The Associação Mulheres Guerreiras is one of the newest groups of sex workers formed in Brazil, yet it has been incredibly active in activism, advocacy and campaigning. As a member of the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes (Rede Brasileira de Prostitutas), it has established actions at the local and national level. It is recognised today as one of the most active pro-sex worker rights organisation in Brazil.
Sex worker groups in Brazil are historically independent from the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Sex Workers - RedTraSex, although there have been some joint actions in the past. Thus, the Association has been articulating mainly with the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes, having joined recently the Global Network of Sex Work Projects. Its current objective is to further engage with the international movement of sex workers.
What are the priority areas that your organisation works in? Tell us a bit about the organisation’s activism/area of work specifically.
The Association is a sex worker-led organisation focused primarily on the rights of sex workers. It was funded in 2007, after election of the first board members. This Association is the result of years of social mobilisation of female and transgender sex workers from Campinas, who have been repressed by state authorities, including the police, to either stop them from working in sex work or move to distant and hidden areas of the city. They organised several demonstrations to react against police violence and abuse, highlighting their right to work in sex work with dignity, respect and safety.
The main objectives of the Association in terms of activism and areas of work are:
- Call on sex workers’ right to work and fight for the rights and interests of the sex worker category
- Fight against prejudice and promote citizens’ rights
- Fight for the establishment of efficient public health policies, including quality and integral health programmes for sex workers
- Fight for the right of children of sex workers to kindergarten and school
- Realise and inform debates, conferences and seminars about sex workers, particularly women
- Request the meaningful involvement of sex workers in decision and policy making
- Denounce against police violence and abuse
- Promote better working conditions and well-being for sex workers
- Disseminate and publish informational materials related to the association and the category of sex workers
- Contribute to increase the visibility of sex workers, underscoring unnecessary and exaggerated victimisation and marginalisation discourses
- Combat commercial exploitation of children and adolescents
- Engage in the political debate for legal and policy reform
How did this organisation start up?
The Association is organising sex workers from the two main prostitution areas of Campinas, the centre and Jardim Itatinga. The background of the prostitution districts of Campinas relate directly to the need of formalising an association and gathering forces to overcome criminalisation and segregation policies.
Although prostitution in Campinas started in the centre of the city, in the 1960s political decisions were taken to dismantle the centre’s prostitution district by creating a prostitution zone outside the urban part of the city. The intention was to isolate sex workers in the outskirts of the city, while “cleaning” the city centre from the “unworthy” citizens. The operation was called “Operação Limpeza”, which in Portuguese means “Cleaning operation”. Public measures targeted other populations too, such as the homeless and drug users.
Interestingly enough, Jardim Itatinga district was implemented and grew along the years to become Latin America’s largest confined prostitution urban zone. Studies estimate that about two thousand sex workers work and live in the area, being large majority of them migrants from about 400 different cities. Only five per cent of the sex workers are originally from Campinas. About 200 brothels are running daily in the district.
That is to say that the story of the Association starts by acknowledging the process of segregation of sex workers in Campinas. The flourishing of Itatinga did not halt sex workers from working in the central areas of the city, particularly street-based sex workers. Male sex workers still concentrate their activities in the centre only.
Still today, political voices from the conservative elite and politicians, as well as neighbourhood organisations, have been active against sex workers both in trying to expel them from the city centre, as it was done in the past, or by means of institutional repression against sex workers working in the isolated district of Jardim Itatinga. According to Diana Helene, who studied the urban process of Jardim Itatinga, the confinement of sex workers was strategically planned and enforced.
Anthropological studies point out that the district, due to its characteristic of segregation and confinement, increased sex worker solidarity and the area of Itatinga has become a synonym of protection for many sex workers, including migrant female and transgender sex workers. Protection not only from violence perpetuated by the police and people posing as clients, but also from families and acquaintances, as it enabled them to identify, at least in that area, as sex workers and organise around their common needs.
The Association was born with the mission of gathering forces of female and transgender sex workers, including migrants, to overcome the increasingly repressive environment and state abuses towards outdoor and indoor sex workers. Commonly, police arrest sex workers and/or close brothels, hotels, and motels were they are likely to sell sex, denying them the right to work in safe and healthy environments.
Violation of Rights
Historically, the process of transferring sex workers from the city centre to the newly born Jardim Itatinga resulted in several human rights abuses from the part of the police. Years later, sex workers started to organise and counteract repressive policies.
Violations of rights of sex workers include physical and verbal violence from police and society, as well as on-going repression against outdoor and indoor sex workers.
According to Denise Martins, a transgender board member of the Association, every time there are changes in the government, politicians try to “clean” the city centre by expelling sex workers. She highlighted that policies are so repressive that even benches were taken off the city centre to avoid street soliciting. Sex workers were not allowed to transit or stay in some areas of the city.Among the violations and abuses, sex workers complain of extortion from the police. Before the creation of the Association, it was common practice to arrest sex workers and some had their money stolen. Torture in prison was widespread. If a sex worker was murdered, Sandra (Tereresinha Ferreira), a board member of the Association, complains that the city hall would not even provide a coffin to the family.
