Empowerment, Citizenship and Redemption? Economic programmes and policies for female sex workers

28/10/2014

Cheryl Overs

All sides in the complex and frequently fiery debates about female adult sex work acknowledge links between sex work and economic disadvantage, injustice and inequality. My recent work has explored economic programming and policies that affect female adult sex workers in Ethiopia. As in other low income countries a significant percentage of Ethiopian women live in chronic, acute poverty and the links between poverty and sex work are at their least ambiguous – it causes more women to sell sex than there is demand for sexual services which means that the sex industry is a ‘buyers’ market’ from which most women can only find subsistence livelihoods. In very low income countries sex work does not offer women a ladder out of poverty as it can in wealthy and middle income countries. In this context it is crucial to work out what ‘economic empowerment’ of sex workers means, identify the policies and programmes that can achieve it and get them in to place at scale. We also need to know which ones are a waste of time or money.

Basket weave your way out of prostitution

The first time I heard about rehabilitation programmes for sex workers was at an AIDS conference in 1988. I whispered to my friend, ‘What? Basket weave your way out of prostitution?’ He whispered back ‘if it’s that easy, why not get everybody to weave baskets?’. Six years later when I was researching Making Sex Work Safe: a guide for field workers, programme managers and policy makers’ I noticed accounts of sex worker rehabilitation in developing countries coming in alongside the first data from targeted HIV interventions. I included pieces in the book about a programme aiming to help sex workers earn income from other sources in Kenya and about social workers in the Philippines who were disappointed and puzzled because women who had said they desperately wanted another job had abandoned the programmes they’d set up for them.

Since then thousands of HIV projects for sex workers have developed and many sex worker groups have formed, some of which have established and sustained strong economic empowerment projects. In most places, rich and poor, HIV programmes for sex workers include some training or support to help women out of sex work. I have visited several and slowly formed the impression that they are frequently a side event to the public health work operated by an unregistered community based organisation while the funded HIV work is done by a ‘parent’ NGO. I was often told by NGO staff that their rehabilitation or ‘exiting’ programme was a kind of window dressing to help reduce opposition to programmes that might be seen as encouraging immorality because they advise about safe sex and distribute condoms. At the same time some more dynamic initiatives seemed to be emerging from NGOs that had been formed to respond to HIV economic empowerment programmes like that of the Usha Co-operative in Kolkata and VAMP Maharashtra India. Most recently anti-trafficking initiatives have spawned hundreds of projects that aim to rehabilitate exploited or trafficked women. Often called ‘aftercare’, these have burgeoned with the increases in anti-trafficking funds and they are operated by a variety of religious, military, feminist and development organisations such as the International Justice Mission, and Restore International.

Policy on the rehabilitation of sex workers has also developed although not always smoothly. In 2007 UNAIDS recommended rehabilitation as one of three strategies for preventing HIV among sex workers (the others were preventing women and girls becoming sex workers and ensuring that those that were not rehabilitated could access condoms and HIV tests) but replaced this in 2009 after criticism about its reliance on the possibility of relocating significant numbers of women into other occupations or reducing the total number of commercial sexual transactions. Several governments have introduced policy to support women to leave sex work, most notably in India where a Supreme Court decision obligated States to offer rehabilitation services to sex workers.

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said no, no, no

Sex workers activists have been consistently critical of rehabilitation and developed a catalogue of serious human rights abuses associated with it across the world. Several anti-rehabilitation campaigns have called for rehabilitation to be abandoned in favour of rights based approaches to increasing economic options. Because sex work is posited as a valid occupation activists reject both the ideology of ‘rescuing’ women from prostitution and the human rights violations associated with coercive or moralistic programmes. They argue that money would be better spent on increasing sex workers access to justice, education, safe workplaces, finance, housing, health care and other building blocks of fulfilled lives. The sewing machine has been used to symbolise rehabilitation and it has been accompanied with slogans opposing ‘raid and rescue’ such as ‘Save us from Saviours’; ‘Not Your Rescue Project’ and ‘With Rights I can Rescue Myself’. I think everyone’s favourite was created by Cambodian sex workers – ‘Don’t talk to me about sewing machines, talk to me about workers rights’. It encapsulates that position perfectly.

sewing machine logo for Cheryl's blog oct 14

Logo of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers

But although the damage associated with ‘bad rehab’* has been well documented, it can’t be ignored that many sex workers want a livelihood that enables them to absorb economic shocks, access resources and services or to retire or escape from violence, criminality and abuse associated with sex work, which frequently also affects their children. Logically, the poorer the country, and therefore the less profitable the sex industry, the more women will want development agencies to work on giving them this option. This raises the question, what is ‘good rehab’ in a low income country?

I began to answer that question in 1994 in Making Sex Work Safe by distinguishing between moralistic services that aimed to ‘save’ women by setting them up to earn an alternative income and those that aimed to help sex workers by:

  • reducing the discrimination which bars access to economic opportunities
  • developing supplementary income
  •  career development within the sex industry.

I argued that the former were disempowering and the latter empowering – which were fresh and fashionable words in 1994! Since 2011 I have been revisiting this issue, reviewing the relevant literature and conducting field work over several trips to Ethiopia.

