Tikkun Olam Belize is a non-governmental organization that advocates for sex workers, their freedom to engage in that choice of revenue earner and their human rights. Elisa Castellanos heads the organization; she spoke to Love News on how and why her movement towards sex work advocacy began and where they are today in their efforts.
“This organization is for sex workers by sex workers and it’s for the defense of the human rights of sex workers. The organization when I started back in 2006 we were really, I was working at another organization at the time and we realized that we were doing HIV prevention with sex workers and I realized then as an advocate that we needed more information. Sex workers needed more to know, someone in order to change a behavior from going to not using condoms to using condoms is not an overnight step and sometimes the factors that affect somebody’s ability to use condoms but there are other issues that affect that person such as self-esteem, access to that condom when they go to the clinic are they discriminated again, is it easy for someone to walk into the clinic and get tested being a sex worker so in Orange Walk we came together with a group of sex workers and decided that we needed to organize ourselves and start moving towards a solution. So we applied and received NGO status and incorporation, in 2011 we became a legally registered and incorporated organization and we worked in Orange Walk primarily with migrant women sex workers from neighboring countries. We also are an anti-trafficking organization which means that we do referral and we work closely with the relative entities and departments to be able to promote information about anti trafficking measures that are happening or where victims can go for help if we come across any victims.”
Castellanos went on to speak on what sex work entails; who is a sex worker and the empowerment it brings to a woman.
“We don’t want to be defined by what we do but who we are as human beings, who we are as people and really and truly a sex worker is a woman who exchanges sexual services for payment and that can be, it ranges anywhere from escorting to full-fledged intercourse. We like to say that a lot of times culturally people say “sell bodies” it’s not, we don’t sell our bodies, we sell an experience into someone’s sexuality and we are paid for that service and it’s not everybody who is cut out to do that and I’m not saying that every woman should be a sex worker. I find that sex work can be extremely empowering on a personal level and it can really teach you about negotiation, negotiating very directly what you want knowing your value, adhering to that value and providing and excellent service and being able to provide for yourself and further your career or to further your education or that of your children, your family, your members whomever is a dependent on you as a sex worker. So really we want to move away from sexualizing sex workers or forcing on the activities but really letting our humanity define us rather than our jobs.”
Tikkun Olam is in the process of moving into their very first office location on Victoria Street in Belize City. Their ability to carry their outreach programs and to have a base comes through funding from REDTRASEX, a network of women sex workers of Latin America and the Caribbean. Castellanos spoke of their relations with the Costa Rica based organization.
“We just recently received funding when we joined a regional network in Latin America and the Caribbean called RedTraSex and now this network basically has provided us with funding to be able to establish ourselves here in the city, so we have an office, we have basic commodities paid for example our rent, internet we are of course still a small NGO, a very small staff of four people who really do work across the country. With this RedTraSex funding which is basically funding from the global fund and it’s part of a regional project being implemented in Latin America and the Caribbean we have been able to secure this grant to be able to work now not only in Orange Walk but to also expand and so as a small NGO we had already started working down south with Maya sex workers, Garifuna sex workers and now in the city we are reaching to Belizean women who engage in sex work. We are passed the time to say that it doesn’t happen, we can’t deny it anymore, it’s here and I think our concern now should be not to go out and “save” women but to go out and help women who have decided that sex work is the work that they want to do, it’s viable to them, it’s beneficial to them. Now what we have to do is ensure that these women are safe. So one of the objectives for Tikun Olam Belize of course educating women, going out into the community and speaking with women who engage in sex work whether it be you engage in sex work at a nightclub, in a bar or whether it be you engaging in sex work from home. We want to reach out to women, educate them, increase their legal literacy and then in an eventual future we want to look at legislative change and how we as a community based organization can affect those changes for the greater benefit of all and if there is law to be drafted we would like to be part of that process because you cannot draft legislation that will affect a certain population without the input, insight, experience and consideration for that population and in this case it’s female sex workers.”
REDTRASEX is made up of organizations of female sex workers and / or former sex workers out of fifteen countries including Belize, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua. In our Evening News, we will have a detailed report on sex work in Belize.