Creation of the Association
Due to strong community mobilisation efforts sex workers from Campinas realised the first big demonstration in the city centre to complain about closing brothels. Sex workers had to struggle to make sure that their work places were not closed. There were about 60 sex workers in the first demonstration.
The group realised that the action resulted in political pressure and that their work places would not be closed anymore. To face these challenges and reach common goals, this group of sex workers empowered themselves through community mobilisation and decided to set up an organisation for and by sex workers.
Considering the situation of sex workers and repression against them, the first step was to realise hearing meetings with the community. The first meeting was held in a hotel where sex workers usually take their clients. This was a partnership established with the owner of the sex work venue.
It was clear for all participants that an organisation should be established and formalised to counteract repression and respond to the diverse needs of the community. Following the first meeting different workshops were carried out on activism, organisation development and strategic goals. The first principle brought to the Articles of Association was that sex work is work. Later the group drew the articles and principles in partnership with allies.
The second step was to choose the name of the Association. They organised a poll and the name “Mulheres Guerreiras” was chosen by the majority. According to one sex worker interviewed, “all women are warriors” is the reason why she likes the name.
To create a statute, the group started to discuss more about rights. They organised an assembly for founding the association and approved the statute on 19 September 2007. In the assembly, a board member of the association said that for the first time they are being recognised as people. Nearly five sex workers run the Association, yet many are involved in the activities and actions.
Assembly of foundation of the Association in 2007.
Building up alliances
It is very important for any sex worker group to build alliances and partners. The Association is a successful example of how different stakeholders can be involved in building up capacities of sex workers and promote their rights.
The Association has good connections with the HIV/AIDS reference centre (CTA/COAS Campinas), CEPROMM – Centre of Studies and Promotion of the Marginalised Woman, and ITCP/Unicamp University. The organisation also counts with the assistance of a supportive lawyer. Fundamentally, the organisation was able to establish partnership with feminist groups in the city of Campinas.
Participation of the Gender group discussion at Unicamp university 2007
Empowerment through organising
Noteworthy is that after the creation of the Association, many sex workers started to study and build up other capacities. They thought that to run an organisation they had to improve their capacity and dedicate additional efforts to the institutional work. The creation of the Association changed the lives of many sex workers, as they empowered themselves to defend their rights.
It was by means of the Association that sex workers from Campinas realised that their occupation is actually legal and recognised by the Brazilian Code of Occupations. According to Betânia, the President of the Association, “this is our job, our profession. It is not a passage, nor a temporary work”.
The Association notably increased solidarity among different groups of sex workers. Police violence was drastically reduced, as sex workers became aware of their rights. Sex workers were trained on how to deal with the police and to know and defend their rights. According to Betânia, “the Association is the way to face oppression and discrimination”
Meeting at the Jardim Itatinga in 2014
By means of the Association, sex workers had the chance to engage basically in health programmes and advocate for rights in national conferences and seminars.
Peer education funded by the state HIV/Aids reference centre is the main service that organised and involved sex workers. Peer educators were responsible for distribution of condoms to sex workers, provision of information on HIV/STI, and carry out specific actions during carnival days. They also provided informational and educational materials and encouraged sex workers to engage with the Association.
Capacitation on HIV STI at the Association 2007
After the creation of the Association, sex workers from Campinas started to represent themselves in national forums related to sex work. It increased their possibility of policy influence and intervention.
What were the biggest events or challenges this organisation has worked on in the past? E.g. opposing or campaigning for a law; organising an event …?
The biggest events and challenges faced by the Association were well pictured in the documentary Warrior Women: cultivating the roads of life (2014), or “Mulheres Guerreiras: desbravando as estradas da vida”, produced by Diana Helene, Aline Tavares and Sandra (Theresinha Ferreira) - being a sex worker herself, board member of the Association.
There were couple of street demonstrations organised by sex workers from Campinas, even before the creation of the Association. It was suggested that the creation of this organisation was direct result of the on-going repression faced by sex workers, and the verification of the power of unionising.
International Sex Worker's Day
On 02 June 2007, year of the foundation of the Association, a group of musicians and actors organised music shows for sex workers in front of the brothels of Jardim Itatinga. The intervention consisted of approximating women that were on the streets and windows to join singing. Roses were distributed as the group passed by. The majority of sex workers were not aware that 02 June was their international day. This intervention was intended to increase self-esteem of sex workers and engage them with activism by means of art, fun, and party.
On 02 June 2014 the Association was invited by the Public Defenders Office to organise an event “Rights of Sex Workers” in the city hall of Campinas. Sex workers led the table of debates and different stakeholders were invited and participated. This event revealed the political power that sex workers gained after several years of interventions in the centre of the city and Itatinga. To celebrate this achievement, the same day, the documentary about the Association was screened to the public in the square from where sex workers were expelled many times. Later, DASPU team organised a DASPU catwalk with sex workers. The event ended with good samba, where everyone was invited to celebrate sex workers’ rights including non-sex workers. This event enabled neighbourhood associations to better understand the reasoning of sex workers and promoted respect to the community.