The written word

When I looked at the literature to catch up on progress in economic programmes for sex workers I was disappointed to find that few are documented and that there is still no overall map of them and that research and guidance is scarce. I was alarmed that the picture I had painted two decades earlier of two essential approaches seemed to be intact but not much further articulated or evaluated. It appears that most programmes aim for women to abstain from commercial sex completely and a few aim to expand sex workers economic options and power in the way I had previously outlined. The latter seem to be more ethically sound and popular with sex workers and there are signs that they benefit more women than abstinence based programmes which, even where they haven’t violated human rights, don’t appear to deliver the sustainable, new livelihood streams they promise. But I am deliberately using vague words like ‘appears’ and ‘seems’ because there is not enough information to make a call here.

Almost no data is available from any of the HIV projects about outcomes – how many women they caused to leave sex work or what impact that has had on HIV, and which industries and types of programmes (microcredit, training etc) are best. The focus on a narrow scope of alternative occupations is striking. In a margin I scribbled, ‘isn’t it unlikely that there is sufficient market demand for hairdressers to justify training whole groups of sex workers in hairdressing?’ There is even less information about the outcomes of ‘aftercare’ and religious programmes for trafficked persons and/or sex workers and/or victims of exploitation. Much is written about the potential for women to find new livelihoods after various short trainings and small loans but most are anecdotal ‘success stories’, typically about the redemptive transformation of a sex worker into hairdresser, or internal evaluations written by the operators of programmes. We don’t know if sex workers leave the sex industry at all and, if they do, whether they are replaced. We don’t know which sex workers benefit from which kind of program or who qualifies for micro-credit. Nor do we know what impact rehabilitation programmes have on the sex workers who don’t participate – which is important because most programmes can only offer places to a tiny percentage of the total number of candidates.

Methodologies, and the questions of scale and coverage that are usually central to development and public health programming remain unaddressed. No-one has identified how many sex workers would need to earn how much alternative or supplementary income to reduce the overall number of women selling sex or to drive shifts in the number and pattern of commercial sexual transactions/networks sufficient to impact on an HIV epidemic, the incidence of gender based violence, or any other outcome.

This lack of information needed to make the call about what constitutes good or bad ‘rehab’ is alarming because a large amount of money is spent on economic programmes for sex workers, much of which comes from large agencies that would normally require solid evidence before they support specific approaches. Rigorous research here is sorely needed. Why it hasn’t happened already is a mystery.

What is sure is that every day, with all I do, I always have less than I need

Over four years I conducted interviews with adult female sex workers, NGO workers and policy makers in three Ethiopian cities. The work explored the impact of the laws against sex work (minimal because they are not enforced); the incidence of coercion and violence (low compared to other places but still serious enough); mobility (the vast majority of sex workers live and work away from their place of origin); underage prostitution (far too much and few efforts to stem it); trafficking into the sex industry (it happens but is minimal because poverty ensures a steady flow of recruits); police corruption (bribes are not paid) and exploitation (yes, but how much depends on the benchmark of non-exploitative work). Freelancers can work independently but women who depend on third parties often suffer poor conditions and are overcharged for services and accommodation. I also asked lots of questions about the dynamics of income generating projects and visited several. I was trying to sort out ‘window dressing’ from useful projects and work out how to identify, measure and encourage ‘good rehab’.

In the process I ate the Ethiopian staple, injera which has been produced for many years by a self-funding sex worker collective; watched football in a crowded café run by HIV positive sex workers; helped at a 24 hour ‘hole in the wall’ condom kiosk and saw a sex worker catering collective providing lunch at a police training workshop. I also had a wonderful coat made for a great price (but within my benchmark of exploitation!). I heard some bad things too. One NGO told me about funds they had for a ludicrous silk production scheme that might save a handful of ‘fallen women’ years down the track but which, in the meantime, was covering the salaries of a gaggle of project officers with an office and shiny Land Rover. I talked with women who were working very hard to sew goods that they are only permitted to sell at an NGO market that’s mainly patronised by foreigners. They couldn’t work out why they sold so little. Sadly, I was able to figure it out with a glance at the colours and designs.

I was curious about which sex workers did, and didn’t, attend the income generating projects or enrol in trainings or join savings and loans groups. I asked focus groups and individual interviewees “Who joined?” “Who stayed?” “Who dropped out and why?” One woman answered the ‘why’ with a lesson in basic arithmetic:

To support my family and live with any kind of dignity would cost 100 birr [about 3 pounds] per day. I make between 20 and 70 birr from sex work, but only on some days. I can get 20 to 50 [from the income generating project] and sometimes I can make a few birr in another way. What is sure is that every day, with all I do, I always have less than I need.

As those words illustrate, broader economic conditions mean that multiple strategies are needed because every available strategy is weak and highly likely to fail at some stage and welfare safety nets are non-existent or unreliable. It also illustrates the need for daily income and thus why schemes that require a women to invest time and money before she has any return may not be suitable for sex workers.

sewing at the Sisters Project cheryl overs blog oct 14

Sewing at the Sisters Project

Another important motivation to attend the income generating projects emerged from my interviews that surprised even their operators. By enrolling in an income generating programme sex workers can obtain the address and supporting documentation they need to obtain a government identity document. These ID cards are needed to conduct any economic activities, travel or access services in Ethiopia, similarly to ration or voting cards that Indian sex workers have also struggled to obtain. This is especially important for mobile sex workers (as already mentioned, the majority) because the cards are recognised locally not nationally.

