Kemal Ördek: “1 in every 2 sex worker has experienced police violence. 50% of all perpetrators are police officers. [Apart from the police,] the perpetrator profile includes clients, organized crime groups, family members, neighbors, boyfriends, and so on. Access to justice is very limited, which points out to the need to execute legal support projects. Only 25% of sex workers who were targeted with physical violence appealed to the legal processes; only 10% of this 25% [i.e. 2.5% of all participants] believe that the perpetrators received the penalties they should have received. This is a horrible situation; access to the justice mechanisms is almost nonexistent.”
Source: Dilara Şenkaya, “Translara Hiçbir Yer Cennet Değil, Seks İşçilerine Her Yer Cehennem” (“No place is heaven for Trans people, hell is everywhere for sex workers”), Bianet, 4 July 2015, http://bianet.org/biamag/diger/165748-translara-hicbir-yer-cennet-degil-seks-iscilerine-her-yer-cehennem
Kemal Ördek has been the chair of the Board Of Directors at the Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association since 2013 and is a seasoned LGBTI rights activist. They tells that Red Umbrella was founded because, while everyone debated sex workers, sex workers themselves were excluded from these debates.
Both the founders and the Board Of Directors of Red Umbrella consist of sex workers, which conducts studies on challenges that men and women sex workers experience, their demands, and the violence directed at them. They bring together sex workers and organize trainings in various provinces of Turkey. They organize similar trainings for lawyers as well, informing them of the issues at hand.
Ördek reports that the projects that are born of home visits and interviews produced positive results and that awareness among the sex workers they were able reach out to has increased significantly. Ördek continues: “We also conduct studies jointly with universities; for instance, last year, sex work studies was a mandatory course at Ankara University Department of Law graduate program.”
Another primary objective of the Association is to change the sex work legislation.
We met with Kemal Ördek when they arrived at Istanbul for Pride Week and discussed sex workers’ rights struggle.
Ördek explains that, as long as it does not include violence, threat, or coercion, sex work needs to be legalized, which would additionally lead to a decrease in sexually transmitted infections since sex workers would be able to freely access healthcare without being discriminated against: “Everything starts at legal recognition and guarantees. The current atmosphere of dismissiveness needs to be addressed; dismissiveness also means precarity.”
“What were the results of the ‘Project for the Mapping of Violence against and Legal Support for Trans Sex Workers’?”
We collected data on the physical, sexual, psychological, and financial violence that sex workers experience. Additionally, we have identified various restrictions, obligations, barriers, and needs in terms of access to justice, towards the solution of which we have developed policy proposals. Violence was widespread in all regions. For instance, in terms of physical violence, the rate of sex workers who experienced one or more types of violence was 75%. The sexual violence rate was 55%; psychological rate, about 68%. These are excessive rates. What is more, these are only the reported cases; the real prevalence might be much higher.
1 in every 2 sex worker has experienced police violence. 50% of all perpetrators are police officers. [Apart from the police,] the perpetrator profile includes clients, organized crime groups, family members, neighbors, boyfriends, and so on. Access to justice is very limited, which points out to the need to execute legal support projects. Only 25% of sex workers who were targeted with physical violence appealed to the legal processes; only 10% of this 25% [i.e. 2.5% of all participants] believe that the perpetrators received the penalties they should have received. This is a horrible situation; access to the justice mechanisms is almost nonexistent.
In comparison with examples worldwide, what are the differences and deficiencies in terms of social visibility and laws?
There is no single example. There is a multiplicity of examples even within Europe. Serious problems are observed in Serbia as well as in Netherlands and England… In fact, violence is widespread worldwide, whether in the east or the west. And no place is a heaven for trans people either. Both observed and reported rates of violence as well as the visibility of the cases may be decreasing with increasing levels of education, however, this does not mean that violence is non-existent. Violence shifts to other areas, for instance the rate of financial violence increases. I had said that, in terms of sex work, no place is a heaven for trans people. Yet for sex workers, hell is everywhere. Worldwide, only New Zealand and Australia’s South Wales practices a legal model where sex work is decriminalized. It has either been criminalized or somehow punishable everywhere else in the world. That is why it is not productive to study countries comparatively; one needs to focus on each country separately.
