Project X wrote a petition to DPM Tharman back in July 2012–of which a number of you have signed. We requested for his help in engaging the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to open a channel for dialogue in order to address the issues that sex workers face. The DPM referred the petition to MHA, and there were a couple of email exchanges with the latter–the latest was from today (7 Dec). Unfortunately, with this last reply from the ministry, it reads as though they have put their foot down and that there is no way in hell that they would want to meet us. This is really frustrating not only because of their arrogance and ignorance, but also because the underlying message of their reluctance is basically this: “streetwalkers are illegal–it doesn’t matter that the law and the practice of it is unclear and unfair–they are illegal. As a result, any discrimination and violence that they face is justified–they asked for it.”
Let’s not go into the obvious victim-blaming here (argh!!), rather I wanted to supplement your reading with a recount of an informal meeting I had with a high-ranking MHA official. We met coincindentally at a conference, and we managed to sit down for lunch. While I was faced with the standard “I am unable to comment on that”, what was more disturbing was she told me firmly that I could be commiting a crime if I do not report known “criminals”, i.e. streetwalkers and co.. She sounded really sincere when she said it, but it retrospect, it felt more like a threat. Likewise, reading in-between the lines of their latest reply, this sentence :”we would like encourage you to seek ways to help streetwalkers find alternative employment, instead of helping them stay in illegal activity” (emphasis mine) seems to reinforce the official’s point. Project X was never about “helping” streetwalkers stay streetwalkers, in any case, our response to them clearly states that we wish for them to gain legal status. I may be reading too much, but it does read like another threat.
I shall end my spiel here.
We publish the full correspondence here, including the initial petition. We do hope that you could join us in the brainstorm for the next step forward.
12 July 2012
Letter of Appeal to the Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore
Dear Mr. Tharman Shanmugaratnam,
Project X is an initiative that advocates the rights of sex workers in Singapore to a safe working environment. As one of the most marginalized in today’s society, sex workers face physical, verbal and psychological violence on a daily basis. Since November 2008, Project X exists to provide support for sex workers and to advocate that regardless of one’s beliefs and morals, violence is not acceptable in our society.
In order to fulfil our objectives, Project X engages in weekly groundwork sessions at the various red light districts. We distribute condoms, wet wipes, health guides etc. to the sex workers, as well as document their stories. We then conduct regular public education events to raise awareness about the issues on the ground.
Our latest initiative—Unheard Voices in the Red Light District—is a collaboration with artists Felicia Low and Dixie Chan. Featuring audio interviews with 11 sex workers from Singapore, this exhibition aimed to create a deeper understanding of the realities from the ground. This took place at The Substation Gallery from the 6th to the 15th of June, and was widely attended by different people with various backgrounds. We estimate that 150 people turned up for the opening, and an additional 150 turned up subsequently.
Please see attached Annex for a full report on the work that Project X engages in, and the specific types of violence we have documented.
We would like to take this opportunity to seek some clarifications on the following concerns:
1. Sex workers, Project X, and some members of the public are confused about the standard operational procedures of police officers when approaching and conducting checks with persons who are suspected of soliciting.
2. Sex workers in general are afraid to approach the police when they themselves have been victimized—a fear that they will in turn be criminalized. This fear can be discerned from the interviews Project X took for the exhibition (refer to Appendix A). Hence, we would like to clarify the approach of police officers towards sex workers in need of assistance or legal action for abuse and violence against their persons.
We seek dialogue to address the above mentioned concerns with the relevant agencies—such as the Singapore Police Force, the Anti-Vice Department, and the Immigrations and Checkpoints Authority—and hope that such a connection can be granted.
We sincerely look forward to hearing from you.
Project X Singapore
The full document can be found here: http://theprojectx.org/?page_id=149
While this was partially my fault–do note the occasional conflation between sex work and trafficking in their responses.
31 August 2012
MHA replies to Petition
We refer to your email to DPM Tharman dated 12 July 2012.
