Leave Your Potatoes at Home, Pt I

Why we did it

By Maya Ganesh, Beatrice Martini and Dirk Slater.

If you haven’t, please read the introduction to this series.

Tactical Tech’s initial goal was to learn how use of technology can impact and improve the advocacy efforts of marginalised communities.  In this section, we will define ‘marginalisation’, tell you more about the project and give you some background on WNU and Cambodia’s anti-trafficking law.

What do we mean by ‘marginalisation’

To understand what we mean by marginalisation, let’s start from a hard fact: in the eyes of the society we live in, our identities are the result of the combination of multiple categories we’re labeled with (classifying our gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion and more). Their intersections are what ranks us more or less highly, privilege-wise – possibly also ranking us so unfavourably that we find ourselves in a marginalised position. For example, two individuals with the same educational background and living in the same neighbourhood, will not be interacted with equally by society if their gender identity, race, religion (one, some or all of these) are different. Intersections matter, indeed.

Marginalisation is what happens when someone is separated – or actively excluded – from the rest of society. Marginalised individuals are often regarded as an underclass: society doesn’t provide them with equal access to basic material needs, work opportunities, education, welfare or health care. Violence and injustice experienced by marginalised communities are often invisible: their experiences and needs are ignored or forgotten by the public. When their stories are not recorded nor shared, and in absence of a framework designed to report and act on the infringement of their rights, systemic threats to their rights and safety remain unchallenged.

About the project

Using Technology to Document Violations: Enabling Sex-Worker Communities to Document

Violence Against Them in India and Cambodia was a project carried out by Tactical Tech in partnership with two sex worker collectives, Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) in Calcutta, India, Women’s Network for Unity (WNU) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and a Delhi-based research organisation, r e a c h Social Solutions (r e a c h), that studied the project from an evaluation perspective. The project was funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

Tactical Tech’s original proposal to IDRC was to improve the digital documentation techniques being employed by sex worker collectives in reporting on violence against them. An initial preparatory grant for this project (entitled Getting Sex Worker Voices Heard) explored options for enhancing sex worker advocacy through the use of technology. During this grant Tactical Tech explored a variety of options, including mapping and use of mobile devices, but the assessments revealed that neither organisation’s advocacy efforts would have been enhanced by the use of digital documentation technologies. Instead, efforts were needed to increase skills and techniques in handling information itself.

As Tactical Tech learned more about the organisations’ challenges related to their advocacy, their use of technology and the state of their existing documentation activities, and as a result of a process that was responsive and adaptive to the needs of the partner organisations, it became evident that the goals of the project needed to be re-evaluated. It was in this phase that IDRC demonstrated to be a greatly flexible and responsive funder: IDRC were fundamentally interested in the project to achieve a meaningful advocacy impact, and when Tactical Tech suggested that the project shouldn’t be technology led, they trusted their decision and kept supporting the project.

So, from an initial objective of enhancing the groups’ use of technology to document violence, the goal of the project shifted to strengthening their use of information in advocacy, and helping them refine their advocacy strategies on violence against sex-workers.

Over a two-and-a-half-year collaboration, the project achieved remarkable outcomes, such as the improvement of the partners’ human rights documentation processes; the contribution to the scholarship on violence against sex workers and advocacy for their human rights; a significant shift in the partners’ advocacy strategies from reactive to proactive methodologies, with the potential to have a beneficial impact on the lives and wellbeing of 70,000 sex workers.

About Women’s Network for Unity and Cambodia’s Anti-Trafficking Law

Women's Network for Unity Logo

Women’s Network for Unity

To provide a more detailed context to the project – and its consequent learnings – we’ll focus on the work done with one of the two partner organisations, the Cambodian Women’s Network for Unity (WNU). If interested in the work realised with the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), please read more about here.

The toughest challenges the Cambodian sex workers community faces are caused by the consequences of the country’s anti-trafficking law – which even before being passed had a highly contested and contentious development.

The law had been enacted by the Cambodian government under pressure from the United States, which during George W. Bush’s administration handled non humanitarian and non trade related aid contingently with a number of factors such as the recipient country’s record on trafficking and an ‘anti-prostitution pledge’. From 2003, Cambodia was being given low ratings on the US’ Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report – but the data informing such rating hadn’t been collected in the most accurate fashion. They had often been estimated on the basis of mostly anecdotal reports and frequently resulted from the conflation between sex work and trafficking – two very different things, inadequately connected on the basis of ideology and morality, rather than reality.

Not only the anti-trafficking law currently applied in Cambodia doesn’t distinguish correctly victims of trafficking by sex workers, but it criminalizes all individuals it targets indiscriminately, also exposing them to abuse of power by the police force. Advocates for sex workers in the country understand that in order to change the law, they need to change public perception, showing how the law fails to achieve its ends, as well as the harm that it does in society. This requires the careful selection of indicators that will be easy to gather, measurable, inexpensive, easy to understand, and easy to visualize.

Women’s Network for Unity is a grassroots representative collective of 6,000 sex workers in Phnom Penh and regional provinces outside the capital. The network seeks to promote the rights of sex workers to earn a living in a safe environment, free from exploitation and social stigma.

At the time of our project, WNU’s objective was to collect evidence to highlight the negative impact of the anti-trafficking law on sex-workers and to show how the police were misusing the powers this law gives them for detention and arrest.

First of all, WNU wanted to demonstrate that sex work is work. Differently from what the anti trafficking law assumed, not all sex workers have been trafficked against their will. In numerous cases, sex workers are individuals who, facing extreme financial constraints, decide to start working for the sex market, in order to maintain a basic living and support their own families. The sex trafficking myth deprives sex workers of agency and identity, and ultimately prevent them from being entitled to the rights granted to other categories of citizens and workers.

In addition to the issue around misrepresentation of sex work, WNU wanted to document the illicit abuse of power committed by the police force against the workers, and its consequences on the health and finances of both the arrested individuals and, consequently, their families. Furthermore, raids and arrests under the anti-trafficking law had forced sex workers to go underground, and it became extremely difficult to reach out to them with condoms, HIV prevention, care and treatment.

Specifically, WNU had decided to document police violence against sex workers during arrests and detention to show how the anti-trafficking law was being misused. Over the previous year WNU had already collected more than 800 detailed accounts of what happened during arrests and detention. However, upon close analysis, they realised that the information they were collecting were in fact more like case studies rather than investigations to build a serious evidence base to show how the law was being abused. For example, the anti-trafficking law states that someone detained under it cannot be held for more than a certain number of hours, after which they need to be moved through the social affairs ministry’s procedures and be released to an organisation that vouches for the sex worker’s ‘rehabilitation’. However, WNU had not documented when a sex worker was arrested and how much later she was released, so it wasn’t possible to show how long she had been in detention. In some cases arrested sex workers were being held without food and water, those who were HIV positive were denied access to their medication.Rescue Us From the Rescuers – Women’s Network for Unity (WNU).

Rescue Us From the Rescuers – Women’s Network for Unity

Our next post, what we did, provides details about the steps taken to implement the project: assessing WNU’s use of technology, learning about their advocacy strategies and building their capacity to use data and data visualisations in those strategies.  You can also jump to the final post, what we learned, presenting our most relevant learnings focusing on three core aspects of the project: stakeholders engagement, trust and capacity building; project design and choices about technology and processes; and responsible and strategic use of data about marginalised communities