In November, my colleagues from the Jiaozhou Health and Counseling Center and I were invited to attend a conference titled “Women and HIV in the Context of Commercial Sex.” The China Red Ribbon Forum–a platform for government and civil society organizations to discuss HIV and rights issues–and several UN agencies hosted the conference. There, we met officers from UNAIDS, the United Nations Population Fund, the China AIDS Association, sex worker delegations from New Zealand and Vietnam, and staff from domestic organizations that focus on preventing HIV/AIDS for sex workers.
The first thing I learned from this seminar was the “Chatham House Principle ” which ensures that participants of the seminar were able to speak freely under guaranteed confidentiality. Under this relaxed and harmonious atmosphere, all participants, including us sex workers, could fully express themselves.
Ultimately, there were two things that impressed me the most. First, Ms. Catherine Healy, a coordinator from the New Zealand Sex Worker Association, introduced her association. Through many years’ effort, they achieved a Reform Law on Prostitution, which de-criminalized prostitution, recognized sex workers’ rights, and strengthened the safety and health of sex workers in New Zealand. More surprisingly, local police help sex workers whose clients refuse to pay their service fees. Secondly, the Director of the Department of Handling Administrative Violations from the Vietnamese Ministry of Justice and the chair of the Viet Nam Network of Sex Workers introduced Viet Nam’s newly adopted law from 2013 that closed sex worker detention centers.
When I heard this information, I thought, “is de-criminalization of prostitution in China our dream? Can this dream come true one day?” I thought it was impossible, but I heard domestic experts recommend three things that they wanted to discuss with us:
1) Further study the campaign-style crackdown on sex work and its impact on HIV/AIDS services;
2) Pay attention to the use of condoms as evidence and a tool of prostitution, and its impact on HIV/AIDS prevention;
3) Further study the legitimacy, effectiveness and impact of detention education systems on HIV/AIDS prevention.
Experts and community members responded to the three recommendations, and sex workers had the most right to speak on this topic because this issue is closely related to our interests.
First, because of the crackdown on sex work in Beijing, we have had to change our working venues frequently and can no longer publicize where we work. But clients need to find us to seek our services. Before the crackdown, staff from health centers would come to our work location and provide us with health information, STD tests, and information on the importance of condom use. We could be selective of our customers, and we could say “No” to guests who were drunk, using drugs, or refusing to use condoms. In order to make a living under the crackdown, however, we have had to give up our bargaining power. Now, as long as clients take less time and give enough money, even if there is a risk for us to get an STD, we have to accept them. It is so difficult to make money in this environment.
Compounding the issue, if we are caught and there is a condom, it becomes evidence that the police use to detain us, or even use to put us in a detention center for one year. How could we dare to use condoms under these conditions?
One expert mentioned at the seminar “Condoms are a birth control/health product that should not be regarded as a prostitution tool/evidence.” I cannot agree more with these words. It is a contradiction that encourages us to use condoms during business on the one hand, but use it as evidence to detain us on the other hand. For our health and safety, we should not have to sacrifice the use of condoms any more.
In terms of Custody and Education, most of my sex worker sisters are single mothers who have their elders to take care of and their children to raise. After being caught, police will put us into Custody and Education Centers without regard to legal procedure. Our families lose income if we are put in detention. The worse thing is that, when the letters from Custody and Education Centers are sent to our hometowns, our privacy is exposed to the public, and our families have been discriminated against. Because of this, the elderly fall ill because of too much worry, and children quit school without being taken care of. Thus, we hope that the Chinese government can think about our situation more humanely, and consider the fact that the Custody and Education system brings huge hurt to our families and us, both mentally and economically. In order to make a living and pay back debt after being detained, we have to start the sex work again and work even harder than before. Custody and Education is thus meaningless and should be canceled!
I think this conference was a serious and beneficial beginning of a platform upon which sex workers can represent all of our sisters’ thoughts, concerns, and grievances. We are not sure whether the three recommendations will get the attention of the Chinese government, but we heard that other countries’ laws towards sex workers are changing, and their health and safety are more guaranteed than before.
We believe that their today (rights protections) is our tomorrow. As long as we keep working on it and fighting for our rights, we believe our dream will come true in China in the near future!