Red Umbrella Fund (RUF) provides funding to sex worker-led organisations and networks around the world. Since its launch in 2012, it has increased its grantmaking budget by over 50 percent, propelled advocacy forward and contributed to a genuine shift in the understanding of sex workers’ rights among funders. Its ambition to fuel a strong, diverse and collaborative sex workers’ rights movement is taking shape and it is changing the lives of individuals and communities everywhere. 

Sex work is an ancient trade, which often attracts ancient attitudes. Some see it as morally wrong, others conflate it with human trafficking. In many countries, sex work is criminalised, and the societal and political pressure to keep it that way has left workers unprotected. Criminalisation has failed to achieve its stated goal of eradicating sex work; in fact, it has put more people at risk by pushing it underground and leaving sex workers open to abuse, violence and disease. 

Red Umbrella Fund was established in 2012 to respond to the lack of funding available for sex workers’ rights organising. This came about after a dialogue spanning several years between donors and sex workers’ rights activists. Until then, the funding situation was dire, with a 2006 report indicating that the five most active foundations supporting sex workers’ organisations gave less than 1 million USD the previous year. For years, sex workers’ rights activists had been trying to explain that what donors thought of as the priority for sex workers was not in line with their actual needs. 

“If you’re genuinely interested in supporting our rights, you should set up a fund where we set the priorities ourselves,” said Ruth Morgan Thomas, of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP). And with that, the fund began to take shape: it would be a fund that would be led by sex workers themselves, make decisions via participatory processes and provide support to sex worker-led organisations only. At the 2012 AWID Forum in Istanbul, Red Umbrella Fund went public and a secretariat was set up at Mama Cash. Over one thousand applications were received for just the first call, highlighting the immense need for funding among sex workers’ organisations. 

In ten years, Red Umbrella Fund made 279 unrestricted grants to 180 sex worker-led organisations in 68 countries. In 2022, 1.3 Million Euros were committed in grants for successful applicants to the annual call for applications, the first time that more than a million Euros was committed in a year. The fund received 226 applications and continued to distribute over 70% of its annual budget in core flexible grants to sex worker-led organisations around the world. Many of these organisations were new and unregistered. But with financial support and accompaniment, they were able to join other sex worker’s rights activists all over the world in building stronger organisations and alliances. RUF’s support has brought about changes big and small: communities have seen reduced violence and pushed through better laws.

In a sign of its increased recognition and influence in the field of philanthropy, RUF gained a seat on the Accountability Circle of the Participatory Grantmakers Community of Practice, a global collective of individuals and organisations working to improve participatory grantmaking. RUF was also granted a permanent seat on the Steering Committee of the Sex Work Donor Collaborative, a network of funders that have come together to increase the amount and quality of funding to support sex workers’ rights.

From the start, the CMI! consortium recognised the importance of including sex workers as a key constituency. Its commitment has been demonstrated through advocacy, knowledge production and alliance building. With the strategic leadership of RUF on sex workers’ rights, CMI! has been able to provide capacity-strengthening support, provide long-term core and emergency security grants to sex workers’ rights organisations, and show up in solidarity action and advocacy support. Additionally, CMI! has supported sex workers’ rights organisations in building relationships with donors and promoted their visibility by co-organising events with the Dutch government featuring sex workers as key panellists – notably at the Commission on the Status of Women. 

Today the global sex workers’ rights movement is more diverse and more connected than ever before. RUF’s efforts have helped other social justice funders gain a deeper understanding of sex workers’ rights and this has translated into funding to more organisations. “We changed our position when we heard sex workers speak powerfully on behalf of the Red Umbrella Fund at funder meetings”, one funder said. However, funding for sex workers’ rights remains desperately low. If you want to contribute to Red Umbrella Fund’s work, do not hesitate to contact them. You can also learn more through the Fund’s website and social media platforms!

Photo credit: All photos are taken from the Red Umbrella Fund website.

This is one of the seven stories we have published as CMI! Stories of Change 2022 under the #FundWhatWorks campaign. The stories aim to portray how activists and organisations around the world are working to advance gender justice.

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