In June 2017, Nicaragua became the third country in Central America to have a sex workers’ union recognised by the Ministry of Labour, after Colombia and Guatemala. In Nicaragua, the sex workers’ union is attached to the Confederation of Self-Employed Workers.
The Association of Female Sex Workers "Girasoles" (which means sunflowers) has led unionisation efforts and efforts towards public recognition of sex worker unions in Nicaragua.
María Elena Dávila and Yamileth García, both sex workers and members of Girasoles, said that the path to state recognition of a sex worker union was a long one, and that this work began a decade ago. Unionisation was also not always in Girasoles’ plans.
Since starting, sex workers involved in Girasoles went through different processes and strategies before they identified their need to be organised as a union to better denounce the constant violations of their human rights, for being women and being sex workers.
Dávila highlighted three important phases in the life of their organisation, explaining that the situation, context and strengths of the sex worker community has changed over time. During the early years, Girasoles focused on denouncing the constant violations of their members’ rights.
During the second phase, Girasoles focused on demanding that sex work be recognised as work, which has been one of the main political challenges they have faced and has involved addressing deep stigma and discrimination.
The third phase was the process of unionisation, which took Girasoles about a year. During this time, sex workers went to several union centres, but were not admitted. They understood that changing peoples’ mentality was hard, and that entering into a union centre was difficult because other groups of workers considered sex work to be illegal. Finally, they went to the Confederation of Self-Employed Workers and everything changed. They found similarities between sex work and other jobs, and the Confederation agreed to advise and train sex worker activists to be union organisers.
"To form a union is a whole process of hard work, side by side with [fellow sex workers]; a new way of learning all from each other," said Dávila. Girasoles found that being part of a union is a personal decision, and each individual sex worker must make this decision after understanding what a union is and the advantages and disadvantages of being a member.
The sex worker union was approved by the Ministry of Labour on 22 June 2017 and currently holds unionisation workshops to inform sex workers about what it means to be organised in a union.
Girasoles’ members have also been trained as judicial facilitators of the Superior Court, allowing them to provide support services to sex workers and to anyone who may need their help. "The most beautiful thing that we sex workers feel is that we contribute to justice," said García. As of August 2017, Girasoles’ judicial facilitators had provided 680 services, including mediations, accompaniments, consultations and talks. The trailer of a documentary about this work is available here.
Sex workers around the world, like those in Nicaragua, are demanding that sex work be recognised as work. Read NSWP’s Policy Brief on Sex Work as Work for more information about how sex workers in other countries and regions are using a labour framework to advance sex workers’ rights.
“Dismantling myths about sex work in Nicaragua is an ongoing process”, García said. But her message for the Nicaragua people is clear: "We want society to respect us, to simply let us work; sex work is a labour right."