Sex worker organisations’ partnerships and collaborations for capacity development

Sex worker organisations’ partnerships and collaborations for capacity development

HIV Australia | Vol. 12 No. 2 | July 2014

By Maria McMahon

Scarlet Alliance, the Australian Sex Workers Association, is the national peak body representing sex workers and sex worker organisations in Australia.

Formed in 1989, Scarlet Alliance is a community-based organisation. Through its objectives, policies and programs, Scarlet Alliance aims to achieve equality, social, legal, political, cultural, health and economic justice for past and present sex workers.

Within the global HIV epidemic, sex workers are defined as a key affected population. The majority of HIV infections are sexually transmitted, putting sex workers and their clients at heightened risk of acquiring HIV.

Sex workers not only experience the impacts of HIV, but also experience increased stigma and discrimination on the basis of their occupation and real or perceived HIV status, reduced human rights and a lack of access to health services.

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) states:

‘To date, the HIV response has devoted insufficient attention and resources to efforts to address HIV and sex work, with less than 1% of global funding for HIV prevention being spent on HIV and sex work.

‘The epidemiological data on HIV infection rates among sex workers and their clients reflects the failure to adequately respond to their human rights and public health needs.

‘Recent studies continue to confirm that in many countries sex workers experience higher rates of HIV infection than in most other population groups.’1

UNAIDS also says in Principles of Effective HIV Prevention:‘Community participation of those for whom HIV prevention, treatment, care and support programmes are planned is critical for their impact.’2

Sex workers need to be central within a strong HIV response. The centrality of sex workers within the HIV response is imperative and includes activities to support and strengthen sex workers’ organisational capacity, leadership and advocacy.

Just as the Australian response has included sex workers within the partnership addressing HIV, so too should sex workers be included in the design and delivery of responses in our region.

Scarlet Alliance has 25 years’ experience within the Australian HIV response of significant program design, implementation and evaluation experience, as well as advocacy for sex worker rights.

The Regional HIV/AIDS Capacity Building Program, funded by Australian Aid, links nine Australian organisations with counterparts in the Asia and Pacific regions to develop the capacity of the most affected communities and their peer-based organisations to actively participate in national and regional responses to HIV.

Scarlet Alliance’s project titled Sex Worker Organisations’ Collaboration for Strengthened Advocacy and Partnerships includes activities to support and strengthen sex workers organisational capacity, leadership and advocacy.

In a project evaluation report, one sex worker organisation said:

‘HIV has been with us for 30 years already. Social and legal changes are not short-term projects but are a long journey.

‘Leadership on this journey is not static but is more like a relay where the task to reform must continually be passed along to emerging leaders.

‘The Capacity Building Program with Scarlet Alliance is one avenue where emerging and young sex worker leaders can be mentored and given opportunities to stand up.

‘Without support how can we grow new leadership and continue the journey?’3

Scarlet Alliance works in capacity development partnerships in the Asia and Pacific regions, including partnerships with Friends Frangipani in Papua New Guinea, and with $carlet Timor Collective in Timor Leste.

In addition, the project brings the partners together for strategic partnership building activities around international forums such as the International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) and International AIDS Society (IAS) conferences.

The capacity building approach is unique, involving a mentoring partnership between our peer sex worker organisations.

This approach varies dramatically from provision of technical advice or short-term training. The approach is a longterm commitment to ensuring the sustainable development of a sex worker organisation with the capacity to govern, consult and represent sex workers and work within the unique set of barriers that affect sex worker organisations.

The approach brings with it a network of support as sex workers are linked into national, regional and international sex worker networks.

‘The networking of sex worker groups from different countries empowers us. We have common ground, common problems, and a common destination.’4

Scarlet Alliance adopts an approach that includes ‘learning by doing’. Capacity is built and held by the individuals, the sex worker community and thus the organisation on an accumulative experiential basis, and retained within the guiding documents, policies, records and systems.

