China: Increase protections for Transgender Female Sex Workers
Decriminalize sex work, target HIV interventions.
(Friday January 16, Beijing) Transgender female sex workers are amongst the most marginalized and discriminated populations in China, Asia Catalyst said in a new report published today. The Chinese government should decriminalize sex work and enact anti-discrimination legislation including gender identity and sexual orientation as protected categories.
The 72 page report, "My life is too dark to see the light-- A Survey of the Living Conditions of Transgender Female Sex Workers in Beijing and Shanghai" documents the daily reality for transgender female sex workers in Beijing and Shanghai. Based on 10 months' research by Asia Catalyst and two Chinese community based organizations, Beijing Zuoyou Center and Shanghai CSW (commercial sex worker)&MSM (men who have sex with men) Center, the report documents discrimination, police violence, legal restrictions and a policy environment preventing this highly marginalized group's access to public services, legal identity and appropriate health care. They experience amplified stigma due to both their gender identity and their profession.
"Severe prejudice is a major stumbling block for even the most basic tasks," said Zheng Huang, executive director of Shanghai Xinsheng. "Imagine being laughed at when using a public toilet, being evicted from your home or, even worse, dangerously self-medicating hormone use because no doctor will see you."
As sex work is illegal in China, the police are one of the greatest challenges that transgender sex workers face. Interviewees reported police abuse, especially verbal and physical violence leveled at their transgender identity. Transgender women whose ID cards designate them as male, are detained together with men. The report found that criminalization of sex work is a major obstacle to effective HIV interventions for this population.
Chinese law allows transgender people to change the gender identity on official documents only on condition of Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS). For those that do not want SRS, or cannot afford to do so, these requirements leave them with identity documents that do not match their gender identity, resulting in frequent public humiliation, and barriers in accessing basic services.
"Banking, travel, or renting an apartment, can quickly deteriorate into an exercise in public humiliation if the gender on your I.D card does not match your gender identity," said Guo Ziyang, executive director of Beijng Zuoyou Center. "Making surgery a pre-condition to change the gender on your I.D denies people the right to choose how, when and if to affirm their gender identity through medical procedures. The law should have no place in this very personal decision."
The report noted, by 2020 transgender women and MSM (men who have sex with men) will most likely constitute the majority of all new HIV infections in the Asia-Pacific region. However, the research found that most services for transgender populations in China are only included as part of men who have sex with men (MSM) programming. This is not only at odds with the gender identity of transgender women, but has also served to limit attention and resources to the unique HIV-related needs of transgender people. It has also prevented the development of effective public health interventions for this population.
"Globally, transgender female sex workers are among the populations most heavily affected by, and at risk of, HIV," said Charmain Mohamed, Executive Director of Asia Catalyst. "But transgender specific data collection, HIV programming and outreach is almost non-existent in China."
Read the full report here or by clicking the image above.
For more information and press interviews please contact:
Tingting Shen (English and
Director of Advocacy, Research and Policy, Asia Catalyst
Guo Ziyang (Chinese)
Beijing Zuoyou Center
Shanghai CSW&MSM Center
My name is Liu Min.* I am 48, I live in Shanghai, and I have been a sex worker for the past 15 years. I am a person with a disability, and I only have one arm. Coming from a rural area in China, I don't have other means with which to make a living. I go to the park everyday to find clients, my sex work helps me to support myself.
I am a volunteer of Shanghai Xinsheng, an organization that provides health and HIV prevention services for sex workers in China. In my work with the CBO, I help to distribute condoms to other sisters (female sex workers) that I work with in the park.
November 17-18, I was invited to attend a conference titled "Women and HIV in the Context of Commercial Sex" in Beijing, which was organized by the Red Ribbon Forum, a platform for government and civil society organizations to discuss HIV and rights issues, and UN agencies. The conference discussed key issues that sex workers like me face everyday: law enforcement and the negative impact on our health and safety.
The conference invited speakers from the health department to talk about the HIV epidemic among sex workers, and the challenges in conducting HIV interventions among sex workers. What impressed me is that sex workers and sex worker organizations at the conference had the same space to speak as government representatives. The conference also invited international representatives from Vietnam, New Zealand and Switzerland to talk about how these countries handle sex work and related health issues.
Some of the issues mentioned during the conference are important for preventing HIV/AIDS among low-income sisters. For example, China should abolish using possession of condoms as evidence against sex workers, give sex workers rights, and encourage more people to join HIV/AIDS prevention work. If we can stop using condoms as evidence to detain sex workers, and abolish the Custody and Education system that authorizes the police to lock up our sisters and clients for up to two years, it will be quite beneficial for us. Both of these were discussed at the conference.The conference discussions were very meaningful for us. When I came back
to Shanghai from the conference, I shared these information with other sisters. They all agree that it would be significant if the conference goals are implemented. Meanwhile, I hope there will be more discussions on the misconducting/unlawful law-enforcement of governmental agencies. I wish the police didn't conduct massive crackdowns on sex work, didn't arrest us as soon as they see us standing on the street. Of course, it will be even better if they recognize our occupation, instead of stigmatizing us.
