Sex Workers of ASEAN, Unite!

An art exhibition at the Bangkok Arts and Cultural Centre illustrates the stigma and plight commonly faced by sex workers in ASEAN countries.

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Their work is considered illegal in most of the countries in ASEAN. Apart from facing constant harassment from the authorities while at work, they are most at risk of arrest under anti-trafficking laws. Yet sex workers contribute 2%-14% of some nations’ GDP, according to the ILO.  

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Last November, sex workers from ten ASEAN countries plus Timor-Leste met at the 1st ASEAN Sex Workers Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia to discuss common problems faced by sex workers in the region, and how the looming ASEAN Economic Community would affect them.  

Despite diverse social contexts and cultural backgrounds, the one thing sex workers in ASEAN seem to face is stigma and discrimination from society, hence the rationale behind “Yet, still we dance!  Sex Workers of ASEAN Art Exhibition,

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The exhibition, now showing at the Bangkok Arts and Cultural Centre, aims to reduce the stigma and public misunderstanding, as well as campaign for the rights of sex workers, whose work is technically illegal in all ASEAN countries except Singapore, Indonesia and Timor-Leste.

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The showcase includes photography, painting, and installation art from representatives of ASEAN countries, such as the Philippines Sex Workers’ Collective, Vietnamese Network of Sex Workers and $carlet Timor Collective.  

“The exhibition is important as a way for the public to understand more about sex workers, that they are indeed knowledgeable, creative and intelligent people, and that they need to be recognized in the policy making process.” said Chantawipa Apisuk, director of the Empower Foundation who spearheaded this project with support from the UNDP.  

Chantawipa said the ASEAN Economic Community is getting closer with many strategies on tourism and trade, yet sex workers, who are involved in these sectors, are still discriminated against and unprotected by the law. So a network of sex workers in ASEAN would provide solidarity and resources for them to stand up for their rights in the future, she said.

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Jon Ungpakorn, a senior human rights activist who has worked on HIV/AIDS issues for over a decade, emphasized in a speech during the exhibition opening last Tuesday that every sex worker has human rights. They should not be criminalized and should be protected under the labour laws just like any other profession, he said.

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Most sex workers seem to agree on this, including Chantawipa, who proposed that Thailand and other ASEAN nations legalize prostitution to eliminate discrimination and provide legal protection.

“Even the guardians of the law are our customers,” she said. “During the day they are the police, but at night they are our customers.”
 

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