The Associação das Prostitutas de Minas Gerais (APROSMIG) is an active sex worker group in Brazil. This interview with an APROSMIG staff member focuses on the organisations' role within the Brazil network of sex worker-led organisations, its work and challenges.
Which countries and/or regions is your organisation focused on in terms of mobilising support for the work that you do?
Sex workers from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais established APROSMIG in 2009. Since then APROSMIG has been runing a self-help group and projects reaching out to over 2,000 sex workers in the city of Belo Horizonte and its surroundings. Its office is located in the main sex work area (Guaicurus street) and is famous for its community mobilisation activities and actions.
APROSMIG is a well-known organisation in Brazil which maintains partnerships with other sex worker-led organisations in the country, such as Davida in Rio de Janeiro, GEMPAC in Belém do Pará, NEP in Porto Alegre and NGOs working for community benefit.
APROSMIG is an active member of the Rede Brasileira de Prostitutas (Brazilian Network of Prostitutes). Through networking activities (e.g. participation in conferences, academic events, round tables), sex workers from the organisation meet other sex workers, activists and politicians from different regions of Brazil. Cida Vieira, the president of the association, is a vocal leader and particularly visible in the national and international media.
How is the organisation structured?
In order to work nationally, with limited resources capacity, the organisation relies strongly on the participation of strong leaders in events, conferences and round tables. Most political meetings are held in the capital of the country, Brasilia, but often in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Cida Vieira is one of the most active sex worker leaders in Brazil. She has an incredible charisma and engages with the community and important government authorities. In few years APROSMIG developed a good relationship and partnership with the Military Police of Minas Gerais, for instance.
Violence from the police is still a very problematic issue in Brazil, which affects unevenly the most vulnerable and unprivileged sex workers. In 2014, after a brutal operation of the police in the city of Niterói, near Rio de Janeiro, Cida Vieira and other members of the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes were active in denouncing these state-enforced violations. A manifesto in repudiation to this operation was circulated and signed. More information can be read here.
At the regional level, APROSMIG is part of the selected group of countries that established the Plataforma Latinoamericana de Personas que Ejercen el Trabajo Sexual (PLAPERTS), which translates as Latin American Platform of Sex Workers. This is a coalition of sex worker activists and organisations from Latin America, such as Karina Bravo (Asociación de Mujeres Trabajadoras Sexuales Colectivo Flor de Azalea, Ecuador), Ana Karen (Tamaulipas Diversidad Vihda Trans A.C., Mexico) and Angela Villon (Movimiento de Trabajadoras Sexuales del Perú, Peru), and many others. The platform aims to ensure a policy dialogue on the issues affecting sex workers in the region and develops a joint advocacy strategy to counteract the challenges and barriers. This network has been supported by NSWP. Image above right: Founding members of PLAPERTS.
What are the priority areas that your organisation works in? Tell us a bit about the organisation’s activism/area of work specifically.
This self-led group reaches mostly women sex workers in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais (South-east region) through their language classes, condom distribution and HIV awareness messages, and seminars and demonstrations to bring attention to the rights of sex workers. Their mission is to promote citizenship and rights of women sex workers in Brazil.
Although the organisation is run with limited funding, it has been designing and implementing significant and creative projects and actions, mostly in partnership with other sectors of Brazilian society – feminist and anti-racist groups, politicians, transgender communities, Ministry of Health and Justice.
The group works with the following key topics:
- Recognition of sex work as work;
- Sexual and reproductive rights and health for female sex workers;
- Access to services and better treatment facilities;
- Violence against sex workers and safe working conditions; and
- Mobilisation and organisation of female sex workers and movement building.
The key strategies to achieve these objectives are:
- Organising debates, seminars, conferences on various themes such as legislation of sex work in Brazil, violence at work, women’s comprehensive health needs and services, rights and citizenship;
- Conducting activities for the prevention of HIV/STIs such as distributing free-of-charge condoms supplied by the Ministry of Health and facilitating testing by the State Health Services;
- Organising language courses and media trainings for sex workers to become skilled advocates, able to speak on their behalf (this especially in respect to the World Cup of 2014 which was held in Brazil);
- Lobbying and influencing the political debate around sex work in Brazil;
- Carrying out public political actions, especially on the International Day for Sex Workers’ Rights (2 June); and
- Participating in actions and demonstrations with other social movements, fighting against discrimination and for the rights of women sex workers.
As most other sex worker groups in the country and in line with the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes, APROSMIG has made a political choice of words to use “prostitute” (and even “whore”) and “prostitution” instead of sex work, as a way to counter the stigmatisation surrounding this terminology. To know more about the philosophy behind this political choice watch video here.
Can you tell us about APROSMIG's activities and projects?
