ICCO, a dutch development organization collaborates with three different partner organizations in Latin America that support children who are exploited in prostitution and women who want to step-out of commercial sex work. With resources from he Dutch government they fund the work of their partners and promote collective learning from experience. The title of the program is Cambio de Vida – Mudando de vida because the ultimate aim is enable women and children to drastically change their lives.
Collective learning among different organizations with different approaches, using two different languages, working in three different countries: that forms quite a challenge. But there is more to it. When talking about sexuality there are other language barriers to cross not only grammatical ones. In prostitution or sex work semantics are a critical issue. Prostitution has negative connotations as an immoral act. Also there is a difference between being a prostitute, or being prostituted. Are you being immoral, or are you an innocent victim of immoral people – pimps, brothel owners or traffickers (all M/F)?
Compared to prostitution, the label “sex work” describes the activity in a seemingly neutral way as an economic activity in which sexual services are provided in exchange for money. The term emerged among sex workers who wanted to combat the stigma of immorality, who wanted to rid themselves of stigma of being guilty and claim their rights as workers not as victims.
Another option is to talk about minors or women whose sexual and human rights (as migrants) are being violated. In this terminology children and women are also victims but they do not need to be saved from immorality but they suffer injustice and need support to claim their rights. No one is guilty in the moral sense, adults can be voluntary sex workers whose human rights are being violated. For example, when sex work is legal (like it is for adults in f.e. Bolivia) sex workers may suffer discrimination and violent harassment by the police.
So in choosing your words you are choosing positions. But not all positions are being disputed. With all this debate on semantics, everyone involved agrees that minors should never abused to provide sexual services in exchange of anything. Article 34 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is quite clear on this.
States Parties undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. For these purposes, States Parties shall in particular take all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measures to prevent:
(a) The inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity;
(b) The exploitative use of children in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices;
(c) The exploitative use of children in pornographic performances and materials.
Language differences – in terms of grammar or politics – do not have to preclude collaboration of collective learning. In Bolivia the ICCO partner organization, the Hermanas Adoratrices work with “children and women that are prostituted”. But they collaborate in fighting trafficking and exploitation of children with the Bolivian “Organización Nacional de Activistas para la Emancipación de la Mujer (ONAEM”) who also advocates for sex work to be included in the nations Labour Code.
Besides the attention for children, in the ICCO program Cambio de Vida there is a focus on women choosing voluntarily to change their lives. The team of the Hermanas Adoratrices will share their experience with portuguese speaking activists of Sodireitos based in Belem, Brazil who fight to defend human rights, in particular sexual rights and the rights of migrants and women that are involved in sex work in Surinam.
So an awareness of the politics of language and respect and acknowledgement of the differences is important for learning. And you also need some tools. ICCO is a global organization and actively uses social media to promote learning. In this program we are using a limited access wiki-space to share and comment on the reports and papers and documents we produce and we use delicious to tag and share resources we find on the net. With these tools and a sensitivity for language we aim to share and learn. But, as Mileny Matos, project coördinator for Sodireitos one of the participating organizations puts it in portugese, it also needs a sense of community.