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Transformative Methodologies | A reflection on collaborative writing across sex worker organisations and academia

We – members of Empower Foundation – a sex workers’ rights organisation in Thailand – and two scholar-activists from International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam (ISS) in the Netherlands, reflected on our experience of collaboration in light of our search for social transformation.

About us and what brought us together

Empower Foundation is a leading organisation in the defense of sex workers’ rights, and is located in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It has almost 40 years experience of working with creative and transformative methodologies – doing community-based research which then feeds into policy proposals, that are brought to the attention of governmental and international organisations, such as International Labour Organisation (ILO). It models best labor practices in their own ‘Can Do Bar’. Empower is the space for sex workers to exchange experiences, organise and create ways, often using art and culture, to inform and influence society on many issues, including the harms caused by anti-trafficking policy and practices.

What brought us together initially was the interest in bringing insights from labor studies – Karin’s area of research – on the one hand, and gender and sexuality studies – Silke’s field of expertise – on the other, in conversation with each other, in order to explore how that could contribute to proposals for structurally improving labor conditions of sex workers. Our first paper was on analysing ILO discussions around decent work, and how sex work and sex workers have been systematically excluded from conversations around the decent work agenda. It was in this context that in 2014 Silke and Karin contacted members of Empower Foundation that Silke had met the year before at an event co-organised with Mama Cash at ISS.

Trying to make a difference in the way we collaborate

While Silke and Karin had an initial idea about the paper, there was explicit room for adapting the focus, approach, and language. Neither of the three partners had experience in this kind of joint project, so we had an open conversation about the ways in which we wanted to collaborate from the beginning, thereby establishing some common guiding principles – that we would explore how to go about it along the way, keeping in mind that the contribution of the expertise and perspectives of Empower was crucial to the paper, both in terms of the kind of knowledge that we wanted to produce, as well as in terms of the social impact that we were seeking, namely, to improve sex workers’ labor conditions. We also agreed that Empower’s involvement could be more or less, depending on their availability, while our shared preference would be to have the collective as co-author.

This conversation was particularly important given the previous negative experience of working with academics. Liz Hilton from Empower Foundation summarised: “We’ve had one or two earlier experiences with people who wanted to collaborate and that was really terrible. The whole premise of collaboration was theft, of stealing our work.” Liz mentioned the importance of being aware of the differences in our language – “…not just the difference between Thai and English, but also the difference between sex worker language and academic language. We don’t see this as an obstacle, but it will be an adventure!”. The problem with academic jargon, as Empower also explained in a preparatory note for a meeting of sex workers organisations at ISS that took place at a later stage, is not that sex workers are not able to understand it, but that it does not reflect their experiences or realities properly, and it often operates with implicit assumptions that are problematic.

One common assumption in both academia and policy for instance is the conflation between sex work and trafficking that occurs when using the term “sexual exploitation”, to refer to what in any other economic sector would be called either “forced labor” or “labor exploitation”. Moreover, even within academic language, there were many different ways of talking about sex work with important political implications. Empower has published a dictionary that provides many examples of such – often problematic – assumptions and disconnects that occur. So, one of the first things that Silke and Karin asked was: how does (or doesn´t) the language that we use speak to members of Empower Foundation? In which ways do they think we should change it?

We also talked about timelines, and the need to adapt those to the realities of the different parties involved. For Empower, this compared positively with earlier collaborations with academics: “Other people that we were collaborating with didn’t want to give us the time to properly translate, think, come back to it, put forward what we can do, will do, and what we think. They were very rushed. Everybody has deadlines, we know that, but their rush was quite rude. They were continuously trying to fit us into what they already decided.”

Final reflections

We co-authored the paper that came out two years later. Empower Foundation made a tremendous contribution to the paper by critically analysing the language used, and by bringing in the findings of the community-based research that Empower was conducting independently –  both through previous research on the adverse impact of anti-trafficking measures, published under the title “Hit and Run”, and the study on “Moving Toward Decent Sex Work”. This contributed towards a very nuanced and very tangible understanding of what decent work and labor exploitation means for sex workers in Thailand, by looking at these not as a binary, but as a continuum and as multidimensional.

