Unforgettable MC Khartini Slamah,
Malaysian transgender sex worker (APNSW)
There are further quotes and photos to come from the final days of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, but for now, I would just like to share with you the final moments of this unprecedented conference.
I would like to take this occasion to express my sincere gratitude to those who have supported my participation in Kolkata, both financially and – equally important – in spirit. I also like to thank the participants at the SWFF for sharing their views and experiences with everyone, and congratulate the organisers from the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects for the great success of all their hard work.
Kolkata Platform for Action
Please click here for the Kolkata Platform for Action, published on July 26, 2012, at the conclusion of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, the official hub of the International AIDS Conference 2012, that became necessary as the US government continues to prevent sex workers from entering the United States, thus barring them from attending the conference in Washington D.C.
One of the largest delegations visiting the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival in Kolkata is a group from the EMPOWER Foundation in Thailand. Over the course of the first days, their participation is among the most visible and inspiring. On Sunday evening, two of their members gave a performance at the ‘Red Light, Red Carpet’ party; on Monday, Empower’s Malee Vandresitan gave a presentation about the freedom of movement and to migrate; and in the Global Village, delegates and visitors can view Empower’s ‘Mida Tapestry’ that consists of embroidered panels depicting how women experience raid and rescue missions. Each panel is hand embroidered by migrant sex workers. It is an art work and a document that best speaks to and from the migrant sex worker community.
Mida Tapestry – An Art Work by Migrant Sex Workers
EMPOWER stands for “Education Means Protection Of Women Engaged in Recreation”. Empower, also known as Centre for Sex Workers’ Protection or Moolniti Songserm Okard Pooying (Thai: มูลนิธิส่งเสริมโอกาสผู้หญิง), is a Thai non-profit organisation that supports sex workers by offering free classes in language, health, law and pre-college education as well as individual counselling. The organisation also lobbies the government to extend regular labour protections to sex workers and to legalise prostitution.
EMPOWER was founded in 1985 by Chantawipa Apisuk who still serves as the organisation’s director, running the head office in Nonthaburi Province. The organisation maintains centers in Patpong (Bangkok), Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Sai and Patong Beach, Phuket. Unlike most Thai organisations operating in this field, EMPOWER takes a neutral stance towards sex work and does not pressure people to leave the trade. Partly because of this, EMPOWER receives little financial support from the Thai government; the bulk of the donations come from abroad.
Hit & Run 2012 Report by Empower
In 2012, EMPOWER published a report, “Hit and Run: The impact of anti-trafficking policy and practice on Sex Workers’ Human Rights in Thailand,” in which regional sex workers were surveyed over the course of 12 months in order to asses the state of the profession.
Please click here to download Empower’s 2012 report “Sex Worker’s Research on Anti trafficking in Thailand”.
“More women abused by anti-traffickers than exploited by traffickers”
The data collected prompted EMPOWER director Chantawipa Apisuk to say that “We have now reached a point in history where there are more women in the Thai sex industry being abused by anti-trafficking practices than there are women exploited by traffickers.”
Last Rescue in Siam – First ever film by sex workers in Thailand
To accompany the report, EMPOWER also released a short film called “Last Rescue in Siam” (สาวน้อยผจญภัย), the first film ever made by sex workers in Thailand. It is a short black and white film inspired by the tradition of old silent films. The film premiered on the 21st of February, 2012, at the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre.
Please click here to visit Empower’s website.
Information above taken from EMPOWER’s website, report and Wikipedia page.
All Photos by Matt Lemon Photography.
It’s been a long day and so I will merely post a few impressions from the first day of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival in Kolkata. John Mathenge’s passionate message to the US government was particularly powerful. (see below) Starting from tomorrow, there should be internet at the conference, so stay tuned for live tweets via @photogroffee.
“As we stand under one umbrella, we are one family.”
– Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, Indian transgender activist
“Speak for yourself! Speak for your country! Don’t let others speak on your behalf!”
– MC Khartini Slamah from Malaysia
“We are the people. We are the problem and we are the solution. No one can make decisions for us. They’ll never make decisions for us anymore. Sex work is work and sex workers’ rights are human rights. As Obama joined the government [he promised change]. Where is the change? Why are they still discriminating sex workers? They need to repeal the Anti-Prostitution Pledge for us to have freedom, freedom to work and right to health.”