I asked everyone I spoke to about women exiting the sex industry as a result of NGO economic empowerment programmes. Most said they didn’t know any young women who had gained a new occupation as a result of the programmes yet but that some were on the way in that they were trained and/or had received a loan. Some said that they had heard of older women who had attended NGO projects or joined traditional local income generating groups (Idars) stopping sex work permanently. Mothers said they can take their children to the income generating projects that produce and sell goods (usually injeras) on a daily basis and provide lunch. Several older women said they benefit from even tiny amounts of money when they cannot earn much from selling sex.

From all this I could see evidence that for Ethiopian sex workers, NGO economic empowerment programmes are a strategy for dealing not only with low income but with discrimination and lack of access to various services, commodities, spaces and to citizenship itself. I argued that the neo liberal ideals that place enterprise as a central element of development are not serving sex workers well and that programmes would almost certainly work better if they were targeted and planned rather than rolled out to a frankly tired formula. But I also suggested that improvement is unlikely without more resources, some evaluation and better accountability.

Revisiting Soloman

After writing and talking about sex work and poverty in Ethiopia over the years I visited in mid-2014. I was wondering if any of my arguments about the potential benefits of sustainable, rights based economic empowerment initiatives for sex workers had fallen on fertile ground.

My first stop was the Addis Ababa sex worker group Nikat. Since my last visit its economic empowerment project had been funded by the Dutch organisation that I had urged to adopt the idea of developing careers within, without and alongside sex work. The programme is called Stepping Up Stepping Out and the women in it are dedicated to their studies of trades by day and they don’t need to make it a secret that they still sell sex – ‘but not every night and not until late like I used to’ said one women in the programme. The bad news is that the programme is miniscule. At best it reaches tens of women in a place where it needs to reach tens of thousands. Hopefully it is a pilot and a larger donor will pay for rapid and significant scale-up.

I was delighted to hear that the NGO Timret, who had shown me around its centres, had conducted a successful campaign in its 34 centres across the country to obtain ID cards for sex workers in response to my observation that lack of them drove sex workers vulnerability. Hundreds of women became ‘legal people.’ I was even more pleased to hear that Timret found most local authorities to be more co-operative than they had expected. The bad news is that most of those centres will close or be scaled right back due to funding cuts.

The EU Delegation to Ethiopia asked me to advise about how they might be able to support ‘good rehab’ through their work with local authorities. ‘No need for me’ I said, ‘Come to Nikat’. A traditional coffee ceremony and an excursion to talk to women in sex work shanty towns were quickly arranged. The Nikat leadership held forth on issues around poverty and their vision of ‘rights based’ policies and programmes to alleviate it. The women in the shanty town explained that while talk about becoming a shopkeeper or a hairdresser was good for a select few, it isn’t relevant to the thousands of women living in huge slums without sanitation, basic health care, education or child protection. Their points about what ‘economic advancement’ and ‘access to services’ meant were underlined by there being a newborn baby on virtually every bed. They explained that their babies stay there while their mothers service clients and the toddlers play outside amid open drains and live electricity cables. As well as the visible conditions which were shocking enough, the women provided eye popping facts about how much they pay to live in tiny leaking huts and what it takes to earn it. The EU delegation is supporting local government to improve services in slums and I left confident that some excellent information had been shared and that there would be follow-up that explored how to make sure those benefits extend to these slums.

I had yet another pleasant surprise when I visited the office of the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, (PEPFAR) at the US Embassy in Addis. USAID’s PEPFAR programme is the major donor for HIV services for sex workers in Ethiopia. I asked what its policy is in respect of helping women get out of the sex industry. Those who know about US HIV policy will know that PEPFAR has favoured abstinence and required the organisations it funds agree to oppose prostitution and that this has caused much gnashing of teeth. The Ethiopia PEPFAR director began defensively. He is clearly used to this enquiry coming from people who want or expect US funding to be used to reduce sex work. ‘It is not realistic to try to get all the sex workers in Ethiopia into new jobs. It’s also moralistic and that alienates them. Now our programmes are focussed on helping expand options which includes human rights, access to services and better living conditions and generating income that supplements sex work which allows women to work less or refuse clients that don’t want to use a condom.’ I resisted the impulse to make a wisecrack about how a lot of time and money could have been saved and HIV prevented if USAID had have listened two decades ago. Later I shared this with a colleague who had contributed all those years ago to Making Sex Work Safe. “We can sure rack that up as a belated success” she chuckled.

Conclusion

It’s clear that economic empowerment for sex workers in poor countries matters – it must work if human rights, public health and development goals are to be reached. My work on poverty alleviation and sex work is limited and it asks many questions as well as making some recommendations based on the evidence I gathered. It supports one solid conclusion above all others – that more research is needed to drive better conceptual frameworks and practical guidance to identify what policy and programmes should be scaled up and how. Now I know, I know – all researchers call for more research – but I am confident that if anyone doubts my assertion about lack of reliable data or thoughtful modelling about economic empowerment for adult female sex workers they will find the information abyss of which I have spoken.

