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Sex Workers Breaking New Ground in China and Myanmar
A blog by Meg Davis on the Asia Catalyst site on the 24 August 2010. The crisis of the HIV/AIDS pandemic is creating incentive and space for mobilization of marginalized communities, and otherwise restrictive states such as China and Myanmar (Burma) are largely allowing it. In recent months, both Chinese and Burmese sex worker-led organizations have moved into the public eye. In both cases, groups are forming in societies that generally restrict independent social mobilization of any kind; both are also traditionally patriarchal social and economic systems that bind female and male sex workers in codes of shame and silence - a silence which, these groups say, permits financial and physical violence against sex workers to persist unchecked. International funding and pressure to develop the AIDS response in both countries, combined with pressure from within, seems to have slightly increased the space for this kind of activism. In Wuhan, sex workers organized a protest to call for legalization of sex work and for August 3rd to be marked as "Sex Workers' Day." The group issued statements and photographs through AIDS e-mail lists to alert other activists to their actions. They carried red umbrellas in a peaceful march on the streets of Wuhan, a visible symbol of their solidarity with the global Network of Sex Work Projects, which just weeks earlier carried red umbrellas during some of their protests at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna. The most visible face of the Wuhan action, Ye Haiyan, was briefly detained and then released by police. Learning of the protest through posts by several groups (including ours) on an Asian sex workers' e-mail list, the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective then organized a small solidarity protest at the Chinese embassy in Wellington, NZ. In a message posted to the Asia-Pacific sex workers' list, Calum Bennachie of the NZPC described the protest: "We showed the police the signs and the NSWP umbrella, which they thought looked really good. They mostly sat in their car after that, but were ready just in case someone started causing us trouble. We explained what it was about, and they wished us luck." After Ye Haiyan's release on August 6, other Chinese organizations issued their own calls on e-mail lists for legalization of sex work. Aizhixing Institute called for signatures to support legalization. Xin'Ai Female Sex Worker's Home in Tianjin published an email statement describing their outreach programs and describing some of the problems faced by "the sisters" (姐妹们) in their work, including violence by pimps, extortion of bribes and mandatory "New Year's gifts" by local police. She also described the financial hardships faced by sex workers, many of whom are older women and rural women with families to support. Meanwhile, sex workers in bordering Myanmar/Burma report that they have successfully organized a national network of hundreds of sex workers. Andrew Hunter, who circulated a video on behalf of producer Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Workers, "This film shows that even in the most difficult circumstances it is possible for sex workers to organize, run programs and fight for their rights." Sex workers in the film, who appear with their faces unmasked, also share concerns about access to AIDS treatment and experiences of police abuse. The video is available at http://sexworkerspresent.blip.tv/file/3977331/. In both China and Myanmar, civil society has operated under numerous restrictions, many topics remain "too sensitive" or taboo, and power remains in the tight control of hierarchical systems. But sex workers appear to be "coming out" in the public eye dramatically in both places, claiming their right to exist and to work, decrying economic hardships, the culture of shame, abuses by police, and sharing the personal challenges they have faced. This activism online and on the street indirectly questions both the traditional relationships between police and civilians and between men and women. At the same time, these recent actions show the lightning speed with which grassroots groups can inspire one another across the region through online connections. While political and economic power may be in the hands of hierarchical bureaucracies in both countries, e-mail is elusive, quick, flexible, and non-hierarchical - just like these grassroots movements. Asia Catalyst partners with activists in Asia to inspire, create and launch innovative, self-sustaining programs and organizations that advance human rights, social justice and environmental protection. We link up Asian community leaders, journalists, activists and lawyers with each other and with international experts who can help them to realize their visions. We incubate programs that may be too risky or innovative for larger organizations to take on.
Year of publication:2010
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