Sex workers

Bridging the gap
At the time of Mama Cash’s founding, prostitution and pornography were most often interpreted by members of the women’s movement solely as forms of oppression and the exploitation of women. (During the 1980s, people mostly used the word ‘prostitute’. After the publication in 1987 of Carol Leigh’s anthology Sex Work: Writings By Women In The Sex Industry, the broader term ‘sex worker’ gained in popularity within the women’s rights movement). Mama Cash’s position was that women in the sex industry have the same right as all other women to sexual and economic self-determination, an independent and legally accepted existence and protection against discrimination and violence. This position has always guided Mama Cash’s activities and has led her to support both Dutch and international sex workers’ rights movements. Over the years, she has managed to bridge the gap between activists in the field and the international donor community and has continued to be a leader in the discussion about sex work.


Margo st James at 1st Whore congress. Photo courtesy Gail Pheterson

Whores Conferences
In the 1970s in France and the United States, the first prostitutes began speaking up against hypocrisy and the denial of their human rights. Colleagues from various parts of the world followed suit. Advocates of the issue, such as the American ex-prostitute Margo St. James and the Netherlands-based American feminist Gail Pheterson managed to bridge the gap between prostitutes and feminists. Instead of being stigmatised, they wanted empowerment. Prostitutes began reclaiming the word ‘whores’, imbuing it with dignity.

In 1985, the International Committee for Prostitutes Rights, together with Mama Cash, organised the First International Whores Conference in Amsterdam. The conference concluded with a Hookers’ Ball in Krasnapolsky. The following year the Second International Whores Conference[foto’s] attracted a lot of media attention from the international press when it was organised by the European Green Party in one of the buildings of the European parliament in Brussels. As part of its support, Mama Cash covered travel expenses of black prostitutes from the United States and feminist allies from countries such as Thailand and the Philippines.

Sex workers are part of the women’s movement
At first, the ‘whores’ movement focused on human rights in the broader sense, but in the 1990s, they explicitly demanded that sex work be acknowledged as actual work, and they began organising for labor rights. The word ‘sex worker’ replaced the more activist ‘whore’.


COSWAS demonstration in 2004

Over the years, Mama Cash has supported numerous organisations for and by sex workers all over the world. Some examples of sex workers’ organisations supported by Mama Cash are: Asociación de Mujeres Meretrices de la República Argentina in Argentina, Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters (COSWAS), in Taiwan, Danayo So in Mali and Zi Teng in Hong Kong. A member of Zi Teng says: ‘Mama Cash’s support meant a lot to us, especially when we first started. Thanks to her support, many other funds were convinced of the importance of our endeavors to take sex workers out of their isolation. Also, Mama Cash introduced us with her partners. To Zi Teng it was important that the subsidy had been granted by a feminist women’s fund: ‘It showed our public that sex workers shouldn’t be excluded from the women’s movement, they are indeed part of it’.

Lin Chew

Lin Chew

Sex work versus trafficking
Mama Cash has always explicitly communicated and acted upon its point of view about sex work as well as the trafficking of women. ‘That was very courageous’, activist and former Board member Lin Chew says. ‘Women have the right to choose sex work, but also they have the right to be protected against forced labour and exploitation, both in the sex industry and other sectors. Their human rights are two sides of the same coin’. (watch interview)

In 1987, Mama Cash granted its first subsidy to fight the trafficking of women to the Dutch Foundation against Trafficking of Women (STV). Over the years, Mama Cash has supported numerous conferences on the trafficking of women. Mama Cash also financed the travel expenses of many participants to conferences, such as the gatherings organised by the Thai Global Alliance against Traffic in Women. In Europe, Mama Cash financed, among other organisations, La Strada International, a network of organisations in eight Central and Eastern European countries, as well as CoMensha in the Netherlands, an organisation that focuses on research and provides information on human trafficking.

The Red Umbrella Fund
The Red Umbrella Fund is a unique collaboration between sex workers and social justice funders. It has been housed at Mama Cash since its inception in 2012. The Red Umbrella Fund is a direct result of years of cooperation between sex workers activists, Mama Cash, the Sexual Health and Rights Project of the Open Society Institute (OSI-SHARP), other international donors and the worldwide network of sex workers, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP). The fund works to strengthen sex workers’ rights movements by catalysing new funding for their fight for self-determination, health and labour rights.

Nicky McIntyre, Executive Director of Mama Cash since 2008: ‘Creating this fund is an historical step. The Red Umbrella Fund is shifting the relationship between donors and sex workers. It is generating expertise and knowledge in the field of activism and fundraising for both parties involved. It is strengthening the sex workers’ movement on a scale we previously never could have imagined.’.



Nothing about us without us
The Red Umbrella Fund aims to raise new resources for sex worker rights movements by funding sex worker-led organisations and their national, regional and global networks. The fund embraces the motto of the international movement of sex workers: ‘Nothing about us without us’ and, therefore, sex workers comprise a majority in the fund’s governing bodies. Ana Luz Mamani Silva of the Asociación de Sexuales Trabajadoras Mujeres del Sur of Peru, and also a member of the International Steering Committee of the Red Umbrella Fund: ‘Why would we only be in the streets at night? Sex workers should be actively involved in the decisions that are made about them by parliaments, non-governmental organisations, and funds. They should participate in the discussions that involve decisions about themselves.’

  • A legacy of movement building

    A legacy of movement building

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    Women with Inherited Wealth

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  • Lesbian women

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    Sex workers

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    Learning and Accountability

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    Influencing Philantropy

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