*Sex workers made a film about abuses associated with rehabilitation named Bad Rehab

Cheryl Overs is a Senior Research Fellow at The Michael Kirby Institute of Human Rights and Public Health at Monash University Melbourne Australia and is a visiting research fellow at IDS.


“Why don’t they want our help?” Exploring the relationship between community and development worker

21/10/2014

Jody Akedjody

The Valuing Volunteering project that IDS is undertaking with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is exploring the role of volunteers as development workers. I often hear volunteers tell me that one of the conditions of their success is the “willingness of the community”. In a World Café discussion with Filipino and British volunteers we discussed the example of International Citizen Service (ICS) volunteers doing research using Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) in Ghana. The aspect of their placement that volunteers found most difficult was not learning the PRA process, which took weeks and weeks, but the realisation that the community didn’t want a stake in the participatory process. One of the participants recalled a local volunteer who screamed in frustration, “why don’t they want our help?” In a similar epiphany in the Philippines, volunteers realised, somewhat painfully, that some schools didn’t want to accept their offers to run Information Education and Communication campaigns with students.

Misplaced assumptions

As development workers offering their resources for free, volunteers and programmes supporting volunteers presume that a community is going to be as receptive as they are eager to help. As researchers or practitioners we can fall into the same trap: we risk assuming the burning research question or difficult-to-fund project consuming our working days will strike an instant chord with the people we hope will benefit from it. This reciprocation is often an unspoken assumption in our theories of change about how we contribute to alleviating poverty. So we just jump right on in there, brimming with energy and primed for a successful outcome only to find progress elusive and frustrating.

A different approach

The volunteers discovered that it is not realistic to expect a community to be interested, even in their most valiant efforts. So what does this reality tell us about the way we should begin our relationship with a community or group of people we really want to work with?

Using a systemic action research approach, we tested some ideas about what a development worker can do:

1. Commit a little time up front to work out what makes a community “willing” or not

It turns out all sorts of things affect whether people are receptive or keen to harness our energy. The Valuing Volunteering research found the following factors important, either working in isolation or in combination:

  • Lack of understanding and trust in what a volunteer is about
  • Previous negative experiences with volunteers / development workers
  • Seeing that the change process is complex and difficult, so easier not to engage
  • What outsiders see as needs do not correspond with what local people see as important
  • Timing – other priorities and commitments prevent people from engaging
  • Participation comes at personal, social or economic costs hidden to the outsider

2. Reframe expectations about participation

For many valid reasons, people may not want the kind of assistance we think it is important to give right now. And this is ok. We should be content with small, more mutual beginnings, which build trust. The ICS volunteers in the Philippines decided to work first with the schools who wanted more information on solid waste management. They will create something good and see if this piques interest elsewhere.

If we find levels of participation rapidly sink from high to low as we get into the messy, complex process of making change happen, we shouldn’t despair but celebrate! Fewer participants usually equal more participation. And it means we are beginning to identify the local people who will sustain our efforts. The first follower is often an under-appreciated form of leadership. We should encourage and not dismiss their importance because the total number of participants does not meet pre-determined beliefs about what good attendance looks like.

3. Create the spaces and relationships to find the people who do have energy

Communities are not homogeneous entities. This creates multiple opportunities for volunteers and development workers to harness local interest. We just need to know how to listen and where to look. On another island in the Philippines, we used systems mapping to create a big picture of issues and local dynamics. We found an important local driver for change was not protection of marine ecosystems per se, but the family breakdown that resulted from low fish catch. Our entry points were different but we found common ground. And this was enough to get going.

The list is clearly not exhaustive. But the ideas raised have something in common.  In these examples development workers have tried to think systemically about why momentum for change is slow before coming up with precise interventions. This process resulted in a re-assessment of their role in the change process as being co-dependent on the interest and energy of the community to embark on a journey with them. We found the fight against poverty doesn’t need more willingness on the part of communities to fall in line with our way of thinking at all. It requires different approaches – and the confidence and conviction that come with them – to enable development workers to work in more reflexive and iterative ways.

Jody Aked works as researcher for the IDS-VSO partnership ‘Valuing Volunteering’ in the Phillipines. She is also a PhD student with the PPSC Team

Read a previous blog piece by Jody Aked


Welcome back John Gaventa!

08/10/2014

Jane StevensJane_Stevens200

Having let out my own whoop of delight on reading my email this morning I knew I was not alone – our corridors are a-buzz with the excellent news that Professor John Gaventa has been appointed as Director of Research here at IDS.  John is currently Director of the Coady International Institute and Vice President of International Development at StFX University in Canada.  He was formerly Chair of Oxfam GB, for which he received an OBE, and is renowned as a leading researcher, educator and practitioner on issues of citizenship and citizen engagement, power and participation, and governance and accountability around the world.

For many years John was at IDS heading up our Participation Team and associated research consortia, which is how I came to know him.  He was an inspirational colleague and leader, combining clear-thinking, innovative and wise research with a genuinely participatory and pioneering approach, all of which are deeply rooted in a life of activism and a compelling conviction that it is possible to change the world for the better.

