Picture this: A procurer, under rougher circumstances also called “pimp”, opens his doors and welcomes the team of an NGO that spreads awareness on HIV and AIDS. Not just that, this NGO is also planning on cheering up the sex workers in order to facilitate their life.
Sounds interesting? Let me explain further.
Red Umbrella Athens is a non-governmental organisation that opened its facilities back in 2015 with the aim to “promote health, ensure the rights of sex workers, inform and raise awareness of the state and society as whole, but also the provision of empowerment services contributing to the inclusion of sex workers in Greece”. Under this motto, the Red Umbrella association has distributed more than 50 000 free condoms and 1250 safe injectable kits and provided services to more than 2000 people in 1400 individual sessions.
“The idea was to create a day centre for the girls working in the streets as sex workers. And what laid behind was to give those very vulnerable people some moments of happiness, decency. You know, it doesn’t always go for sure that everybody has a decent life. Especially those ladies live in horrible conditions.”, explains Amalía, head of the Thessaloniki Checkpoint office, also an organisation occupied with the consultation and support of marginalised groups in sexual health. Sadly, she summarises the situation perfectly.
Even though sex work is technically legal here in Greece, it is still difficult for many women to match the requirements. In order to work at a legal brothel you need to be registered, have a professional certificate and undergo medical exams every two weeks. Some sex workers cannot or are not willing to agree to these conditions, which is why they end up prostituting themselves on the street. Another group that is completely excluded from legal sex work are transgender people. Considering that they make out a large number of sex workers in Greece, it is quite shocking that transgender people are not allowed to work in official brothels. This is not only grave for their financial and safety situation, but also damaging for the general situation for LGBTQIA+ people in Greece. In addition, women who are married are also not allowed to legally work in an official brothel, a law that seems more than ridiculous in the year of 2022. The team of Red Umbrella tries to address all these injustices happening in the sex work field.
“What our partners in Athens had in mind was to create that centre to provide some free and safe space for the ladies to express themselves and to feel human.”, is how Amalía describes the goals of Red Umbrella. A dream that became reality in one of the most troubled neighbourhoods of Athens. But was this a solo case, or will we soon also have a safe harbour for sex workers in Thessaloniki?
The answer is yes, Red Umbrella Thessaloniki will welcome sex workers in their facility soon enough. “It took us so long here in Thessaloniki because of the weakness to find a proper place. We asked from the municipality, the mayor, to provide us with a safe place in this certain area.” This approach sounds quite reasonable: an NGO wants to provide help and support to a certain group inside the society, and is therefore supported by the government. But after all their efforts were of no result, the team of the future “Red Umbrella Thessaloniki” decided to go a somewhat unconventional path, without receiving support from the government.
“Now we have found a place which is within the studios and has been provided to us by the “pimps” of the studios, pro bono. What we have in mind to provide people with is testing and counselling, to the ladies working at the studios, to the ‘receptionists’ let’s say, and to the clients.”, Amalía tells with the excitement visible in her face. The pimps and the HIV-preventing volunteers: in a different context it could almost be comical. How this was possible, as crazy as it sounds, Amalía explains afterwards: “Consistency was one of our, let’s say, basic weapons. We were there for them [the sex workers]. And to gain trust, one has to prove that he deserves it, isn’t that so? And in my opinion, this is what we proved, that we do deserve their trust. Consistency after all, and honesty at the same time, can be very useful tools.”
With determination and patience the Checkpoint Thessaloniki built up a relationship with the procurers that was stable enough for them to provide Red Umbrella Thessaloniki with a studio.
“[In Athens we would] have different activities, beginning from testing, counseling, drinking coffee and tea or having refreshments, playing board games, drawing, handcrafts. You know, also, there was some kind of beauty salon: hair, make up, nails. And one more thing that was very popular was the bazaar.”, Amalía describes the activity centre of Red Umbrella Athens.
Strangely enough, this description could also fit a get-together of young mothers who are stressed by their daily life. The team of employees and volunteers tries to obtain a good and trustful relationship with the sex workers, so the women are not afraid of approaching the Red Umbrella team when needed. However, the fact stands that these ladies are in an unusual situation that requires an unusual treatment.
“All the girls there had a nickname, for example you could see sunshine, star, moon or sea. Girls were given such names and each of them had their own sticker, so that a certain, sort of medical record was kept. For example, if I was sunshine and I went to Red Umbrella Athens, I would say ‘Hello, I’m sunshine.’ and they would find my record there, everything was recorded. How many tests I had, how many condoms I took, if I had counseling and in general, what I did at the day centre.” A precaution that has its reasons, Amalía later explains: “The purpose [of the nicknames] was targeted especially to their own safety because those women didn’t work on their own. They had, let’s say, guards, the ones that we call the ‘pimps’. So for their own safety, they had their nickname. That way, I think, they felt safer.”
The team of Checkpoint Thessaloniki has reached a great achievement. But for now, not all challenges are tackled yet. As much as Red Umbrella would like to provide the sex workers with the same services as their partners in Athens, the restrictions of the municipality hinder their plans gravely.
“They have got certain restrictions as the service is concerned, no other women can go there for example. No other women than the ones who are sex workers or receptionists can go there. […] I know there is a legislation about that. If there is any control the time the studio is open and they will find other women, they will pay heavy fines. Because only two girls are legal to work in the studio, two different shifts. […] It’s illegal because this would be considered human trafficking, that they have plenty of ladies all engaged in sex workers. And this permit only allows you to have one girl per shift.”
A legislation made by the government that stops NGOs from helping the people in Greece, and therefore also its government. Due to these restrictions, Red Umbrella will for now only be able to provide testing and counseling, mostly without the entertainment services around it. The whole Red Umbrella team hopes that they will be able to find an agreement with the municipality in order to offer the women a place where they can rest, enjoy and get energised. Since the Red Umbrella office is only accessible for the legal sex workers of the brothels and not for illegal sex workers on the streets (due to the pimps’ rules), Red Umbrella Thessaloniki will again have to take a creative way:
“At the same time we will provide services by using the mobile unit.[…] So there will be, kind of a double intervention. And once we find the ‘super place’ we will embody all the services that have successfully been run in Athens.”
With the distribution of condoms and safe use kits on the streets on one hand, and the development of the Red Umbrella office in Thessaloniki and its potential day centre on the other hand, the Checkpoint Thessaloniki team has quite some busy months ahead of them. But even though Amalía is called the “green corridor” of this project, this achievement would have never been possible without the help of her co-workers:
“Special thanks to my beloved colleague Giorgos, because he has been a true partner, a true ally to all this venture.”
Years of work, devotion and patience have finally paid out: the Red Umbrella Thessaloniki office will soon welcome sex workers of every background in order to make both their job and their life a bit easier, and maybe some day even a bit more fun. Thank you Amalía, Giorgos, and the rest of the Checkpoint team for making this possible.