Indoor and outdoor outreach
APROSMIG is well-known by sex workers in Belo Horizonte due to its outreach and mobilisation activities in the prostitution areas of Av. Afonso Pena and Lagoa da Pampulha. Its visibility has also increased in the past years with sex workers from other cities of Minas Gerais getting involved and asking for support.
Outreach activities are carried out in hotels, brothels, bars, but also on the streets. They provide free-of-charge condoms/lubricants, information about HIV/AIDS prevention, health and rights. Sex workers are often referred to health public services and hospitals, especially in cases of condom break and pregnancy. Sex workers who meet them learn more about citizenship and rights.
APROSMIG pays a particular attention to newcomers (sex workers that just started working in sex work). The organisation reported that the group commonly meets newcomers and that they know little about health, safety and rights.
Sex workers also travel with APROSMIG. The association organised a site visit to Ouro Preto, a historic city in the state of Minas Gerais. The trip was organised by and for the members of APROSMIG and aims to provide a fun space for sharing experiences and building solidarity among them.
The group strengthened its capacity to mobilise after the meeting and learned more about Brazilian history. They also had an opportunity to meet sex workers from Ouro Preto and share experiences with them, discuss about rights and also about the challenges they face. Most sex workers who travelled are older and experienced peers on matter such as health, safety and rights and were able to informally educate younger sex workers from Ouro Preto. Image on the left: Members from APROSMIG visiting Ouro Preto
Legal counselling and information
APROSMIG provides legal counselling for sex workers and promotes sex workers’ access to social benefits (e.g. pension, maternity leave, sick leave, bolsa família, etc.). Sex workers are trained to deal with situations such as arrests and violence from police and/or clients.
APROSMIG developed a partnership with the Belo Horizonte’s Urbanization Company – URBEL to include older sex workers into the social housing system. This broader governmental housing programme is called “My house, my life”.
Providing sexual services is a legal activity in Brazil, yet few sex workers know how make a business plan for themselves and improve their earnings and working conditions. By means of an entrepreneurship training sex workers from APROSMIG learned how to open a corporate bank account and request debit/credit machines.
This training improved sex workers’ capacity to build a work plan and gain more money from clients that do not carry cash with them. Moreover, from a security point of view debit/credit machines are great tools to safeguard payment and avoid situations of violence.
Miss Prostitute contest
The organisation organises beauty contests called “Miss Prostitute” to challenge stigma and (low) self-esteem. Sex workers from Belo Horizonte have the chance to reflect about self- and societal-stigma and build self-confidence which can possibly improve their lives.
(Photo: contestants in the Miss Prostitute 2014).
How did this organisation start up?
APROSMIG was established, in 2009, to address the diverse needs of sex workers in the city of Belo Horizonte and to ensure that they receive adequate information, services and support. Like other sex worker organisations in Brazil, APROSMIG was inspired by the values of Gabriela Leite, one of Brazil greatest sex worker leaders who passed away in 2013.
The organisation’s board is made up of five active women sex workers. They have been chosen by the members of the organisation during an election session at the members’ meeting. The elections of new board members are carried out democratically and all members have the chance to influence debates and decisions.
The organisation is also legally registered, which enables them to establish partnerships with governmental institutions and civil society organisations. Currently, their office is located in the building of the Association of Brothel Owners.
What were the biggest events or challenges this organisation has worked on in the past?
World Cup 2014
Brazil was selected for hosting the World Cup in 2014 was Brazil and Belo Horizonte some of the games. Like in other big events, the media mislead information about sex workers and repression actions took place in the city to supposedly halt trafficking in women and sexual exploitation of minors. APROSMIG played a key role in clarifying the actual/real situation of sex workers and recalling that ‘sex work is work’ in Brazil, and that sex tourism is also a licit activity. ‘Sex workers also want to benefit from the World Cup’, said Cida Vieira to the media. Cida Vieira gave several interviews to the national and international media during this period.
Before the games, the group empowered sex workers to know and demand their rights. Also, about 300 sex workers had the chance to learn English for free and learn practical language skills. That increased sex workers’ ability to negotiate the conditions under which they wish to sell sex, including condom use.
The English teacher also developed a pocketsize booklet for the community in which they can find English tips for negotiation with clients. The book entitled “Puta Livro”, or “Bitch’s Book”, is written with a practical language and relate specifically to different sex worker sectors and settings environment. The booklet also brings ready-to-use expressions for foreign clients to use, such as “how much they charge” in Portuguese. It was distributed to sex workers and clients, with a condom attached to it, and resulted in a best practice lead by sex workers from the city.