One of the first times I met John, some 17 years ago, was attending a film screening one lunchtime about a community he was involved with in the US.  It documented how a group of citizens, mostly poor but living in a resource-rich valley, came together to fight for their rights which were being eroded by a large, powerful and intimidating mining company.  In the conversation afterwards John told some hair-raising tales of the activities he and the community undertook together to achieve this.  I found the film very inspiring but was also struck by the importance of research and leadership that stems from the personal: from being part of real-life, grounded and sometimes challenging experiences, and from being able to reflect and learn from them.

John’s enthusiasm, thinking and vision has continued to influence and encourage me (and many, many others around the world) over the intervening years.  I am so glad he is returning to take up this role at IDS.  And I know that someone who, on a rare weekend off, can determinedly walk 100km in under 30 hours to raise money for Oxfam will have the energy to steer IDS research into a bright and exciting future.  We all look forward to your return John – see you in January!

Jane Stevens is the Comms Officer for the PPSC Team at IDS. 

Read a previous blog piece by Jane Stevens:


5 take home messages from Pathways of Women’s Empowerment: Beyond 2015

30/06/2014

Kate HawkinsKate Hawkins

The life of a meeting report writer is a lonely one. It is easy to get caught up in the energy and excitement of an issue when surrounded by fascinating and challenging speakers. But once everyone has flown home and you are wading through 50 pages of meeting notes, trying to decipher acronyms and cryptic quotes you sometimes feel like you are drowning in a mass of information you will never make legible to those who didn’t have the privilege of attending. So to give myself a bit of impetus and help order my thoughts I have come up with a list of what I consider the top 5 take home messages from the recent Pathways of Women’s Empowerment meeting.

To add to the complexity of synthesising simple messages, the meeting made it clear that there is no single feminist nor a single development actor. Those involved in this field inhabit very different worlds, subject positions, politics, and positionalities. When we sit outside the places that people live and look in on them, we can fail to make sense of, listen to, and resonate with women’s lives. Those caveats aside, here are the messages:

1. That there is a gulf between policy advocates engaged in post-2015 agenda setting and the fears, dreams and demands of many women organising in disparate settings. The skills required to track and influence advocacy at the global level are very technical and a particular cadre of feminists occupies this space doing vital and necessary work. But somehow, post-Beijing, the parallel structures which enable these staff to adequately network with women at the grass roots have been lost. (Re)building this dynamic and organic network of links and entry-points for dialogue is a key priority.

2. There is a translational issue. Women’s movements have been just as good as any other advocacy group in developing clear messages for policy. However, what is understood by the term ‘women’s empowerment’ differs between large development institutions and social movements struggling for justice. All too often empowerment is instrumentalised – as exemplified by catchphrases like ‘gender equality is smart economics’. The reductionism and sloganeering of the development sector sometimes strips the politics out of the work.

3. Feminist networks and monitoring, learning and evaluation experts need to work together. Participants at the meeting decried the difficulty of generating indicators and systems which would allow them to trace the impact of strategies like collective organising and consciousness raising. They also rightly pushed back against a value for money and results agenda which inadequately traces the types of change in women’s lives which women believe are important. More could be done to foster partnerships between feminist activists and progressive evaluation experts who are trialling methodologies such as process tracing and realist evaluation to strengthen this area of work.

Andrea Cornwall speaking at the conference

4. Research has failed to adequately deal with the implications of global capitalism for women’s empowerment. The global financial crisis has had a very debilitating effect on global policy spaces. At first people with a progressive slant to their politics thought that it would highlight the failure of capitalism and provide an opportunity to create a new world. But the opposite has happened and neo-patriarchialism has been enforced. Moving forward this needs to be central to research agendas.

5.Forging new alliances and intersectionality will be central to the future of feminist activism. The importance of partnering and working together with men, sexual rights activists, the creative industries, workers movements, revolutionaries and legal and religious scholars with an interest in social justice all came through strongly in the meeting. As did the idea that women have complex identities which encompass a number of interests and issues beyond women’s rights. There is a need to be strategic about these alliances and understand that there will be instances where interests do not necessarily collide. Furthermore, women’s movements need to guard against instrumentalising others in the push for women’s empowerment.

I hope that this blog gives a flavour of some of the issues that we discussed. I am relying on my co-author Jenny Edwards to add a bit of oomph to the text I have come up with. And we are planning to bring together some of the multi-media content from the meeting which will make it all the more engaging. Join the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment mailing list to get a notification of when the report and the multi-media contents go live and watch this space for details of how to learn more…

Kate Hawkins is a member of the Sexuality and Development Programme International Advisory Group and the Director of Pamoja Communications.

Read previous blog posts by Kate Hawkins


The emerging LGBT movement in Vietnam: lessons in negotiating legal spaces

23/06/2014

Tu-Anh Hoang

Thirty years ago, before the economic reform which is known as Doi Moi in Vietnam in 1986, it was hard for people who know the politics in Vietnam to imagine or even think about the existence of civil society in the country, let alone a civil society movement. Today the Vietnamese government not only recognises the existence of thousands of registered and unregistered NGOs and groups but also acknowledges the contribution these organisations make to the development of the country. This emergent civil society includes LGTB groups which until the 1990s were invisible.