Rather than developing a dependent relationship, the organisation knows its capacity and genuine potential at any time, as a function of this lived experience and retained infrastructure.

Project partners note that leadership growth takes time to achieve, yet all report a boost in confidence and competence as a result of project activities, as illustrated in these quotes from project participants:

‘The forum really built my capacity and our organisation as well, we practiced chairing meetings, taking minutes – it had a different feel about it, a good feeling, gave me confidence to stand up and talk, especially in international groups.’5

‘Now I have the guts to talk for my fellow sex workers and talk for their rights.’6

‘I stood up; I had the confidence to speak with donors. We need our voice to be heard, we face it, we feel it, we know what it’s like. It gave me the courage and confidence to stand up strong and talk public.’ 7

The activities create a rare space for sex workers to drive their own agenda, bring a boost in confidence, competence and self-determination.

The skill sharing within a sex worker only setting is invaluable, and project partners are encouraged to articulate and advocate their agenda.

‘We can share the (sex worker) language between us, ideas, feel comfortable to talk out and share. If other stakeholders attended this meeting, we would not feel good to share.’8

‘Because of our partnership with Scarlet Alliance, how to develop/ create our capacity to raise awareness of our problems we face every day as sex workers, our human rights, sexual abuse, violation, because we understand our rights, we are more confident. It means we can meet with stakeholders and go into a relationship with them.’9

The Project strengthens regional networking and relationships, enhances sex worker organisations’ day-to-day efforts to champion sex worker rights, and contributes to community solidarity and collaboration across the region.

‘It is helping us to stand up strong and talk out. We are feeling strong to fight for our rights too – we see other sex work organisations can do this in another country, and this strengthens us.’10

Sex worker advocacy actions were cohesive and delivered messages on enabling legal frameworks, including the call to decriminalise sex work, that were highly visible within regional forums and related media.

Sex worker representatives clearly identified issues and called for specific changes through their advocacy work, and connected with key stakeholders through regional forums.

The key message that decriminalisation will best support sex workers responses to HIV, has reached non-government organisations, governments, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNAIDS and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)and is now consolidated into national, regional and international strategies and policies.

Regional forums are where significant progress in terms of sex worker advocates participating effectively takes place.

Scarlet Alliance provides support and mentoring for partner organisations to engage in opportunities, select and prepare representatives, develop activity proposals, develop advocacy, travel and participate. The international conferences provide sites for key learnings and collaborations.

Importantly, the project enables feedback from international events by sex worker advocates to the sex worker community and other stakeholders in-country. This can reorientate key stakeholders as they see sex worker issues’ profile raised and understand better how sex workers national demands fit within the global HIV response.

There is more leveraging possible given the “match” between national and international advocacy messages and policy environments.

‘I was invited to a civil education workshop to talk a little bit about ICAAP. I was confident to share with my community the purpose of it and it was an eye opener for them since they didn’t know about it.’ 11

‘ … we became members of National AIDS Commission; we have more recognition of our position from government because we have been members of international events.’ 12

Sex workers in the region continue to build their presence and effectiveness at national and international levels, and are clearly taking their place within the response.

Sex workers within the partnerships have gained a stronger voice in the national HIV response, and within regional and international forums.

The capacity building work is now more important as countries realise that sex workers need to be at the table, advocating on their issues and needs in order to have an effective HIV response.


Maria McMahon is International Program Manager at Scarlet Alliance.


1 Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/ AIDS (UNAIDS). UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work. UNAIDS, Geneva,

2 UNAIDS. (2005). Intensifying HIV Prevention. UNAIDS policy position paper. UNAIDS, Geneva. Retrieved from: UNAIDS Intensifying HIV Prevention, UNAIDS Policy Position Paper, 2005, p17

3 Submission to the Independent Project Review, 2014.

4 Program Component Final Report 2008–2011.

5 ibid.

6 ibid.

7 ibid.

8 ibid.

9 ibid.

10 ibid.

11 Evaluation feedback, 2014.

12 Program Component Final Report 2008–2011. op cit.