Sex workers from APROSMIG reported that, contrary to what the media – and society in general – expected, there was no increase of demand for sexual services during the event. Unfortunately, sex workers say. Cases of trafficking and sexual exploitation of minors did not increase either, according to research carried out the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Several newspaper articles commented on APROSMIG’s impressions about this big event here.
To raise visibility to sex workers, during the games, APROSMIG organised football matches in the prostitution area of Belo Horizonte. The team of sex workers was called “Time das Peladas”, which translates as “Team of the Naked”. “Pelada” in Portuguese means naked, but is also slang for football match. The other team, “Time das Delicinhas”, or the “Team of Little Pleasures”, was made of academics and supporters of APROSMIG. Photo on the left: Time das Peladas during the World Cup
The same year as the world cup, 2014, Cida Vieira tried the polls for a Deputy position in the National Congress. The vice-president of the association, Laura Maria, took her position during that period. Cida called on sex workers’ and LGBT’ rights as key themes for her campaign, which did not reach the desired results.
This experience took APROSMIG to another level of organisational development, as members started to engage more actively in the political debate and to participate in important meetings and round tables. There was a strong support from the community for Cida’s election, which counted with street campaigning, distribution of materials, and marches. Interestingly enough, Cida was supported by the Labour Party (PT), which elected the actual president of Brazil, and historically represents the interests of workers in the congress.
Due to increased visibility of APROSMIG, and their fight for the recognition of sex work as work, the state of Minas Gerais has considered nominating sex workers for positions in the state ombudsman office.
Some newspaper articles covered Cida’s campaign here and here. Her campaign through Facebook can be found here. Campaign videos can be found here and here.
In 2014, Belo Horizonte celebrated its first PUTA DEI, a national event created by GEMPAC to celebrate 02 June, the International Sex Workers' Day. Other cities in Brazil followed with innovative events, such as Sao Paulo, Campinas, Rio de Janeiro and Belém do Pará.
In Belo Horizonte, specifically, sex workers organised open-air parties, shows and artistic interventions. Candies and chocolate were distributed to the crowds. The purpose of this yearly event is to tackle stigma by reinforcing the word “puta” or “whore” as a good thing.
What were the greatest achievements?
The Association had several achievements since its establishment. Visibility of sex workers is probably the first big achievement of APROSMIG. For the first time sex workers from Belo Horizonte actually mobilised around their rights and started to get heard in political spaces. This visibility also contributed to successful applications submitted to the Brazilian Fund for Human Rights and Red Umbrella Fund.
Connections with civil society organisations and other social movements were strengthened, such as LGBT (with participation in the LGBT Pride Parade), Slut Walk, and ensured APROSMIG’s participation in several forums held by the State University of Minas Gerais and the City Hall.
In 2014, Cida Vieira was also nominated member of the National Council on Trafficking in Persons (CONATRAP). This was fundamental step to ensure sex workers participation in decision making spaces that discuss trafficking issues, which affect negatively sex workers in the entire country (see, for instance, police raids before and during the World Cup in 2014). Cida is the only sex worker member of CONATRAP, which counts also with a non-sex workers member from Davida.
Together they demystify misconceptions around sex work and trafficking, including sexual exploitation of minors. They also highlight the importance of recognising sex work as work, in compliance with the Brazilian law. Labour rights and safer working conditions for sex workers are key strategies for tackling trafficking.
What do you think will be the biggest challenges for your organisation/sex workers in your country in the future?
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.
APROSMIG faces many challenges as a result of its high ambition and lack of resources. The group is still fairly new and has received limited core funding. It depends on case-by-case project support by a partner organisation or other ad-hoc income or support. Financial management, fundraising and planning are some of the organisational weaknesses that have to be strengthened.
Stigma is still one of the main barriers for sex workers in Brazil. Although provision of sexual services is legal in Brazil, stigma (and consequently violence) against sex workers is still high. Many sex workers fear speaking up against violence and abuse. There is also little recognition of sex workers as human rights defenders and/or state support for sex workers that are threatened by corrupt police officials.
Societal stigma is also high and that impacts directly on sex workers’ self-esteem. For that reason, APROSMIG always promotes fun and creative activities in which sex workers can actively take ownership and improve their self-confidence and self-esteem. The reality is that still small percentage of sex workers engage in the political debate around sex work, and recognise their work as decent work.
Stigma also affects the organisation’s fundraising capacity, and creates additional barriers when engaging with governmental institutions. Many institutions in Brazil are commanded by religious, mainly evangelic-oriented groups, which deny any dialogue with sex worker rights organisations.
Do you have one message for the sex worker rights movement? Or one message for people outside of the movement?
“I am a whore deputy because I want to moralise our national congress.” - Cida Vieira.
Profile by Regional Correspondent Latin America.