Interview: Data collection advances advocacy for sex worker rights

Julia is looking at the camera. She is wearing a black leather jacket.
Last updated on: 26 February 2024

‘Documenting human rights violations is a powerful tool used to inform strategy and to also be heard by authorities’, says Julia Vilanculos of the National Platform for Sex Workers’ Rights in Mozambique. We spoke with her about the importance of community-led monitoring, how collecting data advanced in the past years and what personally motivates her to be involved in the project: ‘I don’t want my sisters and colleagues to experience the same’.

Why is documenting evidence so important in protecting sex workers’ rights?

If we have numbers and figures, it’s hard for the government to argue against us or dismiss our experiences. So, data collection is an important tool to measure the level of violence that sex workers are experiencing. It helps in creating strategies to reduce this violence. The government knows about violations against sex workers, but we still have to fight for our rights to be protected and defended. With hard data we can inform government and policy makers confidently about the experiences of sex workers.

Data collection can also help to build trust and understanding with key partners – like the police and civil society organisations – and allows sex worker rights organisations to grow evidence to be able to present to platforms like parliament.

Evidence of human rights violations includes, amongst many other examples, the murder of 14 alleged sex workers in Mozambique over October and November. These murders drew particular attention because nothing was taken from the workers, they were just assasinated.

How has data collection of sex workers’ rights violations changed over the years?

We used to collect data using pen and paper, and different people kept it in different locations. Those pieces of paper would sometimes get lost. But now, data collectors use digital tools and we store data on a secure online platform. So there is just one place where all the data is kept, which we can use to track various cases and work with the survivors of violence on their progress.

Apart from digitalisation, collecting data has been made easier by all the organising that sex worker rights organisations have done in recent years because this has built trust in the community. Sex workers trust us, they are empowered to share their experiences with us. It’s also easier now to access wider, more rural areas where sex workers are because our network has grown. We have several more organisations in places outside of Maputo who are supporting sex workers.

What is your personal motivation to take part in this data collection project?

Collecting data about human rights violations against sex workers is important to me. I have experienced different kinds of violence myself and I don’t want to see my sisters and colleagues experience the same. I’m much motivated by seeing how sex workers now have the information and tools to support each other first to take action before reaching out to civil society organisations. I can see they are more empowered now.

Of course, if we had started collecting data five years ago, sex workers would have been in a better place. But overall, I’m proud of the data collection, we are using it to advocate for sex worker rights and decriminalisation of sex work.

I have been a sex worker and an activist for a long time, and I have so much more information now about the industry and my rights. This supports me in continuing my career. I want a better world. I want my colleagues to have access to information, different materials, so they can better defend themselves. This gives me strength.

Julia Vilanculos works as coordinator for female sex workers at the National Platform for Sex Workers’ Rights in Mozambique. Establishment of the platform and capacity development for growth was supported by key partner Pathfinder. The data collection of human rights violations against sex workers is being done under the Aidsfonds Hands Off programme, that works with sex workers, police, religious groups, healthcare workers, policy makers and various stakeholders in law enforcement to successfully end violence against sex workers.

We spoke with Julia at the official launch of the 2022 Report on Human Rights Violations against Sex Workers in Southern Africa on 9 December where Julia presented findings from the latest data collection.