I learned information about foreign countries from the conference, as well as met sisters from overseas, and I found foreign countries are more open than China. In terms of legislation and sex worker rights, which was mentioned by some international experts during the conference, I think it will be really difficult to achieve in China. There was a representative from the Vietnam Department of Justice, but no representatives from the Chinese public security or Department of Justice attended. Thus, I think it will be difficult to achieve our goals.
I am very glad that there were several sisters in this conference, and we have the opportunity to stand up and speak out on the mistreatment that we experience at work. I feel very proud that I made several comments, though I have no idea how much impact my words will bring. Also I met some good friends (sister) through the conference, and I hope there would be more occasions like this, and that more sisters can join and make their voices heard.
*Name has been changed to protect the author's identity
By Charmain Mohamed
Charmain Mohamed is Executive Director of Asia
Over the last eight years Asia Catalyst has grown in size and stature to become a leader in curriculum development and advocacy that furthers the right to health for marginalized groups in Asia. The transition has been a remarkable one, not least because it happened within the context of a global recession and a steady decline and re-focus of international HIV funding. Our measure of success however, is not a financial one, nor even one of organizational sustainability, but rather one of impact. Impact for the communities we work with, and impact on addressing some of the worst effects of punitive laws and regulations on HIV, and access to an adequate standard of health for all.
Eight years ago the global number of people dying because of AIDS was at its highest ever. That number has fallen by 35% in the last eight years, mainly because of an increase in access to treatment for people living with HIV. At this year's AIDS 2014 conference in Melbourne, Australia, UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibe, remarked that, if similar progress continued and accelerated, we were "on track to end the epidemic by 2030." However, with two thirds of people living with HIV still not accessing treatment, lack of vigilance now could see current progress eroded and targets being set back by a decade, if not more. Last year UNAIDS reported an estimated 2.1 million new infections and 1.5 million AIDS related deaths globally. Clearly there is more to be done.
In 2003, Trim was volunteering as a moderator of online groups that discuss lesbian and domestic violence issues in China. While sorting through QQ--a popular Chinese messaging service-- she found an influx of posts from "lesbians wanting to kill themselves" due to the stigma and discrimination they experienced. Realizing that China needed an organization that focused on issues faced by the lesbian community, she met Xian, a lesbian activist with the goal of establishing such an organization, and Trim joined the founding team.
Established in 2005, Common Language is now China's leading lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LBT) rights organization. Through community mobilization, public education, and law and policy advocacy, Common Language focuses on Chinese communities suffering from oppression based on sexual orientation and gender identity and endeavors to educate the general public on sexual diversity issues.
"Common Language is about having the strength to solve issues on a larger level," says Trim. "If you can change society's perception of the issues, then you can generate systemic change." Among the systemic change already generated is increased lesbian activism in China; for example, the total number of lesbian organizations in the Chinese Lala Alliance, a network of lesbian community-based organizations, has grown from zero at the time of Common Language's inception to over 30 today.
After participating in a one-day workshop with Asia Catalyst in May 2013, Common Language realized the benefits of a strong strategic plan and capacity building, and joined Asia Catalyst's one-year capacity building program. After each workshop in the series, Trim facilitated internal meetings for Common Language to disseminate lessons learned, and now several of her team members have increased project management and advocacy skills. One of the motivating factors for joining the program was to learn the skills to pass on to other lesbian organizations and, today, Common Language is applying these skills and delivering community trainings of its own.
In August 2014, Common Language conducted a Youth Action Camp. The Youth Action Camp was developed through experience with Asia Catalyst training, and Common Language's history of holding "Lala Camps" in collaboration with the Lala Alliance, which brought together LBT organizations and individuals from across the country for networking, information sharing, and training. Lala Camps were normally a large and expansive affair, but this year's Youth Action Camp was re-structured as a smaller seven-day workshop training series for LBT CBOs using AC training methods. 14 people from 4 cities in China attended, with organizers from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan as facilitators and trainers.
Using Asia Catalyst's curriculum and training methods, Common Language staff facilitated the week long workshop, with an Asia Catalyst staff member also assisting with several trainings on-site and serving as a mentor for some of the Common Language facilitators. By the end of the week, Common Language cleanly transitioned from student organization in Asia Catalyst's programs, to independent innovator and implementer of Asia Catalyst's community-centered curriculum.
