You recently travelled to Bolivia. What was the purpose of your visit?

The purpose of this visit was to exchange expertise between Aidsfonds and ICCO Cooperation. The two organisations form an alliance to run the Stepping Up, Stepping Out Project (SUSO), which focuses on the economic empowerment of sex workers as a means to improve their health, safety, and well-being. During this visit we learned about economic programmes for vulnerable groups, a key area of expertise of ICCO, while we could inject our expertise from the sex work projects at Aidsfonds, on how to support sex worker leadership and ensure sex workers’ participation in programme design.

Can you tell us about a person you met during your trip who made a deep impression on you?

Sister Mathilda, a nun in Cachabamba in the North of Bolivia, truly inspired me. At age 55 she is the youngest of the congregation of Sisters Adorers. The way she works within the religious setting of the congregation with underage victims of human trafficking and children who are exploited – her infinite love, care, and support really struck me.

Even though from the church’s perspective sex work and promiscuity are condemned, on the ground, the sisters work pragmatically and respectfully also with adults who are active in sex work. Adult sex workers can attend vocational training at different centres across Bolivia, without being forced to stop working in the sex industry.

Over the past few years, the Sisters have started to work increasingly with the sex worker-led activist organisation ONAEM (Organización Nacional de Activistas por la Emancipación de la Mujer). In the beginning, this was rather difficult, not only because the Sisters were used to work with minors only, but also because ONAEM did not trust the Sisters to respect sex work as work, and suspected that the Sisters would only want to push sex workers to stop working in sex work. ICCO Cooperation was able to stimulate an increased cooperation, as it funded both ONAEM and the Sisters Adorers.

And now, you see an increased trust, from which both organisations greatly benefit. The Sisters have developed a deeper understanding of the dynamics within the sex industry, including the human rights aspects of sex workers. At the same time, the members of ONAEM have now increased access to vocational training, to either supplement or substitute their income from sex work.

When I think of Sister Mathilda, I see a strong woman, never in the forefront, and not really taking credit for the impressive results she has accomplished in her work. It takes great strength to work on heartbreaking issues such as human trafficking of young persons and exploitation of minors in the sex industry on a day-to-day-basis. Mathilda’s passion is also visible in her readiness to continuously revisit her approach and open up to new strategies, such as working together with ONAEM, from a pragmatic and respectful perspective.

How is the SUSO project related to sex work projects within Bridging the Gaps, which you are also implementing?

All projects are HIV prevention programmes, but each embraces a different – comprehensive – approach. While Bridging the Gaps has the connection between access to health care and human rights at the core of the programme, SUSO uses empowerment strategies. Of course we exchange knowledge and lessons learned between the programmes, mainly because our team members work on both programmes and draw on their personal expertise.

What will you take from your visit to Bolivia to the Bridging the Gaps programme?

Seeing the work of the Sisters Adorers and ONAEM, especially their newly developed cooperation, I realised once again that we, as donors and technical experts, are in an important position to inspire others to work together. We can facilitate exchange of knowledge and reduce prejudice between stakeholders by, for example, organising linking and learning events, and by encouraging partners to publicly report on their activities and findings.

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