What are the social and legal demands and expectations of sex workers in Turkey?
Sex work needs to be decriminalized. As long as they do not include violence, threat or coercion, all activities in this area need to be decriminalized. Arguments such as “mediators will exploit, some new criminal networks will emerge” are nothing but excuses. The current Turkish Criminal Code is of this nature and still is a total failure. To the contrary, it targets sex workers.
Our demand is the punishment of acts that involve keeping someone within this industry using coercion, threat, blackmail or violence because these already are rights violations. Anything beyond these are covered by individual consent. Prostitution [“fuhuş”] is perceived as a crime in and of itself. As the state legitimizes this perception by inscribing it as law [and policy], the perception of the society at large also falls in line. The state is obligated to reorganize the law in a way that will eradicate this perception from the public sphere and to produce social programs towards that objective.
How do the problems that men sex workers experience from those that women sex workers experience?
Because men sex workers are not visible, their problems remain invisible. As the problems remain invisible, the rights violations too become excluded from the public view. At that point, men sex workers cease to have opportunities to request justice. Because documentation and reporting are impossible, strategies for legal remedies cannot be developed. Apart from their existing invisibility, they also do not know how to become visible. They do not know that there exists non-governmental organizations that are attentive to them. As such, projects towards increasing men sex workers’ awareness towards the issue cannot be developed. This invisibility exists for women sex workers as well. Any visibility that comes to existence in this field stands on and develops through misinformation. Police reports, studies, the women whose names are mentioned, they are all dismissed and ignored in news production that pays no attention to sensitivities.
What are the projects planned by the Red Umbrella?
First, we have training programs that strengthen individuals’ capacity to access the justice system. Second, we have projects aimed at raising awareness among bosses and parliamentarians on the high-handed and illegal practices by the police and the governors that sex workers endure. Furthermore, sex workers rights-based physical improvement of brothels will be among our advocacy efforts.
We continue to work with the United Nations Population Fund on the fields of sexual and reproductive health. In addition, in September, we will be organizing a high level meeting at the UN that will gather together the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Turkish National Police, academics, representatives from non-governmental organizations. This meeting will be the venue to discuss the relationship between HIV/AIDS and sex work towards producing proposals. In December, we will be carrying out a project in Ankara where authorities from the Directorate of Public Health and chairs of the commission against prostitution [“fuhuşla mücadele komisyonu”] will be invited.
Lastly, would you like to share your comments about the police assault against the 13th Istanbul Pride Parade?
They did not allow our Pride Parade, the sole goal of which is to announce that we are not ashamed of being LGBTIs, that we are subjected to rights violations, and that we have certain demands for rights. Not only did they not allow that but they assaulted us horribly using TOMAs [armored water-cannons], plastic bullets, and tear gas. We were [physically] paralyzed during the intense attack. The police assaulted and mistreated many LGBTIs. I was personally insulted by the police. We had no guns, no bombs. Only our rainbow flags and our slogans for equality. Nevertheless, we witnessed a showcase of intolerance. What this implies is that the AKP [the ruling Justice and Development Party] is terribly afraid of our voice, which is becoming louder and louder with each passing day. The government is spooked by the increasing numbers of members of parliament, municipalities, celebrities, and various social classes who support us. They cited the month of Ramadan and talked about religion and ethics, but what they painted with their actions is a kind of worldview that is void of kindness, compassion, and understanding, which are the very principles of the religion they claim to practice. They disallowed our walk, which did not generate a single problem for 13 years, and violated those who disclaimed “this is our right.” The state terrorism had LGBTIs at its target this time around. I think a new era is beginning. In this era, I believe that LGBTI organizations will experience increased amounts of harsh [i.e. illegal/violent -Trans.] state practices. Precisely because of that, everyone ought to be side by side with LGBTIs.