Homosexuality though not illegal, used to be seen as social-evil together with other illegal phenomena such as drug use, gamble and prostitution. A HIV epidemic helped make the LGBT community visible and known to the media and public. However, the government’s health risk management approach did not help empower the community to affirm their rights on sexual orientation and identity nor reduce related stigma and discriminations. Much of the public and policy makers still think about homosexuality and transgender as phenomena that affect some (unlucky) individuals and if society keeps a close eye on this, they can control and somehow eliminate these ‘deviants’.

However, in 2012 the VietPride bicycle rally with rainbow flags on the streets in Ha Noi and the Ministry of Justice’s proposal to revise the Marriage and Family Law to take into account same-sex relationship awakened the country. LGBT people are no longer isolated and marginalised groups but have organised and engage successfully with media and policy makers.

As a result of this engagement Vietnam became the first country in Asia to discuss same-sex marriage at the national level. The revised Marriage and Family law that passed on 19 June 2014 does not recognise these rights. This is a setback not just for the movement in Vietnam but also for other groups in the region who had hoped to use the legalisation in Vietnam to open the door in other countries. While this is disappointing it should be seen in perspective of a turbulent political context and process with setbacks and successes. The movement with the LGBT organisations and their supporters is still strong. Their engagement and negotiation abilities are not diminished.

The recent report Negotiating public and legal spaces: the emergence of an LGBT movement in Vietnam – co-authored by researchers from the Institute for Social Development and the Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population, a local NGO in Hanoi – documents the process of the emergence of the movement.

Three strategies made the engagement and negotiation possible:

Depoliticising the LGBT movement to create space for civil association and engagement
Creating emotion is considered a key term in the mobilisation for both public presentation in VietPride and the legalization of same-sex cohabitation and marriage. Rights for love, for having a family and for pursuing happiness are centred in the arguments of LGBT activists and groups. Instead of criticising sexual politics, slogans and messages are adapted to somehow match with the country development goals regarding equity and well-being. This strategy is criticised by some activists as ‘too safe’ and may hamper the linkage of LGBT movement with other human rights and democracy movement in Vietnam, it is recognised by majority that this is relevant and effective in current Vietnam political context.

Broad rights-based framework on LGBT rather than employing a limited special interest LGBT group framework
The number of organisations and groups working exclusively or focally on same-sex relationship in Vietnam is still modest and most unregistered, which imply the limit in term of legal power. However, this disadvantage is made up of a coalition with other well-established and registered organisations working on gender, domestic violence and sexuality in Vietnam. This linkage is possible through a shared broad framework on gender equity and human rights. This coalition does not only bring more legal power to LGBT movement but also makes it more acceptable to the public and policy makers.

Building positive wholesome images of LGBT
This is a key strategy of the LGBT rights movement in Vietnam. LGBT activists see this as characteristic that distinguishes their movement from the work of HIV. While this strategy seems successful, the positive images and stories of mainly young, healthy, middle-class, university-degree not reflect the wholeness and diversity of LGBT communities.

The strategy of depolitisation might be reconsidered by LGBT groups and their network of partners. What’s important to keep in mind is that this broad rights based network is still there in spite of this setback. The friends of the LGBT activists are still their friends even though their enemies might still be there. The image of LGBT today is also much more positive and diverse than it was a few years ago. LGBT are no longer portrayed as sick social deviants; instead images of young wholesome LGBT are found in the official and on social media. It is likely to be a long process. Vietnamese are probably the world’s experts at thinking strategically, playing a long game and winning unlikely wars. Losing battles along the way is part of this path and will not change the determination of the LGBT movements and their friends for equal rights. In fact it may fuel it.

This blog was written by Tu-Anh Hoang as part of the Sexuality, Poverty and Law Programme.

Read other recent blogs by the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme:


Understanding food security through a gendered lens

16/06/2014

Georgina Aboud

At the heart of the IDS Knowledge Services’ gender team – BRIDGE – is a passion for understanding and promoting gender justice through participatory approaches. BRIDGE’s latest publication – the Cutting Edge Pack on Gender and Food Security – due to be published in autumn 2014, is an excellent example of this. The team recently convened a highly engaging 48 hour online discussion, from 13-14th May, with the main objective of allowing experts to share and exchange ideas on the most current thinking and practice on the issue in order to inform and strengthen the publication.

women selling fish

Key themes to emerge from discussions:

Food Security needs to be understood as much more than just food production: Emerging strongly from discussions was the extent to which, in policy, ‘food security’ is being conflated with and reduced to food production, driven by an economic growth agenda – described as the ‘productivist’ trend. Success is measured in crop yields, disconnected from people, power and inequalities, but very much connected to market solutions and agricultural profit. Food insecurity is more complex than simply not enough food, so increased food production does not necessarily mean enhanced food security, and enhanced food security for women.

Women’s lived realities need to be fully understood and integrated: Thus, calls for more holistic approaches to food security and gender equality emerged from our discussions, where the popular policy response of ‘invest in poor women farmers’ is seen as only part of the solution to a complex problem. A close connection to women’s lived realities is needed – where women are not just mothers, or farmers, or farmworkers, they have multiple roles and needs.

