Nothing about us without us, one more time… with feeling

Today I stood up as a transwoman, a sex worker, and lost all chill at an abstract session at the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa in Harare. The session about sex workers and human rights had not a single sex worker speaking. But not only that, the language itself was infuriating me… For years sex worker organisations have shouted “nothing about us, without us” yet in 2015 we can apparently still discuss sex workers as mere participants in studies, as subjects that need their stories retold in the voices of the more privileged.
When presentations were over I stood up and pretty much claimed the mic because it is unacceptable that a panel discussion sex workers has no sex workers speaking on it, that transgender wasn’t even mentioned once while it is an issue at the very center of our communities, that the language itself was only enforcing the idea that sex workers needed to be saved…

Two presenters were typical university researchers that reported on their findings, two others were white Dutch cisgender women representing Dutch NGOs that work in Africa with sex worker organisations. These last two were what angered me. They work with sex worker led organisations and yet still speak for them… One even said she felt that she was there representing the community… of young African sex workers??? I know these NGOs provide valuable support, but there are politics here that should be understood. I struggle with these dilemmas daily working now for a regional organisation, having left the grassroots in my 9 to 5… and it isn’t easy to navigate. But I could not sit and ignore the near decade of sex worker rights activism that I still feel so close to. I work at a regional human rights organisation AS a sex worker, AS a transwoman and I chose to speak out. Because at this point, why are people not getting with the programme. At these HIV conferences we speak about ending HIV, but if we keep treating sex workers like this we never will.


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