Seminar on Sex Work in the City Hall of Campinas - Betânia Melo and Indianara Siqueira - photo by Jose Miguel
Sex workers and allies organised the “beauty day”. Trainees in beauty salons were encouraged to provide haircut, manicure and make up for sex workers from the community. Later they carried out a workshop about work, discrimination, and body. This was a successful way to engage with sex workers and make them aware of the work done by the Association.
Week of visibility of sex work
This event was created in 2007 and repeated during the following three years. Sex workers and allies organised workshops, theatre plays, safer sex discussions, condom distribution, and gender-oriented debates. This was an excellent opportunity for sex workers to get to know the Association and to get involved.
Distribution of condoms during carnival by the Association in 2007 - sex worker peers from the Association
Sex workers: United for respect
On 19 June 2012 sex workers from the Association, in partnership with Unicamp University, organised an event for underscoring the need of respect for sex workers in society. On that occasion, Betânia Melo thanked publicly Gabriela Leite for the “Whore Certificate” she gave her, as Gabriela was the one who taught Betânia that sex work is work and that she should be proud of who she is.
Daspu Fashion Shows
The Association is also part of the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes, having participated in the well-known DASPU catwalks. To date only one DASPU fashion show was realised in the city of Campinas, yet several members of the Association were previously invited to participate in the shows across Brazil.
DASPU Puta Day Catwalk - Geisa Maranhão Oliveira TG SW member - photo by Jose Miguel
What do you think will be the biggest challenges for your organisation/sex workers in your country in the future?
The biggest challenge for the organisation today is to guarantee adequate funding to develop activities and projects ran by sex workers. Initiatives were done to raise funds by means of charity sale and raffle, but that is not sustainable.
Moreover, many of the initiatives carried out for sex workers in the city are funded or developed in articulation with the public health service, the University of Campinas and its students, and the CEPROMM – The Centre for Studies and Promotion of the Marginalised Women “Centro de Estudos e Promoção da Mulher Marginalizada”. Few actions have been realised independently by sex workers.
In order to overcome this barrier, the organisation has established a voluntary working group to develop a strategic plan and fundraising strategy for the next years. The objective is to access international donors, as national funds rarely guarantee autonomy in project development for sex workers, being mostly linked to health programmes of the Ministry of Health.
The situation of the Association is very similar to other sex worker organisations in the country. Most of them are grassroots and work on a voluntary basis, being partially funded by health programmes to execute policies and measures of the government. The actual government, however, does not guarantee sex workers participation in policy development, and in many situations they have opposed rights-based approaches to sex work in the field of health and labour. Sex workers complain that they do not have meaningful involvement in policy development and that their voices are rarely heard.
Thus, the first challenge for sex workers in the country is to develop sex work programming independently from the government’s programmes, policies and interests, articulating directly with donors interested at safeguarding sex workers’ autonomy in decision making and programming.
The second challenge is to develop new sex worker leaders, particularly after years of advocacy work of Gabriela Leite, who recently died in 2013, and Lourdes Barreto, who has been active in spite of her advanced age. In the process of developing new leaderships it is fundamental to capacitate sex workers around human rights, rights in general, making sure that all rights-based policies are known and used by them at the local, national and international level. Betânia Melo, personally, confessed that more training and capacitation is necessary for her own advocacy work.
The third challenge is to create space for legal and policy reform at the national level. Although sex workers have developed, together with politicians and allies, a law proposal to decriminalise sex work and regulate the sex industry is still much needed to combat discrimination and stigma against sex workers, including at the parliament level. Research and advocacy actions are fundamental for articulating with key stakeholders and making sure that the new law will pass in the next year.
Do you have one message for the sex worker rights movement? Or one message for people outside of the movement?
I quote here two statements from Betânia Melo and Denise Martins, both board members and leaders of the Association Mulheres Guerreiras.
Betânia: “Let me present myself. My name is Maria Benta Melo dos Santos, I am a whore (puta), sex worker, with masters and doctorate in lewdness. Some people ask me whether I am proud of being a whore (puta). My answer is yes, I am. By means of my work I was able to buy a house, a car and raise three daughters being one of them an academic. We should all have the liberty to love ourselves and the work we do.”
This statement of Betânia registered during the event “Sex Workers: United for Respect” in 2012, mentioned above, reflects the ability of sex workers to take their own decisions regarding their bodies and work. Moreover, it empowers not only sex workers but also all people to face the challenges and circumstances of life by means of work and self-respect. Her activism has inspired sex workers from all over the country. Her biggest wish is to take ownership of the legacy of the advocacy work of Gabriela Leite and make sure that sex workers in Brazil work in safe and adequate conditions.
Denise: “Women should tell their stories. They should not be subject of stories that other people want to tell”.
This statement of Denise, in the opening of the Assembly that funded the Association highlights the importance of agency of sex workers. She is highly concerned that other people will take over sex workers’ voices if they don’t articulate and face the current challenges.
Profile by Regional Correspondent Latin America.