Identifying the interconnections between policies is key for effectiveness: Key recommendations to emerge in terms of ensuring policy change move beyond words into action, is that policy makers need to see and develop the interconnections between policy areas so that policies strengthen each other. For example, interconnections should be made between food security and climate change, and between food security, gender and HIV/AIDS. It was also identified that a rights-based lens, a clear understanding of the problem, political will and robust monitoring are also essential elements to success.

Gender equality and women’s empowerment must be central in action and practice: Overwhelmingly the discussions saw calls for holistic approaches, with the need for food and nutrition security approaches to not only tackle women’s nutritional status but also their ‘position’ in families and society. Discussions linked women’s earning power and control over land resources, to strengthened decision-making power in the household and greater control of women’s social and physical security.

Learning from good practice: Examples from India, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were given of successful initiatives using a more holistic approach, which essentially created safe spaces for women to talk and reflect. These were an important step in women gaining confidence and made way for more decision-making opportunities within the household. Other fascinating examples included several initiatives on value-chains.

Training and skills promotion, for women in particular, is key: A key theme running through much of the discussion was the importance of training, skills promotion – the idea that ‘new skills will add to a woman’s status, and decision-making’.

More research on food security using a gendered lens is vital (and access to it): many participants pointed to the persistent and yawning research gaps: from the need for more contextualised household-level data, to sex-disaggregated time allocation surveys; from research into the impact of female extension workers, to research that unpacks the disconnects between rights to food and women’s rights, amongst others.

Understanding the value of gendered research: We also need evidence that demonstrates the value of investing in gathering these types of data, and the costs of failing to do so, from a food security and a gender equality perspective.

The Gender and Food Security Cutting Edge Pack will incorporate, and build on, these points to ensure that relevant policymakers and practitioners have a clearer understanding of the key issues and a set of recommendations sign posting the best way forward. For more information about the Cutting Edge programme, please visit the BRIDGE Gender and Food Security Cutting Edge page .

Cutting Edge Pack Series

Written and produced in collaboration with partners, Cutting Edge Packs provide accessible overviews of the latest thinking on a cutting edge gender theme in development research, policy and practice. Each pack includes:

  • Overview Report, outlining the main issues, examples of innovative practice and recommendations;
  • Supporting Resources Collection including summaries of case studies, tools, online resources, and contact details for relevant organisations;
  • Gender and Development In Brief comprising a short overview of the theme and two inspiring case-study articles by Southern-focused practitioners

We usually translate packs into at least French and Spanish to reach a broader global audience.

The Cutting Edge Pack Series is available online on the BRIDGE website.

Georgina Aboud is a Gender and Food Security Convenor at BRIDGE, a research and knowledge mobilisation programme located within IDS Knowledge Services. BRIDGE supports gender advocacy and mainstreaming efforts by bridging the gaps between theory, policy and practice.

Photo credit: C. Schubert (CCAFS) under the creative commons license

Read previous blog posts on gender and sexuality

 


Barcelona: The conflict of Can Vies and its political significance

06/06/2014

Alison Carney and Maria Olivella Quintana

‘Politics is the art of resolving problems and here a problem has been created, instead of being resolved, at many levels: a security problem, the destruction of a meeting/cohesion/training space… With many people being thrown out of the system, Can Vies was not part of the problem, but part of the solution.’ (Gemma Galdon, Political Scientist, University of Barcelona, Interview with El Pais 29th May 2014)

One week ago the Catalan police entered and evicted the famous squat and community centre in the Sants neighbourhood of Barcelona, called Can Vies. This event, and the disproportionate brutality used by the police against demonstrators later that day, have sparked some of the biggest riots and public demonstrations in Barcelona since the Indignados in 2011. The social significance and strength of the movement that is loudly protesting the eviction of Can Vies is far greater than this one incident. Although the significance of these demonstrations and resistance is being discussed in Catalan and Spanish media, sadly the English speaking media around the world has limited their coverage of the event and continuing movement to some very short, page-three articles that fail to even address the complexities and potential of what is happening in Barcelona this past week[1].

The building that is now known as Can Vies[2] was constructed in the 19th century is located near the Barcelona Sants train station. It is owned by the TMB (metro) company in Barcelona and by the 1990s it was abandoned. In 1997 a group of young people occupied the building and organised it so that part of the building was used as a living space, and the other part as a social centre that has been used as a political organising space, and a community centre for dance, music and other activities[3].

In 1998 and again in 2007 the TMB company filed complaints against the squatters in Can Vies in an attempt to evict them. After both of these complaints were rejected by the courts, the TMB company filed complaint again in 2013 and the Can Vies Assembly[4] has been negotiating with the city council since. The negotiations continued until the day before the eviction.

Can Vies is one of a number of occupied buildings throughout Barcelona (and Spain) that serve as community centres and political gathering places that are completely unmediated by the state. These centres provide resources and alternative spaces to communities that the city council has failed to provide.

Image of Can Vies before the eviction

Can Vies before the eviction

The Eviction
In March 2014, the city council and the court made a joint decision that the TMB company could evict Can Vies. TMB had already stated that when they evicted Can Vies they would tear down the building and leave an empty lot. This eviction happened first thing in the morning on Monday, May 26, 2014. The police were extremely aggressive towards the neighbours and supporters of Can Vies who gathered outside the building in solidarity with the occupants. A large demonstration was organized for 8 pm Monday evening to denounce the eviction and protest the destruction of the building.