– Message to the US government by John Mathenge, Kenyan sex worker activist
(Click here for the video)
“We like for the criminalisation (of sex work) to be lifted!”
– Irina Maslova, Silver Rose, Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network (SWAN)
“Networks work because people trust each other. The Sex Worker Freedom Festival is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get this many sex workers together. We need a mass movement and mass movements start from the ground up.”
– Andrew Hunter, NSWP President
“Because we are seen as victims by some feminist groups and by (prostitution) abolitionists, we need to stand up together and demand our rights!”
– Sex worker from Latin America
All photos by Matt Lemon Photography. To view these photos with their respective explanations, please view the photo album on Facebook. Please go to SWFF Impressions for further photos from the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival by the DMSC Media Team and others.
On the eve of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, I would like to share several messages. One is from KANG Hyun Joon, Director-General of the Han Teo National Union of Sex Workers in South Korea; the second is from a Korean sex worker who sadly cannot participate in the festival; and based on both of their statements I would also like to share a message of my own.
I am often asked what I wish to accomplish with my research project. Some people simply happen to know very little about the subject of sex workers’ rights, others might question my motives or morality, and yet again others might wonder why I am doing this research in South Korea. In the following, I will explain one of the factors that motivate me, and it’s the same that also renders my research considerably difficult at times.
Think globally (sometimes), act locally
I usually try to avoid making generalising statements about Koreans. Firstly, it is never wise to make general assumptions about a large group of people, and secondly, Korean society is in a state of constant and rapid changes, which I have been able to witness over the last ten years, four of which I have been living in South Korea.
If you visit Korea, it will be virtually impossible for you not to come across the words ‘international’ and ‘global’ on a regular basis. You will find them on banners and brochures of universities, research organisations, government agencies or private corporations who all use those words to give their dealings the semblance of being interconnected with like-minded partners in other parts of the world.
My experience tells me, however, that this global link is more often than not in name only, regardless of how genuine the intention to establish it may be. Korean activists, while very apt when organising protests within Korea, are no exception to this rule. 
Raising awareness about sex workers in Korea
Raising awareness about the situation of sex workers in South Korea is therefore one of the factors that continue to motivate me. I will not pretend that the lack of an international network doesn’t pose a significant challenge sometimes. But it makes me want to engage with Korean sex workers even more to encourage them – where necessary – to increase their network with sex work activists in other countries and to make their voices heard beyond the Asian realm. 
The evening before I boarded my flight to Kolkata, I met with KANG Hyun Joon, Director-General of the Han Teo National Union of Sex Workers, at a café in Seoul’s red-light district in Yeongdeungpo. Kang founded Han Teo in September 2002 and the organisation soon represented 20,000 brothel-based sex workers. Following the Special Law on Sex Trade of 2004 and increased government crackdowns on brothels, membership has since dropped to approx. 8,000, as an estimated 100,000 Korean sex workers opted to move abroad, the majority of them to Japan and the United States.
Message from Korean Sex Workers’ Union Han Teo to the SWFF
Towards the end of our talk, I asked KANG Hyun Joon if he would like me to pass on a message to the participants of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, seeing that on this occasion, Han Teo wouldn’t send a delegate to the conference. He replied the following.
“Since we don’t have frequent contact with people in the sex industry at the international level, I can’t say much about it, to be honest with you. However, if I were to talk about the situation in Korea, I’d like to say that I hope the day comes soon where sex workers in Korea work without shame and speak up with confidence in their own country.”
“그 쪽분들은 제가 접촉이 없기 때문에 뭐라고 말씀드리기 힘들지만 한국 사정으로 봤을 때 이 업에 종사한다고 해서 부끄러워하지 말고 떳떳하게 자기 국가에서 목소리 내면서 노동자로 인정받을 수 있는 날이 빨리 왔으면 좋겠습니다.”
Stop and listen!
