By Suzy Subways, with additional reporting by Darby Hickey
SEP. 2007 • Issue 6
When the Thai sex worker activist group EMPOWER traveled to Toronto for the International AIDS Conference last year, one of its most vocal representatives was a puppet named Kumjing. EMPOWER works with many women who come to Thailand from Burma for health care, a way to support their families back home, and freedom from Burma’s military regime. They also come from Burma illegally – which means they cannot attend international meetings as other activists do.
“Think about a poor Burmese travel[ing] from one country to another,” says Noi, an EMPOWER activist. “How would she be treated at the immigration authority? When Kumjing was invited to the Toronto AIDS conference in 2006, we took her like a human being, like an art masterpiece made by migrants… The puppet of human life is telling her story from home, in the journey and in the meeting room – on the panel discussion.”
EMPOWER Foundation was started by sex workers and activist allies in 1985 and produced Thailand’s first HIV educational materials. Now EMPOWER runs its own bar, “Can Do,” collectively owned and run by sex workers, with best-practice occupational health and safety standards, a sex worker-designed security system, condom distribution, and workers who are trained as safe sex counselors.
Three thousand sex workers have studied at EMPOWER University, which offers primary and high school qualifications, computer skills, and safer sex counseling skills, as well as training in leadership, media, research and public speaking. English classes are designed by sex workers who want to learn the language in a way that meets their needs – and helps them protect themselves from HIV. For example, a sex worker who can say to a customer, “I like wine but I don’t like whiskey” and “do you have a condom?” will have a better chance to stay in control and away from unsafe situations.
But EMPOWER cannot get HIV prevention funding from the U.S. government, because that would require the foundation to oppose prostitution. Powerful Christian Right groups such as the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America lobbied successfully to make sure that any U.S. international HIV prevention funding is bound by their own ideology that all prostitution is trafficking – forced labor – not an occupation or trade. So, as sex workers build their own institutions and become leaders in HIV prevention, they are still at risk for raids by police and even non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that seek to “rescue” them from prostitution.
Last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation granted $5 million to the International Justice Mission (IJM), a conservative Christian organization, to fight sex trafficking. IJM claims, “Only rescue from their illegal captivity will fully ensure that current victims are protected from HIV/AIDS.” But “rescue” often means arrests and deportation. “Rehabilitation” – such as counseling (often religious-based 12 step programs) and substance abuse programs – may be part of the program, but real empowerment and options are not. And telling women’s families and communities they are sex workers only adds stigma and discrimination to their problems.
“For those of us who come from Burma, deportation is especially frightening,” states a 2005 document from EMPOWER’s Chaing Mai branch. “It is bad enough that often as illegal migrants our work is exploited within the industry; if we are also ‘rescued’ things get a whole lot worse…. Many of us have never been forced to live as victims before our experience of the dreaded R&R…rescue and rehabilitation.”
Now, dozens of Kumjing puppets made by migrant women from EMPOWER have traveled around the world, and artists and activists have adopted them, in solidarity with demands for freedom of movement and from the discrimination that allows exploitation of migrant workers. “Kumjing is a very smart migrant girl from a foreign land,” Noi says. “She decided to take a journey for the better life…. Kumjing’s journey is still on – a hard and long struggle.”