Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

“Sex workers united by respect!” – an interview with the Warrior Women’s Association of Brazil

Incorporating sex work into a national union has been a game changer in Brazil.

Miriam Haughton Joel Levy Betania Santos
12 March 2020, 8.00am
A scene from Campinas, Brazil.
Mauricio Morello/Flickr. Creative Commons (by)

In January 2020, Miriam Haughton and Joel Levy of the Sex Work Association of Jamaica (SWAJ) and Julia O’Connell Davidson of the University of Bristol visited Brazil to learn about the working conditions of Brazil’s sex workers and about Brazilian sex worker activism against violence and for decriminalisation. We were very grateful to Betania Santos and the Associação Mulheres Guerreiras (Warrior Women’s Association) for hosting us in Itatinga and for granting us the interview below.

Sex Work Association of Jamaica: Could you please tell us about the history of Warrior Women, your struggles, and the strategies you use to fight for sex workers’ rights?

Betania Santos: We are a group of sex workers, formed by a number of us who were working in the city centre of Campinas. Our group started informally around eighteen years ago, but we were formally registered in 2007. We have been fighting for sex workers’ rights since then. Our fight is to secure better working conditions for the occupational category that we represent: sex workers. We fight together for all the rights that we are entitled to have, just like any other category of workers.

Our strategy is to be present in and to use all existing spaces and vehicles to discuss public policies in the municipality, state and country. We want to make ourselves known to policy makers and try to participate in their decision making. For example, various councils exist in our city, such as the Women's Council, the Health Council, even legal councils like the Guardianship Council. We always try to be there at these councils when they discuss the lives of citizens and policies for those citizens.

We are always in these spaces, discussing the rights of Brazilian citizens, discussing the rights of workers, including our work. We started by participating in meetings of the Human Rights Council, where we could use the constitutional provision that we are all equal in rights in our favour. Then we started going along to meetings of the Health Council. They consider our work and working conditions to be ‘unhealthy’, so we need to be present when they discuss the health of sex workers.

We very actively participate in these councils in order to make sure that when there is any kind of discussion that involves us we are always present to listen and to indicate what we want as a collective. We are citizens just like any other person, and we are workers just like any other worker. We contribute to the economy of our city.

Can you tell us about some of the gains that you’ve already achieved through your struggles for rights?

One of our biggest achievements has been our inclusion in the Central Workers Union Confederation (CUT). This has been of great value to us and has served as a model for at least two neighbouring countries, Mexico and Peru. In 2009 we were welcomed into the union by CUT’s Campinas local branch. This made it possible for the Warrior Women’s Association to discuss sex workers’ rights with other categories of workers, which was a great step forward. After all, we are workers and the majority of our customers are also workers. We had a meeting with one of the directors of CUT-Campinas at the time, and we actually acquired a room inside of their headquarters so that we could be present in the union, giving advice to our workers and our colleagues. So that was one of our biggest advances in terms of developing strategies and policies to achieve recognition as workers.

The Central Workers Union Confederation does not wholeheartedly welcome us but it is beginning to discuss sex work as a job. This is something vitally important for us.

This fed into further important developments. We began participating in the CUT Women's Collective, which is a collective organised by all the working women affiliated to the union. Now we have been invited by CUT to become one of the organisations that it formally recognises, rather than us simply participating in CUT events and activities.

This is one of the biggest gains that I think sex workers in Brazil have achieved so far, especially given the political moment we are currently living in. I should note that CUT does not wholeheartedly welcome us, or let’s say it doesn’t embrace us affectionately. But it is beginning to discuss sex work as a job, which is something vitally important for us. The fact we have the support of one of the largest unions in our country, at least from their Campinas branch, means we can discuss and speak clearly as workers with other categories of workers and with other entities. And the city of Campinas is a city where all the collectives and organisations are highly respected. So for us, being part of CUT is a matter of great pride and a very important gain in our fight for sex workers’ rights.

Do you have much contact and knowledge exchange with sex workers’ groups from other countries? Do you think it is important for Warrior Women to do this?

For us, it is extremely important to know other activists, fellow workers from other countries, and to hear about their particular struggles. Because of this we are one of many groups currently developing the third Latin American Platform for Sex Workers. We are also already in exchange and dialogue with organisations from five other countries. One of these is Mozambique. We recently visited the country, and we also received Mozambican sex workers here.

We want to inform ourselves about different models of sex worker organising from around the world. At the same time, we want to spread our model to other places. We hear a lot about models from other countries: models that worked and models that didn't work. This usually comes from policymakers trying to impose models on us, which is an implicit criticism of what we are doing. But, as I’ve already said, the Brazilian Movement of Prostitutes does not accept that policies regarding sex work can be developed in our absence. Our motto is “nothing (is done) for us, without us!”

So this is why we are in contact with sex workers from Mozambique. We are in contact with sex workers from Mexico City. We are in contact with organisations from Ecuador. We are in contact with sex workers from Colombia, sex workers from Nicaragua, sex workers from Argentina. We are doing exchanges and training amongst ourselves. We are part of Latin American networks and we are also in contact with sex workers from the Netherlands. We have made all these connections so that we can join forces in support of our work. At the same time we are developing our own model, which is the struggle for sex workers to be recognised as a specific category of worker.

So yes, it is very important that we are known to organisations from other countries, and to make sure that other colleagues are also known in our country. For us, it is vital because the category of ‘sex worker’ is very powerful and exists all over the world. So it has to be made known, and it’s an honour to receive and be received by workers from other countries, from other cities, from other states.

Following the interview, Letizia Patriarca, who had organised our visit, emphasised the importance of the Warrior Women’s Association’s work in the current legal context in Brazil.

Letizia Patriarca: The Brazilian Classification of Occupations since 2002 includes the category ‘Sex Professional’, so the activity of sex work is not criminalised in Brazil. However, it is also not regulated. This is why Warrior Women’s Association – which includes cis women, transvestites and men – and other national organisations have been fighting since the 1980s for respect and better working conditions for this category of worker.

Bills addressing adult sex work in Brazil have been attempted but never approved. These bills have sought to specify what constitutes “sexual exploitation” (for example, when more than 50% of a worker’s earnings are transferred to another person); or to decriminalise houses and people who work in the vicinity of prostitution; or to create specific working conditions (for example, special retirement guarantees).

On the other hand, calls for the criminalisation of prostitution are growing. This is reflected both in the discourse of some feminist groups and in bills put forward by conservative parties. Two bills in this direction are currently being processed. One criminalises clients while the other withdraws the category of “sex professional” from the Brazilian Classification of Occupations. These bills contribute to the stigmatisation of sex workers, and make it harder to discuss and address the precarious working conditions and vulnerability that result from a lack of recognition of sex work as work.

The visit that made this interview possible was funded by an ESRC Impact Acceleration Award, “Ending Violence Against Sex Workers” in connection with a British Academy research project involving the Sex Work Association of Jamaica and researchers from the University of Bristol and the University of Leicester. Interview facilitation and translation by Letizia Patriarca (PhD Student in Social Anthropology at the University of São Paulo) and Angelo Martins Junior (University of Bristol).


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