While the immense stigma attached to sex work represent a problem for sex workers worldwide, the traditionally strict gender roles still alive in modern Korean society greatly exacerbate it. In a recent meeting with a sex worker in Seoul, we talked about the common rhetorical ploy by prostitution abolitionists to ask whether or not one would wish for one’s own children to become prostitutes. Her comment was that she would indeed try everything to prevent her child from working as a prostitute, but the reason she gave for that was not the nature of the work, but the stigmatisation that goes along with it, and that is causing her great distress and has her keep a distance from her parents to avoid having to lie to them about her work. 
Stigmatisation and discrimination have been the most commonly given answers I received when talking to Korean sex workers about difficulties they experience in their daily lives.
And so my message on the evening before the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival is directed to those readers unsure about the subject of sex workers’ rights.
To change laws and improve the rights of sex workers will take a lot of time and effort. But to open your mind, you only have to stop and listen, even if some of it might make you feel uncomfortable. I like to encourage you to stop believing the one-dimensional rhetoric of prostitution abolitionists and to listen instead to the experiences shared by those who know best, and those are sex workers themselves.
One of them is Maggie McNeill, a retired call girl, who writes about how she sees the world on her blog ‘The Honest Courtesan’.
“Those who wish to control others, to attack consensual actions with criminal laws, and to eliminate options which make them uncomfortable, believe that morality is set in stone; they think that right and wrong are as separate and distinct as black and white, and that they and only they have the direct proclamation from Godhead about which is which. Rational people, however, understand that morality is a process of weighing out various factors, comparing the relative right and wrong of each, in order to come to the most just, least harmful decision possible.” 
 The protests against the naval base on Jeju Island are a significant exception to the rule. The Korean government responded to the appearance of 2012 Nobel Peace Prize nominee Angie Zelter (UK) and Benjamin Monnet (France) on the scene by arresting the two non-violent peace activists. While they eventually deported without any formal judicial procedure, three US citizens, members of US Veterans for Peace, were outright forbidden to land in Korea, discouraging further interference from the outside. Case in point.
 To avoid any misunderstanding, I would like to clarify that I do not wish to imply that Korean sex workers aren’t capable of making themselves heard, as this video greatly illustrates. In the recent past, Korean sex workers have more frequently participated in meetings and conferences outside Korea. As KANG Hyun Joon’s quote illustrates, however, contacts to sex work activists are still very limited, especially when it comes to links outside East Asia.
 The interviewee consented to having her views published. The photo was taken from a twitter account of a Korean sex worker.
 A Different View by The Honest Courtesan
Collection of photos from the DMSC Media Team. Reposted with kind permission. Please visit this page again for further updates throughout the festival. To view these photos with their respective explanations, please view the photo album on Facebook. These photos are also published India Civil Society website. Further updates throughout the festival.
The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) is a collectivisation of 65,000 sex workers, which functions as an exclusive forum of female, male and transgender sex workers in West Bengal, India.
Pegged as the Freedom Festival, the central theme will be the “seven freedoms” that sex workers are entitled to including freedom of movement and to migrate, to access quality health services, to work and choose occupation, to associate and unionise, to be protected by the law; freedom from abuse and violence, from stigma and stigma and discrimination.
The sessions will begin in the morning and will run through till 10.30 at night to provide an overlap of 5 hours with the Washington conference sessions and Global Village activities. A video link has been arranged every evening starting 6.30pm between Kolkata and the Washington conference sessions and the Global Village activities.
The conference hub at Kolkata has been organised to hold a plenary and several small group sessions. In addition, arrangements have been made for a global village to facilitate informal exchanges between sex worker groups from India and other nations. Entry and participation for the community is free of cost. The Hub will act as a true space for community exchange, cultural performance and sharing.
National: 300 representatives from about 20 organizations from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Manipur, Nagaland, Gujarat, Rajasthan and West Bengal.
International: 120 representatives from 66 organizations from 47 countries of Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America, North America and Caribbean.