The demonstration had not made it more than 500 meters before the Catalan police cut off the march and dissipated the crowd by driving their fleets of vans into the middle of the demonstration, with armoured police officers jumping out of the vans and beating anyone near them. People were forced to run into the narrow streets in the neighbourhood, chased by the armoured police officers who were wielding weapons. Conflicts with the police broke out as a result.

Image of demonstration

Demonstration against Can Vies eviction on the 26 May 2014

On Tuesday morning, the TMB company brought a bulldozer to the Can Vies site and immediately began to tear down the building. In reaction, people gathered around the site, banging pots and pans to draw attention to the issue[5].  This resistance lasted most of the day and at 11 pm, half of the building had been torn down, the police had finally left, and protesters set fire to the bulldozer. This led to more police violence and riots in neighbourhoods throughout Barcelona. The police were incredibly aggressive in the neighbourhoods. Militarization in dealing with demonstrators and angry citizens has been a growing problem in Catalonia.  Armoured police who are armed and who do not hesitate to beat any person in their way is common at any public political gathering. This level of violence is what sparks riots and more violence, not the other way around[6].

During the week, as demonstrations continued to be organized throughout the city in different neighbourhoods and the numbers of supporters grew to over 20,000 at a demonstration on Saturday, police violence escalated. By Friday, over 60 people had been arrested, 1 of them in prison and more than 200 people injured.

The bulldozer burning on the night of the 27 May 2014

The bulldozer burning on the night of the 27 May 2014

The Significance
The significance of this public fight and demonstrations goes far beyond simply wanting to protect a building. The city council and TMB have claimed their right by the legal argument of the ownership of the building, but it seems that this claim is only a façade for a deeper intention to discourage political organising that challenges the traditional government spaces. As we can see, the building has already been mostly destroyed, and yet the numbers of supporters of this movement continues to grow daily. We see this fight and the demonstrations as symbolic of support for alternative solutions to the current crisis in Spain (and elsewhere for that matter).

A well-known political scientist in Spain (Joan Subirats) has argued that the destruction of Can Vies is a destruction of a symbolic capital for a certain type of population. This type of social capital is extremely important. In the context of crisis (as in Spain), it is significant that citizens have not stopped self-organising.  There are centres like Can Vies all around Barcelona that demonstrate a resistance and coping with the crisis that is outside the market, the individual and the state. These spaces are a network that has found a way to exist and support a community precisely because they exist outside of the state rules. The growing solidarity and demonstrations since Monday is proof that people are perplexed by why the council is threatened by such a space as Can Vies (aside from the private property issue), and it is symbolic of the growing need and support for such spaces.

In addition the rise of alternative political parties in recent elections such the CUP[7] in Catalonia or Podemos[8] in Spain demonstrate that the politics of self-organisation is gaining traction and presenting alternative options to the traditional politics in Spain. We see that more and more people are drawn to self-organised politics, rather than party driven or state mediated politics.

The movement that has led to the growing support for self-organised politics in Spain has a long history, has taken enormous work and is far from being spontaneous. The creation of alternatives that strive to exist outside of the market and of traditional politics is not something that can happen overnight, or without a lot of building. Although the context and history of this type of organizing in Spain, and even specifically in Barcelona, is particular, there are lessons to be learned by communities in other countries who are equally fed-up with the same old political options that have driven many of our counties to this point of crisis and abhorrent social conservatism.

Maria Olivella Quintana and Alison Carney are both IDS alumni.
Alison is a sport and development consultant, social activist and researcher.  She has extensive experience working with sport for social change, as well as research on the role of sport for supporting the realisation of gender equality and sexual rights.
Maria  is a feminist activist currently carrying out PhD research in Anthropology in Spain, on the transition from ‘family planning interventions’ to ‘sexual and reproductive health’. She is part of Gap Work (http://sites.brunel.ac.uk/gap), a European research project addressing gender based violence, homophobia and transphobia in educational spaces. She has a MA in Gender and Development from IDS and has been part of the Unruly Politics thinking since then. Feedback welcome at:  M.OlivellaQuintana@ids.ac.uk

 

[1] The New York TimesThe Guardian:
[2] For more information about the community center you can check Can Vies website
[3] Almost all squats in Spain are social centers, providing a space for youth to meet and organize, which was something that was missing in the 1990s.
[4] The Can Vies Assembly is the name for the community group that orginizes and engages in politics.  They are based at Can Vies, this includes squatters who live there as well as other community members.
[5] The banging of pots and pans is a tradition in the region as a way for a community to show their solidarity during demonstrations – video
[6] Documentary filmed by the Guardian on the campaign “Ojo con tu ojo” that has denounced the use by Catalan police of rubber balls as an anti-riot weapon
[7] The Popular Unity Candidates (Catalan: Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, CUP) are left-wing Catalan independentist political party active in Catalonia. The CUP have traditionally concentrated on municipal politics, and are made up of a series of autonomous candidatures that run in local elections. More information here 
[8]Podemos (meaning ‘We can’ in Spanish) is a Spanish political party created on 11 March 2014 by Spanish leftist activists associated with the 15-M movement that emerged from the 2011–12 Spanish protests. More information here