2 We note Project X’s good work in this area. To combat the abuse of sex workers for exploitation, or sex trafficking, the Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons, whose membership includes MHA and Police, recently launched a 3-year National Plan of Action. We seek Project X’s assistance to encourage victims to lodge a Police report so that their allegations can be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators taken to task. Police will look into all allegations of criminal offences, including assault, molest and other forms of physical abuse, against any victim. Police have successfully investigated and convicted such cases, including a person who would entice PRC prostitutes into his vehicle before robbing them. The accused person was sentenced to four years jail and 12 strokes of the cane for two charges. If Project X comes across any such cases, you may contact Mr Eugene Wang, Head Specialised Crime Policy Branch / CID, at Eugene_wang@spf.gov.sg or tel: 6435-8328 for further advice.
3 We would like to clarify that prostitution per se is not an offence under Singapore law. However, associated activities, such as public soliciting and pimping are criminalised. As it is an offence to solicit in public, Police conduct regular enforcement rounds to deter and apprehend streetwalkers. Every person arrested for suspected soliciting is interviewed by the Police to check if they had been a victim of trafficking, or if they had been forced into prostitution. As long as the victim complains that she was trafficked or if the officers identify possible elements of trafficking, she will be treated as a victim of trafficking. This includes cases where a victim may have come into Singapore willingly for prostitution, but was deceived, defrauded or held against her will. Police will commence investigations with a view of identifying and prosecuting the offenders responsible. We recognise that there may be other victims who for various reasons have not come forward and therefore encourage Project X to refer genuine victims with the assurance that they will not be prosecuted. This is why the Inter-Agency Taskforce has also engaged foreign embassies, which also play an important role in investigations and information sharing, to increase protection and safeguards for victims in their home countries before they come into Singapore.
4 We hope we have addressed your questions. If there are further queries, please contact the undersigned. We will be happy to clarify any further issues you may have.
5 Thank you.
Corporate Relations Division
Ministry of Home Affairs
6 November 2012
Project X replies MHA
My name is Vanessa and I’m from Project X. I refer to the forwarded email below from Felicia Low, regarding a petition sent to DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam regarding the plight of Singaporean streetwalkers. Project X would like to take this (belated) opportunity to reply to MHA’s response, and to sincerely request for a meeting with the relevant personnels to continue the dialogue.
1. Project X is heartened to hear that justice was served for the sex workers who were robbed.We hope to encourage more sex workers to report crimes against them so it will be reassuring to hear that they will not be criminalised themselves. Project X will contact Mr Eugene Wang regarding these cases.
2. In addition, Project X will be happy to refer genuine victims to the police, however, we are concerned that there is not a victim-centred approach to prosecution. In particular, we are concerned whether there will be counsellors available to the victims, and whether the interview process will be strenuous. Furthermore, will there be programmes for the victims to reintegrate into society such as job referrals and training programs?
3. We would like to clarify that Project X does not work only with persons affected by trafficking. Project X works primarily with Singaporean sex workers who have chosen this profession for one reason or another. With that, we would like to enquire about the process to and criteria for the application of a yellow card. Many streetwalkers we have met would like to apply for this card but were either continuously rejected, or did not have any support to do so.
That said, there are also many streetwalkers who do not want a yellow card as they are in this trade temporarily as they search for better options. They also fear having their history as a sex worker placed on record which may then hinder their future employment. Furthermore, being on the yellow card means that portions of their earnings will be given to the brothel owner, and this is a deterrence for streetwalkers who are facing financial hardships. We were wondering if there is another way in which streetwalkers can attain “legal” status?
4. Finally, many streetwalkers understand that soliciting is illegal. However, with lack of other options, many find it hard to leave the trade. Their plea to police officers is to at least not give chase onto busy roads as they fear for their safety.
Project X would like to thank MHA for giving us an opportunity to share our experiences on the ground. We sincerely hope to continue the dialogue, and share more from our 4 years of experience walking the red light districts. We are happy to meet at your convenience.
We look forward to hearing your favourable response.
7 December 2012
Latest Reply from MHA to Project X
Dear Miss Ho,
We refer to your email dated 6 November 2012.