The morning sessions at the Hub, will involve technical presenters but will be dominated community presenters from India and other countries sharing their experiences, learning and discussing the way forward. The sessions will be on the topics that will feature later in the evening in the satellite links with the Washington conference. Sessions for Sex Workers Sessions on the Pre conference day (21 July) are sharing by male and transgender sex worker, sex workers living with HIV; which will then be followed by the live link with Washington which will feature sharing by male and transgender sex workers and sex workers living with HIV and AIDS. The morning session of the second day (22 July) has an interesting debate on Media’s response to the sex workers rights agenda. This will be followed by the opening ceremony and community cultural performances. The keynote address and plenary session will focus on the theme “Sex Workers Rights are Human Rights” and followed by a community discussion on the seven freedoms. This will be followed by a Sex worker Session in Washington which is a Call to Action, with Global Sex Workers recommending policy changes for better HIV prevention and treatment. Speakers from the Kolkata will also present and exchange their views through the satellite link. From 23 to 27 July each of the seven freedoms will feature as topics of presentation and community discussion at the Hub. These include
- Legal protection required for sex workers and promoting access to social protection schemes (23 July morning and satellite link with Washington session)
- Strengthening an enabling environment to protect sex workers
(24 July morning session only)
- Ensuring financial security and sex worker led responses to migration and trafficking
(25 July, morning and satellite link with Washington session)
- Seeking social justice and livelihoods
(26 July morning and satellite link with Washington session)
On 25th July an interesting discussions is scheduled on Rights, Governance and Accountability in the Sex Work movement (by AINSW and DMSC) which will be followed by the live webcast link to the Washington session on using the Universal Periodic Review mechanism of UN to ensure accountability for the rights of sex workers and LGBT communities.
Sessions for People Using Drugs
The program has three sessions for communities of drug users including messages from the Drug users hub in Kiev (23 July afternoon); Messages from Kolkata (24 July afternoon) and a plenary session presentation via satellite from Washington, Dynamics of the epidemic in context (26 July evening).
Sessions on the HIV Response
Sessions focused on the HIV epidemic, response and treatment include a symposium of sex workers interventions in NACP IV (24 July morning); treatment knowledge (24, 25, 26 July morning); HIV, STI testing and treatment (25 July early evening). The conference will be interspersed with cultural performances, rallies (24 July), an India evening (25th July).
The Global Village is a diverse and vibrant space where community gathers from all over the world to meet, share and learn from each other. It is a space for community to demonstrate the Rights based approach to health and development. It is also a space that invites conference participants to see how sex workers across the globe facilitated and headed the community actions and interventions. This would be first of its kind where DMSC, the largest sex workers collective will be the host of the Global village. The Global Village is a community-driven and community– focused space designed to promote dialogue, support networking, build solidarity, and promote inclusion in the global community. The Global Village facilitated the exchange of knowledge and information related to all facets of the human feelings, experience, expressions and response to HIV. The Global Village promotes networking between north and south, east and west and provides a space for displays, discussions and performances from throughout the world. The Global Village is open to conference delegates.
Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a community based organization of the sex workers of West Bengal, which for the last two decades has been running eleven HIV/AIDS targeted intervention program in 51 sex worker sites. Durbar run SHIP (Sonagachi HIV Intervention Programme) programme has been awarded as model project by World Health Organization. The Global Network of Sex Workers Project (NSWP) which was established as an informal alliance in 1990 by a group of sex worker rights activists working within sex work projects around the world. Over the years, NSWP has conducted activities in partnership with other organizations, and the principle of the participation of sex workers in policy and programme development has been accepted at many levels.
The conference will be held in Swabhumi, on the Eastern fringe of Kolkata and sessions will run parallel in four auditoriums.
Accommodation? Check! Flight? Check! Visa costs? Check!
A private donor has generously offered to cover the costs of my flights between Seoul and Kolkata to attend the Alternative International AIDS Conference, dubbed the Sex Worker Freedom Festival, in Kolkata. I was invited to stay with a colleague in Kolkata and the donations I have received thus far already cover my visa costs (approx. US$60) and part of my basic expenses.
To help complete my fundraiser and send me to India, please click on the DONATE NOW button!
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The Sex Worker Freedom Festival is an Official International AIDS Conference 2012 Hub. Supported by Open Society Foundation – Sexual Health and Rights Program, UNAIDS, Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UNFPA, HIVOS, AIDS Fonds and AIDS 2012 conference secretariat.