The Sex Workers' Rights Advocacy Network (SWAN) is the regional network of sex work organisations in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This interview with the SWAN Programme Officer focuses on the history, work and challenges of the SWAN network.
Which countries is your organisation focused on in terms of mobilising support for the work that you do?
SWAN is a regional network of sex work projects covering all Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia (CEECA) countries. SWAN’s membership is open to civil society organisations, service providers and sex worker-led organisations. Currently SWAN represents 28 organisations in 18 countries such as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Georgia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia and Slovakia. SWAN works at the regional and international level.
How did SWAN start up?
In 2006 most of the organisations working with and for sex workers in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia (CEECA) were HIV prevention or harm reduction projects. They were scattered across the region, working in isolation from each other, focusing on health related issues. Human rights concepts and advocacy strategies related to sex work were very basic and rarely used. Furthermore, sex workers were only occasionally included in these projects. Self-organised movements and empowerment strategies by and for sex workers were almost non-existent. Stigma, exclusion, lack of access to information and services, and high levels of violence against sex workers in the region were increasingly reported by existing organisations.
The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), a human rights organisation based in Hungary, supported by Open Society Foundation, realised work should be done to unite the different projects across region. This would consolidate their work, provide opportunities for information sharing, and strengthen the internal capacities of the organisations. By fostering the empowerment and leadership of sex workers and providing a platform for joint advocacy and support, those organisations would be able to work more effectively towards the achievement of one main goal: to improve sex workers’ health and rights in the region.
When the call for interest to establish a regional network was released by HCLU in 2006, 16 representatives from 15 member countries gathered for the initial meeting that launched the SWAN network. Until 2012, SWAN functioned as an informal entity based in HCLU offices. Due to internal growth and strengthening, members expressed a desire for independence from the HCLU. In 2012 SWAN became registered as an independent formal entity. The secretariat is still based in Budapest, Hungary, but SWAN now has its own office.
SWAN is committed to sex workers’ rights. In 2015, SWAN developed a positive discrimination policy to ensure the majority of staff are sex workers.
What are the priority areas that these your organisation works in? Tell us a bit about the organisation’s area of work specifically.
The sex workers’ rights movement and the human rights movement in CEECA is young. This means there is a very small evidence base to help challenge discrimination and violence against sex workers publicly. To this day, the network has successfully collaborated to:
- Conduct two regional community-based research studies on police violence (Arrest the Violence, 2009) and access to justice for sex workers (Failure of Justice, 2015);
- Establish Human Rights Documentations Projects in 7 countries;
- Organise regular campaigns on 17 December, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers;
- Conduct a series of sensitisation workshops with journalists;
- Conduct a training with sex workers on the Sex Worker Implementation Tool (SWIT);
- Develop written tools and guidance for groups and activists, etc.
In the past 2 years, special efforts were made to collaborate with the United Nations’ Committee for Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), in order to frame the issues of sex workers under CEDAW convention and also to influence national governments to take measures to advance the status of sex workers in their respective countries.
SWAN also developed a successful mentoring programme facilitating exchange of knowledge between sex workers of different countries and organisations.
“The mentorship programme of SWAN offers great opportunity for sex workers from the region and sex worker groups to exchange experience amongst themselves and with these experience to make our network stronger,” said Katarina, Mentorship Programme Coordinator at SWAN.
What do you think will be the biggest challenges for your organisation/sex workers in your country in the future?
Mobilising members and supporting the self-organisation of sex workers in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia proves to be one the biggest challenges faced by SWAN and its members. When established in 2006, SWAN had one sex worker-led organisation as a member. They were the only sex worker-led organisation in the region, and they were poorly represented in the international arena. After participating in a number of trainings, and capacity building activities more and more sex workers from the region felt they had the strength to become more visible and take an active role in different activities and initiatives. SWAN has supported the growth of 10 sex worker-led organisations, and continues to support the inclusion of sex worker voices on national and international levels. “SWAN network is amplifying the voices of sex workers who are often stigmatised and marginalised and educating the general public that sex workers can take their fate in their own hands and decide for themselves,” said Masha, Communication Officer at SWAN.
In SWAN’s region, the level of stigma, discrimination, criminalisation and violence against sex workers are amongst the biggest challenges. Not only the criminalisation of sex work, but the intersecting criminalisation of people living with HIV, of transgender people, and of same-sex and ‘non-traditional’ relationships are feeding into the violence and abuse against sex workers. Politicians from the region are looking at what is happening in the rest of Europe (the ‘West’) and from time to time, a new law proposal comes out. These laws are either as an attempt to follow faulty legal frameworks of regulating sex work, or an attempt to completely stand in opposition to the ‘moral decay’ of the ‘West’. Most of the time sex workers’ voices are left out, which results in harmful policies and laws.
The human rights’ framework itself is sometimes completely disregarded by authorities throughout the region. There seems to be a strong trend of non-governmental organisations working on human rights being labelled as ‘foreign agents’, and a menace to the state. This naturally poses an extra challenge and complicates the attempts to respond to violence against sex workers. Ekaterina, one of SWAN’s Communications Officers, stated, “I am furious that in our region, I notice that the poorest the countries are, the harshest are the laws against sex workers. Desperate attempts by ordinary people to have a better life is criminalised, whilst widespread corruption by elite is ignored.”
With dominant ultra-conservative views, state violence in the form of criminalisation, discrimination and police and law enforcement feeling entitled to abuse sex workers, the environment can be disempowering. Yet sex workers are still organising and reacting to it, and SWAN is proud to be part of this movement and to contribute to it.
Stigma itself can be felt in other ways as well: it manifests itself in the lack of basic acknowledgment of sex workers and their issues, and lack of solidarity from most of LGBTQIA, feminist or general human rights organisations working in the region. Both SWAN and member organisations feel that the situation would be much different if the movement for sex workers’ rights gathered more support. Sadly, representatives from SWAN told NSWP they believe it is sometimes getting worst, with feminist organisations being very keen on promoting the ‘Nordic’ model of criminalising clients and third parties. “I believe there is a backlash against sex workers because as we are mobilising and getting stronger, we become a threat to our oppressors. It is empowering and frightening at the same time,” said Roxana, Programme Officer at SWAN.
Finally, another challenge is the scarcity of resources for sex worker-led organisations. Apart from funds allocated for HIV prevention and treatment, there is very little funding for sex worker-led organisations in the region. This, in turn, inevitably shapes the way self-organising can be done and sex workers’ rights articulated, while also putting sex worker collectives in direct competition with service providing organisations.
Do you have one message for the sex worker rights movement? Or one message for people outside of the movement?
In SWAN, we are mainly working with countries where sex work is penalised and where society is very intolerant towards sex workers, specifically migrant, roma, HIV-positive, transgender, male and injecting drug user sex workers. To speak out, to protest can be also prohibited, while the widespread violence against sex workers, that comes many times from the police, remains unpunished. But the injustice makes us stronger. We started in 2006 with only one sex worker led organization as a member of SWAN. Now we have ten. Our community is growing and we will achieve our goals someday. Organisations that support sex workers need to, like SWAN, develop and implement affirmative policy so that sex workers take leadership role in these organisations.
Profile by Regional Correspondent Europe. Photo provided by SWAN.