Finally, and most importantly, in this process we developed a relationship of trust, friendship, and deep appreciation that became the basis for our further collaboration.

Now, has this collaboration lessened the precarity and contributed to more decent working conditions experienced by sex workers, as our chapter’s title suggests? Probably not. Yet, in a context in which sex workers’ knowledge about their lives and work is continuously devalued and ignored, we like to believe that a respectful collaboration that challenges these hierarchies of knowledge, and augments sex workers’ own voices can make a small, yet, meaningful contribution to a changed discourse on sex work – and ultimately to more respect and rights for them.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Sex Worker Networking Zone at the International AIDS Conference 2018, Amsterdam.” by junomac is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Empower Foundation is a Thai sex worker organization promoting opportunities and rights for sex workers for more than 30 years







Silke Heumann is a Sociologist and Assistant Professor (Senior Lecturer) in the Major Social Justice Perspectives (SJP). Her areas of expertise and interest are Gender and Sexuality Studies, Social Movements, Latin American Politics, Discourse Analysis and Social Theory.





Karin Astrid Siegmann is Associate Professor in Labour and Gender Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).

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Seeds of resistance: Palestinian farmers fight against annexation and pandemic

The violent Israeli encroachment and annexation of Palestinian land is compromising the future of the West Bank and putting its residents in an extremely vulnerable position. Palestinians are resisting both annexation and the Covid-19 pandemic by returning to their land and cultivating it, with the support of social justice movements. A concrete example of their contribution to Palestine’s rich agrarian heritage is a seed bank, whose hardy indigenous seeds are feeding people in the short term and protecting the climate and defending territory for generations to come.

Olives in the hand of an old woman
Image Credit: Salena Tramel

It has not been an easy year for Palestinians, if there ever was such a thing. With the turn of a new decade in January, the U.S. administration unveiled the paradoxically branded calling for Israel to unilaterally annex about a third of the West Bank. Then the coronavirus slipped through the checkpoints into Bethlehem in March, sending millions of Palestinians into lockdown. And in April, Israel formed a unity government with an eye on the immediate annexation of the Jordan Valley in direct violation of international law.

The land grab is set to be pushed through this month, and many Palestinians worry that it could go largely unnoticed as the world’s attention is focused squarely on defeating the Covid-19 pandemic and curbing its economic fallout.

Palestine is often presented as an anomaly in global politics. Apologists of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories have been able to effectively present a narrative of exceptionalism by emphasising the relatively small size of this hotly contested corner of the Mediterranean, insisting that there are irreconcilable religious divisions. The fight against Covid-19 points to similar dynamics as the Israeli government has received lavish praise for its response to the pandemic within its own borders while letting it spill over into the occupied territories essentially unchecked.

In the context of crisis that has recently been compounded by the looming annexation plan and the health threats presented by the pandemic, social justice movements in the agricultural sector have elevated their struggles to new levels. Key among these endeavours are the protection of natural resources such as land, water, and seeds, as well as the ongoing struggle for the recognition of multiple forms of Palestinian sovereignty.

“Our response to the coronavirus pandemic has been to urge our people to go back to their lands and cultivate,” said Amal Abbas* of the Union of Agricultural Works Committees (UAWC), a small-scale food producers’ movement representing some 20,000 peasant farmers and fishers in the West Bank and Gaza. This Palestinian version of sheltering in place mirrors UAWC’s broader strategy of resisting occupation and annexation, work that it has been doing since 1986.

Settler colonialism, the invasive process that seeks to replace an indigenous population with an external one, has its own Kafkaesque set of rules upholding it in the Israeli legal system. An important example of this is a law that stipulates that if land is not worked for three years, it automatically becomes [Israeli] state land. The Israeli military has gone to great lengths to fold as much “idle” Palestinian land as possible into the architecture of the state. This law is used in part to justify the establishment and expansion of illegal Israeli settlements by means of violent evictions, home demolitions, the confiscation of cultivated agricultural land, and the separation wall.

