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Nawara Women’s Network for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) aims to provide women in all our diversity the means to report violence and seek help, and has received funding from APC’s small grants programme to develop a trilingual tool to collect data on gender-based violence (GBV), particularly against sex workers, in the MENA region. 

One in three women in the MENA region experiences violence in her lifetime, intimate-partner violence and victimisation by other perpetrators. Sex workers everywhere, including in MENA, face significant risks, particularly GBV, where these risks are compounded by gender inequality and harmful gender norms. All this is reflected in the prevailing legal environment, with laws and policies that only deepen gender inequalities and exacerbate women’s vulnerability to different forms of violence. This is especially the case for those who engage in prostitution, which is criminalised in many places. 

Sex workers are typically motivated by the need to earn income. During economic lean times, such as recession, sex workers, like others, may experience declining income, and research already shows that limited income may cause ripple effects. For example, available literature demonstrates that lower incomes can lead to sex workers accepting riskier interactions, and this may render them vulnerable to violence. Sex workers have more frequent interactions with the police, including arrest; this may in turn lead to increased risk of violence, stigma and arrest.

For all these reasons, in 2022, Nawara members strongly supported the creation of a tool to collect information about violence against sex workers to use in the MENA region. Report VASW is a website, not an app, so nothing needs to be downloaded; it is not be stored on a person’s phone or other devices. Sharing information via a website was chosen because using a website is safer than an app for people whose phones may be surveilled, and is harder to find than an app. It works like a form, and asks whether the violence was online (e.g. sharing personal information) or in real life (e.g. physical violence), what happened, where, and whether the survivor would like to be contacted by Nawara. Melissa Ditmore worked with informatics specialist Jose Florez-Arango of Weill Cornell Medical School in New York City to make the site very easy to use. 

The English-language prototype data collection tool Report VASW was translated into Arabic and French, the three languages most commonly used in the MENA region. The Arabic translation was provided by Tahani Abbas, a human rights attorney from Sudan, and the French was provided by Nawara coordinator Amal ElKarouaoui. Nawara members expressed the desire to have a single trilingual version with all three languages presented together, so this version was made in 2023. The language was fine-tuned with the Nawara secretariat in April 2024. 

Nawara received funding from APC to beta test Report VASW. Ditmore and ElKarouaoui worked with sex workers from across Morocco to evaluate its ease of use, and offer input on how to improve the user interface, what questions to ask, and how to phrase them. We asked sex workers in Morocco to try to answer the questions with information taken from a real-life situation. They offered great suggestions for adapting the language, like changing “Have you been victimised because of your sex work activity? Are you reporting for someone else?” to “Have you or your friend been victimised because of your sex work activity?” They also found a bug in the screening process, which was fixed right away. Other input included adding questions about whether survivors of violence have reported their ordeal to the police or sought medical care, and if not, why not. All the input shared by potential end-users was used to improve Report VASW. 

People who completed the test described their plans to share the information collected with others, and one tester said, “If we had this five years ago, we could have prevented a lot of violence.” Beta testers said that sharing a list of service providers through Report VASW would be valuable to them. No such directory exists for survivors of GBV at this time, and there are no dedicated resources for sex workers who have been victimised. Another suggested having dedicated personnel who could respond to reports, working like a hotline.

Now that we have completed this first test with sex workers from across Morocco, and once we make the adjustments recommended by our end users, it will soon be time to go live for the pilot study! The pilot will show us whether people use Report VASW and how they feel about it. And, because sex workers are not the only people affected by GBV, Nawara is considering how to adapt the tool for broader use. Nawara will test again with sex workers in other parts of the region. It is exploring ways to expand the scope of Report VASW across MENA and is looking for funding opportunities to support a response team.  


About Nawara Women’s Network for the Middle East and North Africa: Amal ElKarouaoui, working with a group of women-led NGOs, networks and individual activists, established Nawara Women’s Network to address the underlying structural barriers and factors that undermine women’s rights in the MENA region. To this effect, Nawara works on monitoring, analysing and disseminating information on women’s status and gender (in)equality in the MENA region; providing technical assistance and capacity-development for women’s groups and NGOs at national and regional levels to eliminate discrimination and address gender inequality; and providing advisory services in mainstreaming gender-based perspective into wider developmental and health related interventions in the Arab States. 

Amal ElKarouaoui is the founder and coordinator of Nawara Women’s Network for the Middle East and North Africa. She has 20 years of experience in public health. 

Melissa Ditmore, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher based in New York City. Her most recent book is Unbroken Chains: The Hidden Role of Human Trafficking in the American Economy. Report VASW was her project for her master’s degree in Population Health Informatics from the City University of New York School of Public Health and Health Policy. Please suggest a better name for Report VASW by tweeting her @melissaditmore