2 We would like to assure you that Police look into all alleged cases of abuse or sex trafficking. Police have also reviewed their investigative processes to ensure that they are sensitive to the victims, especially for victims of sexual trauma. These processes have been benchmarked against overseas law enforcement agencies as well. Victims who require further assistance are referred to the Ministry of Social and Family Development.
3 We regret to inform you that we are unable to meet with you for a dialogue. Our laws prohibit streetwalking, and we would like encourage you to seek ways to help streetwalkers find alternative employment, instead of helping them stay in illegal activity.
4 Thank you.
Corporate Relations Division
Ministry of Home Affairs
Project X is headed to the 8th Singapore AIDS Conference today. We will be presenting a poster exhibit at the conference. The abstract is as follows, and the full article can be downloaded here: The Right to Sexual Health – full article.
The Right to Sexual Health: A Case of Streetwalkers in Singapore
The barriers to the consistent use of condoms and lubricants by “unregulated” streetwalkers in Singapore.
The importance of condoms and lubricants in the sex industry is well known. A vast majority of sex workers that Project X has spoken to understand that the use of condoms will keep them safe, save money, and protect their livelihood. Sex workers who are known to not use condoms are ostracized by other sex workers, a sign of a powerful norm.
However, there are some sex workers who still practice unsafe sex.
The top three barriers to condom use are:
- Customers who use monetary bribes to coerce sex workers into not using protection.
- Customers who verbally agree to safe sex but then withdraw this agreement during the act through force.
- Frequent checks for condoms in their handbags by the police lead some sex workers to fear carrying condoms on them.
The effects of these three factors vary depending on the assertiveness of the sex worker and how vulnerable she is.
Project X has spoken to around 200 sex workers in the past 4 years. Almost every sex worker would have experienced one or more of the barriers, leading to unsafe sex. Many of them have developed strategies to deal with the situations but they are not always fool-proof.
The criminalisation of sex workers places them in a very vulnerable position where they are subject to violence and abuse. The law and the practice of it need to be re-evaluated.
Furthermore, Project X would like to see firstly, more education on safe sex to the general public; secondly, workshops for sex workers to learn how to demand safe sex; and finally, a thorough analysis on the practice of checking for condoms by the police.
- Don’t Assume. Don’t assume you know why a person is in the sex industry.
- Be Discreet and Respect Personal Boundaries, especially in public versus private settings.
- Don’t Judge. Know your prejudices and realize not everyone shares the same opinions. Know what is your judgment versus someone’s experience.
- Watch Your Language. Cracking jokes or using derogatory terms such as “hooker”, “whore”, “slut”, or “ho” is not acceptable.
- Address Your Prejudices. Your own fears/ prejudices against sex workers are about you, and no one else.
- Don’t Play Rescuer. Not all sex workers are trying to get out of the industry or in need of help. Ask them what they need.
- If you are a client or patron of sex workers, be respectful of boundaries. You’re buying a service, not a person.
- Do Your Own Research. Most mainstream media is biased against sex work. Be critical.
- Respect that Sex Work is Real Work.
- Just because someone is a sex worker doesn’t mean they will have sex with you. Nuff said.
- Be Supportive and Share Resources. If you know of someone new to the industry or in an abusive situation, offer support.
- As you learn the above things, stand up for sex workers when conversations happen.
Taken from the Twiiter feed of http://twitter.com/swopnyc and based on Patricia West, Jenna Cohn, Pele Woods, and Shannon Williams’ seminar on “How to be an Ally to Sex Workers” at Momentum Conference (http://momentumcon.com/)
“Your mind is your prison, not mine.”
Some reading for the lunar new year!
- Violence against Women
- Violence against women – what we talk about when we talk about buying sex
- Violence against women – Primary prevention of violence against women: Training needs of violence practitioners
- Violence against women – Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Disorders of Extreme Stress (DESNOS) Symptoms Following Prostitution and Childhood Abuse
- Violence against women – Exiting Prostitution: An Integrated Model
What are you going to on that day?