Palestinian human rights defenders are working to flip this narrative and the overarching political project it sustains on its head. Farmers and rural workers in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip—just like anywhere else—have been longstanding agents of social change, and for this reason are among the most targeted sectors of Palestinian society.

This slow form of violent encroachment, together with the fast-tracked one of annexation that is on the Israeli parliamentary table with strong U.S. support, puts the future of the West Bank and its residents in an extremely vulnerable position. “The Israeli military has been taking advantage of our current emergency situation and accelerating its actions,” offered Amal.

Some of the most egregious actions taken by Israeli authorities in the current context of pandemic have occurred in the Jordan Valley, which is precisely the area they seek to annex. This area already falls under the classification of Area C, meaning that it is part of the more than 60% of the West Bank that is under full Israeli civilian and military control. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Area C is rich in natural resources such as underground water and fertile growing land. Not only is the Jordan Valley the unequivocal agricultural jewel of Area C, but it is also a strategic border with Jordan and a gateway to the Arab countries of the greater Levant.

Public services are in short supply for the Jordan Valley’s majority Bedouin population. That is why movements of farmers and workers like UAWC are filling that gap, providing basic services like water, sanitation, education, seeds, food, and nutrition. Even these services face relentless and aggressive opposition. For instance in late March, the Israeli military destroyed an emergency coronavirus field clinic that Palestinians were in the process of erecting in the northern Jordan Valley.

Despite these threats, UAWC and other Palestinian grassroots organisations visit elderly people and pregnant women in mobile clinics, distribute educational and protective supplies, and construct rooftop and urban gardens across diverse communities. This coronavirus crisis response work has largely been successful because it is a reflection of the kind of work Palestinian social movements continually engage in throughout the ongoing crises that occur under military occupation.

“Some of the best work that we are doing to fight off the virus and resist the annexation is through our seed bank,” said Amal. UAWC has maintained a seed bank since 2003; in it they safeguard rare heirloom Palestinian seeds that have been carefully passed down from one generation to the next. These seeds and the food sources they produce have a multiplicity of purposes. “Not only do our indigenous seeds make it easier to return to our land and protect it through cultivation,” Amal explained, “they hardly use any water and shield us from climate change.” She added: “And with so many still locked down because of Covid-19, continuous access to seeds allows people to feed their families and neighbours when it is unsafe to access food via the marketplace.”

UAWC insists on the importance of internationalism and solidarity in normalising the plight of the Palestinian small-scale food producers it represents. It is a member of the international peasant movement La Vía Campesina, which has taken a strong stand against colonialism and corporate control of agriculture and is active in 81 countries. Maintaining that important political relationship has allowed Palestinian activists the opportunity to host learning exchanges in their territories and also participate in those that take place abroad.

“Together with La Vía Campesina, we are using this opportunity to prove to the whole world that the global health care and food systems are not working and put forth our solution of agroecology as an alternative to the neoliberal model,” Amal explained.

Our contributions to the food sovereignty movement as Palestinians can help people understand that the occupation is about control over natural resources just like most other land grabs – Amal

Certainly, the militarised Israeli conquest of Palestinian territory has its own history, but it is also indicative of settler colonial processes that have taken place elsewhere, such as in the Americas, Australia, and South Africa. As this next phase of annexation plays out in the West Bank, against the distracting backdrop of the pandemic, these connections are critical. Far from an anomaly of the global politics of natural resources, Palestine has encapsulated them in a microcosm.

* Name has been changed to maintain confidentiality

This article was originally published on Open Democracy and has been reposted with permission of the author.

About the author:

Salena TramelSalena Fay Tramel is a journalist and PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, where her work is centered on the intersections of resource grabs, climate change mitigation, and the intertwining of (trans)national agrarian/social justice movements.