MyChamp: Committed donor and Ambassador for sex workers’ rights

A person standing confidently in a green urban surrounding with hands in pockets.
Last updated on: 28 February 2024

Champions for sex workers’ rights are key in protecting human rights. To celebrate their work, we spoke with Elsbeth Akkerman – the Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Mozambique. She explains how the Dutch Embassy in Maputo provides long-term funding to enhance (young) sex workers’ well-being and rights.

My personal belief is that you need to be able to be who you are, become who you aspire to be, and love who you love. That’s my personal life’s motto. Luckily, I work for the Dutch government which holds these values high. As ambassador, I represent a country that fights against inequality and discrimination, searches for diversity as part of its foreign policy, and has inclusivity at its core. Whatever we do, we have an eye for vulnerable groups and sex workers are part and parcel of that group.

Empowering people and working for human rights is always a joint effort. If you want to make a difference, together you can.

Advocating for better access to health for groups in a vulnerable position

The Dutch Embassy and Embassy team implement an agenda that is oriented around developing the Mozambican economy, society and its population. We work on issues of food security and nutrition, water, health education, private-sector development, among others. The core groups we focus on include women, young people, the LGBTIQA+ community, sex workers and other vulnerable groups. Sex workers are particularly vulnerable to discrimination and stereotyping and violence very quickly becomes part of that equation.

Advocacy for better access to health is a big focus for the Netherlands and we have a Regional Programme (covering 10 SADC countries) aimed at improving Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights including the prevention of HIV/ AIDS. These programmes aim to create a legally enabling environment and ensure punitive laws against vulnerable groups like the LGBTIQA+ community and sex workers are addressed. They also support these groups to have agency, to have better access to services and to be empowered. We do that together with Aidsfonds and other partners.

We work together to provide mobile health clinics, health advice, and contraceptives. In border areas, for example, where there is a lot of sex work, our programmes inform sex workers about health risks, support them in the prevention of HIV, hand out condoms, and we talk to law enforcers. There are other interesting examples, for instance, of one-stop shops that exist for victims of gender-based violence where they can access health services, but they can also speak to the police and speak to a paralegal, at a later stage they also are provided with a lawyer for free. Without these programmes, sex workers would be less safe, less of a collective, less empowered, and less in contact with law enforcement. A few months ago, in Beira, there was a period in which there was a lot of violence towards sex workers. They were murdered and that is a horrible situation. But there, the law enforcement officers really teamed up with the community to ensure sex workers’ safety [going forward] and find the culprits and I think some people were arrested. This is an example of what happens when sex workers are given a voice, and the police are included [in interventions].

A multistakeholder effort to empower sex workers

Empowering people and working for human rights is always a joint effort. If you want to make a difference, together you can. It’s essential to work together and try to understand each other. Human rights are universal but the way they are embraced, implemented, experienced, and understood is not always the same. If we want to change things, that’s a multistakeholder endeavour. You need civil society, academia, and government to reach a consensus. Programmes like Hands Off help to empower sex workers [by facilitating] dialogues between people on the ground and people representing the system and the government. Sometimes those don’t take place naturally but programmes like Hands Off facilitate that and help to bring a fresh pair of eyes to the topic.

The protection of all workers by protecting human rights

There is not a country in the world where you will not find sex workers. They are part of our society. They are part of our families. They are our friends, and they need to be protected. Whether it is legal in a country or not, sex workers are human beings who provide these services. Human rights require the protection of all workers. It’s very easy to talk about protecting the rights of workers in an office or a factory but why should sex workers be excluded from that?

It is important to protect sex workers’ rights because if you do not recognise sex work as a profession and a group that is part of the world of work – and society – you risk that they do their work literally and figuratively in the dark. It would not allow them to be safe and secure. It would make them easy prey and easy victims to violence and violence incited by stigma. If you choose to do sex work, or when you feel you have to do sex work, let’s just ensure you can do it in a safe way and that you are respected as a human being and treated decently.

Hands Off programme

Hands Off, an Aidsfonds programme, works directly with sex worker-led groups, police, religious leaders, service providers and NGOs to reduce violence against sex workers in Southern Africa. This story story sheds light on one of the champions of change who work to break down societal barriers to sex workers’ rights. By sharing their stories, Hands Off aims to encourage everyone to stand up for the rights of sex workers. Because human rights are for all. We would like to thank North Star Alliance in Zimbabwe for its assistance in facilitating this interview.

The programme is funded by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Mozambique.


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