Empowering 'bad girls'
by Tunya Sukpanich, Bangkok Post, March 11, 2007
Chantawipa Apisuk, founder of Empower Foundation, believes that equality is necessary for every group in society, and that the government must guarantee equal rights for every profession.
A joyful woman, she started her mission on the night streets of Patpong more than two decades ago by offering the bar girls English lessons. After a while, the owner of a bar offered to open up his establishment in the afternoons for the classes, partly because he reasoned it would be good for business if the girls could communicate better with customers.
But the ability to speak and read English quickly evolved into something much more than a business and negotiation tool for the girls; it allowed them to establish channels of communication to protect themselves, minimise exploitation and learn about their rights.
Chantawipa said that just a basic vocabulary is enough for them to better look out for their own welfare. The simple words yes or no show an individual decision which should be respected by customers.
Interaction in English also enabled them to learn from the international human rights community and express their feelings to a wider audience.
Chantawipa first learned about human rights when she was in the United States to study and work in a research institute. She became acquainted with social movements which hardly existed in Thailand in those days, for example consumer's, women's and children's rights. After doing a lot of research and a lot of reading, she came to the conclusion that equality is necessary for every group in society, and that the government must guarantee equal rights for every profession.
Besides rights issues, health care is another important area for discussion among sex workers because of their high risk in getting and spreading many communicable diseases, including HIV/Aids.
The foundation also helps provide training for new skills, for women who want to get out of the sex industry or for when they are too old to do it anymore.
When told that sex work is illegal, Chantawipa laughed and said simply: "Damn the law. We have had anti-prostitution legislation since 1960. The sex industry keeps on growing. How useful is the law? It is nothing but a tool for corrupt officials and unfaithful politicians who wish to attract public attention and support by 'rescuing' prostitutes. We keep on demanding that the government revoke this law."
She says the reality is that prostitution will never disappear from society, and it deserves the same acceptance as other professions.
Chantawipa's strong beliefs and hard work have rubbed off on a large segment of sex workers in Thailand. With strong support from other human rights groups, they have found the strength to represent themselves openly in many forums. "They know their life and their needs most," said Chantawipa.
The T-shirt slogan, "Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere," is an expression of the viewpoint that many sex workers are genuinely enjoying their lives.
The Empower Foundation headquarters is in Bangkok and a centre is still maintained in Patpong. There are several other centres as well, in Chiang Mai, Mae Sai, and most recently in Phuket. They have formed a collaborative operation with a common stand, but each centre, with its own particular situation and conditions, manages its own programmes.
"The establishment of a centre comes from the demand in the area. For example, the centre in Mae Sai is there because of the growing trafficking in women and children from China and Burma in the area. In Phuket, the tourists are back after the tsunami, and so are the sex workers, especially from Burma, China and Laos. They need education to protect their rights and to maintain good health," said Chantawipa.
At the present time there are no plans to set up centres in other provinces.
Chantawipa's conversation is riddled with controversial opinions, but none more than her views on human trafficking, which has become a global concern enlisting widespread international suppression efforts. While she is certainly against forced prostitution, Chantawipa strongly opposes the anti-trafficking measures, saying they are nothing but a way to stop women from earning better incomes and living in better conditions in more developed countries.
She noted that Thai women who go to work in the sex industry in developed countries such as Japan, the US, Australia and elsewhere have been "rescued, arrested and then sent back home." She said the situation is similar to that of women from the neighbouring countries of Laos, Burma and China who become prostitutes in Thailand. From time to time, they are also taken from brothels, arrested and then deported.
"They are treated like criminals," Chantawipa said. She added that the traffickers and many anti-trafficking groups employ very similar methods to achieve their goals. Both groups "deceive women, transport them against their will, detain them, and put them in dangerous situations."
She feels that the Bush administration's strongly opinionated policies on HIV/Aids, homosexuality, prostitution and trafficking are causing funding problems from international aid organisations.
"The organisations working on those issue have been undermined by policies restricting the range of interventions that can be used to protect the lives and health of women and men in the sex industry, and of trafficked persons," said Chantawipa. She remarked that the Bush administration policies affect not only Thailand, but are a problem worldwide, and added that concerned organisations in many countries have made requests that such policies be ended.
"Empower provides sex workers education, prevention and health care. With limited financial sources, the problem of HIV is on the rise again among sex workers and also the customers," said Chantawipa.
Raids no solution
When asked about all the stories of women who have been forced into prostitution by kidnapping and torture, Chantawipa said: "It is not real."
She said that from the foundation's long history of involvement with sex workers - in bars, massage parlours and brothels - it's clear that almost all of them know beforehand that they have to sell their bodies for money.
She agreed that the situations and conditions are sometimes worse than their expectations. They may face many difficulties from customers and pimps and also brothel owners. A few really do want to quit the job, but may feel pressure to stay.
However, she totally disagrees with the police raids on brothels.
"You want to help one, but 20 others who need to continue in their jobs have to get into trouble.
"The police raids are always accompanied by reporters and photographers. The women's pictures then appear in newspapers and on television. They and their families have to bear a lot of shame," she said.
"After the raids, no one helps them to pay their debts, gives them money for their families, gives them an education or helps them to find a better job. They have to continue bearing their own problems, which are often worsened," said Chantawipa.
The foundation does help women who want to get out of the business, and it also has a strategy to get women out of a particular establishment: "We normally ask a customer to help them get away. This way it does not affect the others."
She said that, moreover, women working in the sex industry have their own networks and methods to help trafficked women and those under 18 years old who are forced to work.
She revealed that from time to time, the police or even the owners of brothels request that the foundation provide temporary shelters for prostitutes, especially those under 18.
" This is the real world. We have to admit it," said Chantawipa, laughing.
The foundation uses every opportunity to ask brothel owners to allow their employees to join in Empower activities. Some do not, for fear of losing the women. But many do, as they understand that the job of prostitution does not last long and the women need contacts and other skills as they get older.
She said the police raids help just a few people, while the foundation's efforts help thousands.
"The women can continue working at night. In the afternoon, they can join our classes for health, language or skills training.
"Whenever they want to stop being prostitutes, they can leave with good health and continue their lives. But if they are caught up in the police raids, publicly humiliated and treated as criminals, they have difficulties in leading a normal life back home with their families," Chantawipa explained.
Chantawipa Apisuk was born in Bangkok in 1947. After graduating from the Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology at Thammasat University, she headed for the Southeast Asia Resource Center in New York to further her studies and work on human rights issues.
In 1984, she came back to Thailand and began working with women in the sex industry. Shortly after she founded the Empower Foundation. The foundation has established a school for adult education and employment training for sex workers in Bangkok, and also provides legal assistance. There are also foundation social centres and health clinics in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Phuket.
Chantawipa is married to Chumpon Apisuk, an international performance artist who founded ASIATOPIA, an Asian artist network in Thailand. They have one daughter, Pirapa Apisuk, a contemporary pianist who operates a music school in Bangkok.