex worker led organization. That means every year the global network lights up and we see new leadership emerge and shift and priorities shared across regions and subregions or within specific subsections of the movement  based on things, on gender, or migration status or other issues. We see networks develop and funding sources emerge. It takes on a power map or snapshot of the movement as the organizations pour in. Organizations like ASWA and KESWA provide those references for us and we rely heavily on their insight into the movement to do that. What we see emerge is more and more partnerships directly within the movement without  intermediaries like Grace described. As sex workers diversify tactics, hone skills to engage regionally and transnationally and there’s a   massive amount of expertise in the movement. We see strategies like the academy, like gauging the U.N. commission on the status of women, Hacking Hustling and other research hubs,  developing research that continues to adapt to opportunities and platforms. It’s — it’s  ubiquitous all the way across the globe for the sex worker movement. I find it very unique to the way that the sex worker-led movement grows and strengthens itself internally. 

Tiffany Tso: Thank you so much.  A great shout out for Hacking Hustling. What we’re creating today and throughout this conference is, you know,  also here as a resource for anyone to learn and build  together.  So I hope that people are taking these conversations as just like an introduction into, you know, more work together, you know, more reaching across different time zones to connect and learn from each other.  And, yeah, hopefully that can also strengthen our own local and  regional organizing. I’m learning so much already. I wanted to ask this last question, before I open it for potential audience Q&A, on the challenges and conflicts that also arise, right, through   working on these larger scales such as internationally, right? That’s so much to hold. And also across cultural differences or transnationally because obviously as Grace had mentioned, you  know, there are cultural specificities so not every, you know, every movement is different and every need is different. I would love to open it up for the panelists to speak on the difficulties   and challenges such as tech, right, that, you know, have made it more difficult to work transnationally and internationally. Feel free to respond whenever you want to. 

Grace Kamua: Let me go fast. So I think some of the challenges has been we’ve seen a lot of political interference. When I say political interference it varies. You realize some of the countries, the violence or the magnitude of violence amongst sex workers is higher than others. This is — we know because of religion that is widely accepted or the religion that is there so. We’ve seen this.  Our religion really drive the agenda of sex workers and governments want  to put it as a moral issue. They don’t want to see it as a human rights issue. So we have seen even the political will due to the inference of religion becomes an issue. Governments will not have the political will to protect the rights of sex workers and pass policies favorable to sex workers. I also spoke about how we have realized here in Africa some of the context or some of the cultures are not the same. So as an African sex worker as Sex Workers Alliance we’ve gone farther to ensure each   and every context the work we’re doing we’re sensitive about the cultural and context of those countries and the context of the sex workers environment. Even this applies in the different  countries of sex workers. How do you program for a sex worker who is program based or street based is different than how you program for a sex worker who is online based. These things in culture, religion is something that as we go on and as we even continue doing programming, things that we need to put in place and ensure that we follow and don’t assume. Finally, I want to say that when we talk about advocacy, I think that we lost in advocacy as a uniform or just a frame that is sort of a whole where we just  do advocacy. One of the things I want to say is  advocacy can’t be uniform. So advocacy should be — we should unpack advocacy. When we talk about advocacy in different contexts what we say about advocacy cannot be uniform before you we need to continue saying advocacy and what this advocacy is for different people, different  context and put into consideration culture and religion. Yes, thank you.

Carolyne Njoroge: Can I take over from where Grace has left? So I would like to contribute on the area of the transnational feminist movements where you find some of the feminist movements, organizations are closed and have no positions on sex work which makes it difficult to be part of.  You’ll find some of the movements struggle to understand — the feminist movements struggle to understand why the existence of sex workers and they do not accept the fact that sex workers are female, too. So as a recommendation it is important for feminist movements to reach out to sex workers and embrace and include sex workers in the struggle understanding that we’re all  fighting against the patriarchy and we need to move collectively. There’s also the spaces around global fund generation equality forum, the commission of state of women in Beijing plus 25 that push for feminist agenda  and they are explicitly embracing a specific provision and protection of sex workers or recognition. So they just have a neutral language in everything and any advocacy   agenda that is being set. We’ve seen the advocacy at the African Union where there is – – there is a lot of hostility to gender nonconforming including sex workers and they used words like prostitution and they are close to recognizing sex work as a human rights or agenda issue.

These are some of the barriers that sex workers are facing when it comes to pushing for spaces at advocacy tables. And it’s very difficult for some of the advocacy spaces as their positions for sex  workers to influence the advocacy barriers that  they face.  And we’ve seen that some of  the issues  that affect women across the  board, even when it comes to global, region and at the  international level, we’ve seen that there is no access to contraception and sexual health reproductive commodities and sex workers are not joining these spaces to advocate for the needs and the quantity of the commodities that are needed for this sex workers.  Even it has been hard to join for the campaigns for these public spaces and also how safe are they for the sex workers to join there? There are other issues with regards to bodily autonomy not   prioritized or deemed as important as conflict issues. Now that we have COVID, no one is even caring that sex workers need to be factored in any design or position of implementing intervention that is being set for sex workers. Thank you. 

Tiffany Tso:  Yes, thank you so much for sharing all that. I would love to let Bharati or Alexis chime in on this one, too, before we might get into any audience Q&A.