As with many of Asia Catalyst's programs, none of the Youth Action Camp participants had previously done strategic planning as an organization; most did not have government contacts and very few had media and foundation contacts. After the 7-day training, 86% of participants reported being able to make strategic plans, 93% learned the three aspects of organizational vision, and 100% reported that they would be able to use the new skills learned during the training in their work. As one participant put it, "I have never been a meeting facilitator before but I am sure I know how to be one with all the skills I've learned."
This bodes well for the future of China's LBT community. As a representative from Common Language puts it, Asia Catalyst's contribution of strategic planning to the Youth Action Camp agenda "really took these organizations from community support groups to bona fide CBOs. Now they are devising projects with their strategic plans in mind, and working towards a clear vision."
Based on feedback from participants, Common Language now aims to develop a version of Asia Catalyst's curriculum Know It with case studies and examples specific to the LBQ community. In the grand scheme of things, the organization wants to generate a ripple effect alongside Asia Catalyst, with participant LBT organizations providing support and capacity building to younger and less experienced groups in the region. Following the Youth Leadership Camp, this ripple is beginning, with some participants loosely mentoring organizations in Lanzhou and Hohot. In the meantime, Common Language continues to strengthen its own skills in capacity building training, to provide more in-depth training and skills to the "ripple" organizations, and help them to pass their skills on even further.
This week at the International Aids Conference (IAC), Asia Catalyst presents preliminary findings from a joint research project on transgender sex workers conducted with two Chinese organizations, Beijing Zuoyou Information Center and Shanghai CSW & MSM Center.
Shanghai CSW (commercial sex worker) & MSM (men who have sex with men) Center (SCMC) was established in 2004 to focus on the rights and wellbeing of vulnerable sexual minorities in China. SCMC works to improve sexual minorities' access to medical and legal services, and to improve the environment surrounding these vulnerable groups. As the secretariat of a sex workers network platform, SCMC also works in coalition with academic institutions, mass media, and other groups to improve public understanding of the discrimination faced by sex workers.
Respectively, the founding of the Beijing Zuoyou Information Center was prompted in 2004 by the rising threat of HIV/AIDS in China. The original goal of Beijing Zuoyou was to promote gay culture and advertise a healthy attitude towards sex. The center's founders began by organizing events for gay men in Beijing, speaking publically about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and promoting safe sex. Through the activities held at the center, Beijing Zuoyou became a uniquely safe, open space for a demographic that is often ostracized in Chinese society.
In 2007, Beijing Zuoyou began to provide services to transgender sex workers through outreach efforts. The organization aimed to improve professional safety by teaching violence avoidance; protecting legal rights; and decreasing risky behavior by offering HIV and syphilis testing, medical referral, and case management.
With these unique skills and backgrounds, Shanghai CSW & MSM Center and Beijing Zuoyou Information Center partnered with Asia Catalyst in late 2013 for a research, documentation and advocacy project. Although both groups initially planned to work with Asia Catalyst on separate advocacy projects, after discussion it became evident that a joint research project would be beneficial to both organizations, strengthen the content of the work and focus the advocacy strategy. . The topic selected was the situation of transgender sex workers in China.
For both groups, this research is an important tool in furthering their goal to end discrimination against transgender sex workers. They hope to better understand how discrimination affects transgender people by examining the experiences of individuals. As little is known about transgender sex workers, the research will help to identify community needs, what the best ways to provide intervention services are, and raise the profile of the kind of stigma the community faces. As SCMC explained, "We normally are not able to adequately understand these problems. Through this kind of research, we can make different classes of people see their problems."
In the first half of 2014, Asia Catalyst conducted three workshops with key members of both organizations to solidify research and documentation skills. Proper training and preparation for this research was vital because, as SCMC puts it, "many transgender people's main work is sex work, they are nervous that, after participating in an interview, their identity will be exposed." The research methodology developed with Asia Catalyst is sensitive to these concerns, and does not divulge real names or video tape the interviews.
Beijing Zuoyou explained the importance of this research project: "In addition to sex work being illegal, which results in police harassment, [transgender sex workers] also face prejudice from the rest of the sexual minority community for both being transgender and being sex workers. These factors put them at greater risk for physical violence as well as sexually transmitted diseases. Our initial goals were to raise the visibility of this community, promote greater understanding thereby reduce the risks [sic]."As SCMC adds, "stopping all discrimination against all sex workers is very important."
During this year's IAC in Melbourne, Asia Catalyst, SCMC and Beijing Zuoyou will distribute preliminary findings of the joint research project to peer groups, policy makers, AIDS experts and other stakeholders at this international event. The full report will be released at the end of 2014. In the meantime, SCMC and Beijing Zuoyou remain optimistic that the AIDS community can reach a common understanding about how transgender people are discriminated against and the negative effects discrimination has on their right to health. Beijing Zuoyou hopes that this report will "create an environment where male and transgender sex workers will be free from discrimination and violence...and enjoy the rights of other citizens."