Reading material for the day: How to Respect Sex Workers
you can twit a bit here and there according to the context you are experiencing.
when i first started out, i used to let the sex workers know that through the questions, i am hoping to understand what their needs are and how best we can think of some solutions together so that they could be in a safer working environment. to make the conversation comfortable for each other, one of the tricks is to share some of your own little info too, it doesn’t have to be your whole life history but if you see something similar with them, you can offer a little of your side of story. this makes it a 2-way real conversation and not you are the one questioning coz prolonged questioning could be perceived as interrogation or arrogance. and you don’t need to find out all information in one go!
and you may also need to ease back a little if you sense it’s too much for the person. it’s ok, don’t need to rush coz sometimes the person is not ready to tell you certain things. if you are totally at ease with yourself, they will be at ease. you might think there are some questions/areas which are too sensitive to go into, and are unsure if you would tread into those waters. well, you can test your toe first, and observe the reaction. sometimes they might be somewhat cheezed off by a certain question but it doesn’t mean they hate you. you might just have punched the wrong button, just apologise and say you shouldn’t have said that, and i am 85% sure they will see you with in different light.
there are lots of things to learn in communication, especially to a community that we seldom communicate with. but it’s very challenging and if you are patient and observant enough, you will learn many many skills. and lastly, it’s ok to make mistakes la, and it doesn’t mean you have hurt them, we don’t have that kind of power to hurt them, we just annoy them that’s all.
- what is your dream? (this will gear the conversation towards another direction but it’s fun way to begin the conversation with!)
- are you used to the culture, weather, food etc? how long have you been here already since you find the weather too hot for you?
- what kind of food do you eat in your own country? i like chee cheong fun very much, do you know what is chee cheong fun?
- where is exactly your part of province/hometown in that particular country? my geography is not good so you must enlighten me.
- how many family members do you have? do you miss them? do you call them everyday? but phone card is very expensive here!
- tell me why you are here to work coz both you and i know it’s tough to work here.
- but how do you know there is this place called Geylang? anyone told you? what did they say?
- what are some of the pleasant/good experience you have met and what some some of the not so pleasant experience? (customers, police, public)
- like, when you go out to buy things, have you experienced any pleasant/unpleasant incidents?
- like, customers good or bad (violent, cheating, don’t pay etc)
- like, police treatment (for those with Special Pass)
- like, the gangsters in the area (play you out during a raid? unreasonable protection fees)
- do you think there is any danger in your work?
- or what do you think are some of the things that could make you feel safer and more comfortable at work?
- what are some solutions you think might help?
A poem by Stephanie Chan on her visit to Geylang:
Some stray cats here have collars, sit in doorways of houses, others shit on piles of ashes. All, the same grey-white marks. One cat sleeps between the old lady by the drain (saying, she told me she felt itchy down there i tell her always tell him wash his mouth before bleblehbleh. because you dunno how many he bleh before after you—common sense) and the tall skinny Malay kid with the miniskirt some guy yells Ahmad at from his car, driving off. On a bad night, he stops: contusions, pulled hair, handcuffs, Ah Kwa. The kid leans against the drain railing. Waiting like the old lady. Still early: the moon not up yet. Just fire everywhere.
Blazing, both sides of the road, blazing controlled in metal drums. First day, Seventh Month: tis the season for sacrifice. Paper prayers turn to embers, ashes, heat. Smells changing from block to block, MRT station to coffeeshop: traffic fumes to belacan, garlic, bad breath; to where it spills onto the alley: smoke and sweat. Its hard to describe, though you’ve been here before in bad movies, TV. Here the streets are cleaner. No creepy music follows you round every cracked corner. Men push past, give you second glances. Clinical street lights, brighter. Clan association house: in front, a grey van, saris pushed up against. Red Bull inside for one dollar. Chinese man selling drinks to Construction Workers. In every house an altar (eh hurry move don’t block). Perfume, foundation, mascara, short-shorts. Checking faces in pocket mirrors, checking over their shoulders.
Eyes dart. They stand. Not really there but who is? Not the cars, taxis, drivers that slow as they crawl past. Don’t stare, keep going. All that separates you from her, human from girl: the difference between walking and stopping. In alleys behind coffeeshops, the Men and the world prepare to meet again:
Man U match on outdoor TV, beer, VCDs. Purgatory. We are all in limbo here.