Interpreter: We wanted to demand dignity. That was the priority for us. One of the things we realized if we’re not able to call ourselves and name ourselves as sex worker and advocate for ourselves other people will do it for us. We started collectively demanding rights and advocating for ourselves — we could at least ask for things we needed even though there was still a lot of violence. There are so many jobs. Sex work is work after all. Bank workers, you know, are workers. Teachers are workers. Domestic workers are workers, too. We really needed to say we’re sex workers and we deserve what we need to keep ourselves safe. We also wanted to create viable jobs in organizing for sex workers like for example, H.I.V./AIDS support. One of challenges we found was when we wanted to get sex workers trained up and doing  advocacy and doing organizing-esque work there was a lack of literacy. So we had fundamental challenges to getting people skilled up. We really have to do everything for ourselves. We have to teach ourselves and then we have to advocate for ourselves. We had to think about it almost like how young people and children are educated in schools, we had to educate our sex workers and women in schools as well. We modeled our academic program on early education schools. And then the other big analysis we needed to organize around is what is being blamed? What are sex workers being accused of? Once we knew that we could respond to it. The way we responded to it was by word of mouth, almost networking. Sex workers were facing all kinds of challenges but the response was to create word of mouth networking and sex workers were learning  about the support we were offering and that’s how we were bringing people in. We didn’t give up. You know, with all of these challenges and all of the things we’ve been advocating for, we have not   given up. Even though the government continues to say no.

A big part of India is we do not subscribe to things beyond the community.  Sex workers who Hindi, Muslim, LGBTQ and they are still sex workers and that’s how we think of them. We report within our committee and collective about organizing happening in all countries, not just India. I feel that the status of sex  workers in all counties is the  same in that there’s always violence leveled towards them. So this is why we tried to share what is happening in other countries with our collective because we need them to understand there’s a global solidarity between the status of all sex workers. And through the organizing we’ve done that panelists have been speaking around, we’ve built relationships and friendships that we can kind of lift up through our individual work.

One experience I had was that I went to give a talk in Pennsylvania. I talked to a sex worker there from the U.S. and who said they weren’t open about doing sex work because of how dangerous the government was, and so I had the feeling that this was the same problem we were having   and we need to persevere and defeat this around the dangers of our respective governments. We really need to have the attitude that so what if I’m a sex worker. I still deserve what I deserve.  We need to let sex workers have dignity and not shame them or their children for the work that their parents do. I feel that we have a particular strength not just as sex workers but as women in defeating and decriminalizing. We are all under the same umbrella. One of the things we can learn from the fact that people do sex work in every country is one day we have to be   successful because it’s so ubiquitous. It’s everywhere.

Tiffany Tso: Thank you so much for sharing that. I think we may have time for one audience Q&A but I saw one directed for  — it says for my African siblings how can Africans in the diaspora support the sex workers on the continent and how are you using languages or promises in the maputo protocol to advance sex workers liberation? I don’t know if you know specifically about that, but I think it’s more so how Africans in the diaspora can support African sex workers. 

Grace Kamau: Thank you for the question. I think the question directly comes to us. At the African Sex Workers Alliance we just finished our strategy. One of the things that the community felt that theAfrican sex workers organization should do more is on the Maputo protocol. I   would say we have very little knowledge on the protocol so it’s something that we would like to be supported on because we know there are advantages of Maputo protocol and it’s something to advance the issues of African sex workers. It’s something they are  willing to work and continuing to advancing the advocacy agendas in the African union   and it’s something that you can add, yes. 

Tiffany Tso: Thank you for that. Is there anything that any of the other panelists would like to add to this space in the last few minutes that we have? I would also like to end it after we end   the YouTube stream. I would  love to play a song, so we can have a miniature transnational dance party because I am honored to be in the space, and I would love to, you know, share joy with you all, too. Bharati, I see you unmuted so I would love to let you speak. 

Bharati Dey: [speaking Hindi]

Interpreter: Yeah.  So when we actually tried to join for the global conferences, I think, we had a lot of challenges because in the visa that we applied for people didn’t want to say that they did sex work. That’s actually why we decided to do the program in India itself. And that was actually ended up being a great decision. Because we were not able to get the visas or naming we were sex workers we ended up having this in the U.S., or in  India, and that ended up being a great thing because we were able to form some really strong global networks. So we’re grateful to the Red  Umbrella Fund for the kind of support that they give. We can raise our voices together and do our struggle together. 

Tiffany Tso: Thank you so much  for sharing that. I think it’s a great last note, too. Before we end up cutting off the YouTube stream. That sometimes it is, right, these barriers and these people like governments or states saying no to us that makes us do the work that we do, right? And it makes us connect in these really amazing ways where you know, who knew that we would be able to get on a Zoom across four different continents to share in these collective struggles, and you know, see how organizing across different continents is totally possible. It’s also kind of necessary, right? Because we learned so much from each other. And, you know, in, right, that collective struggle and grow stronger. We experience other things like great friendship, joy, and love. That’s why I would love to, once we end the livestream, I’m going to play a song so we can dance together. Some of are you ending your day. I’m just  starting my day. This is an amazing start to my day. I  appreciate the panelists for being with me and grooving with me in one second. I am   sharing my audio.

[music plays]

Tiffany Tso: Thanks, everyone for joining  us and for joining us in dance. To all attendees we’re going to boot y’all off as we debrief.  Yeah, so I  appreciate everyone, especially, of course the  panelists and all the organizers, panelists. This  was awesome. I know we had some glitches, but it was all worth it for me  anyway. 

Lorelei Lee: Thank you, everyone. This has been so amazing. So powerful. And so inspiring. And thank you to our interpreters, too. Mon and Swati.  You did a great job. It’s hard and we’re figuring out the tech and everything. Thank you so much.