BY: JESSICA BEUKER
There are approximately 14 million active sex workers worldwide. In Thailand, where 250,000 of the world’s sex workers live, there is an active presence working to empowering women who work in the sex trade, offering services, educating them—without pressuring them to leave it—and challenging the beliefs and stigma surrounding the sex industry. Her name is Chantawipa Apisuk.
Sixty-eight year old Apisuk is the founder of Empower, a charity that supports women working in Thailand’s sex industry, and has done so for the last thirty years. She hopes to one day see sex work treated with the same respect as other professions.
Empower has worked with more than 30,000 sex workers over the last two decades. In 2005, the Rockefeller Foundation agreed to support Empower in becoming Empower University. According to the website, the university has nine campuses across four provinces in Thailand. Each campus shares the core philosophy of Empower, however they each have a unique specialty. The Campus of Political Strategy, the Campus of Labor Rights, the Campus of Occupational Health and Safety Studies and the Campus of Tourism Studies are just a few.
Empower has a main library where information on sex work in Thailand and other countries is made readily available. There is a collection of books, magazines, newspapers, posters and letters associated with the topic, as well as computers with Internet access. Empower also offers non-formal education (NFE)—or distance education—programs.
According to Empower’s website, compulsory schooling in Thailand was for a very long time only six years long and often open to just boys. Young girls were forced out of an education by age nine or 10, with some never attending at all. NFE classes could however be taken by both males and females, but most of the classes took place in the evening when the women were working.
So, in 1990 Empower met with the Department of Education and became registered as an official NFE centre, and was given permission to open as a day school. This became the first ever school for sex workers in Thailand.
As a part of the NFE curriculum, Empower also offers camping trips. Anywhere from 80 to 100 students come together to form close relationships and take part in activities that revolve around a number of specific themes including environmental study, health, politics, history and self-defense. Events, which are organized by the sex worker community, are also a large part of the foundation and see members using their lack of social acceptance to fight for change.
In addition to founding Empower, Apisuk also operates This Is Us, an appointment-only museum that celebrates the sex work industry and offers visitors a fresh perspective. Broadly visited the museum and captured a piece of its essence. “In one corner of the museum, a fire-red toolbox holds paraphernalia typically associated with sex work: condoms, lubricant and lingerie.”
Since prostitution is seen as a moral issue, it is criminalized, which means that women who work in the industry are excluded from benefits and labour laws—even though the sex industry brings in $6.4 billion in revenue in a single year. This is why Empower and This Is Us are so crucial. They give women who choose to be in the sex industry the education and resources they need to be safe and healthy.
Apisuk thinks that one of the biggest problems is that people don’t understand that there are many women who have chosen to do this type of work. Broadly states that to Apisuk, “journalists’ tendency to cast sex workers in the role of victims maintains the dominant narrative that sex work is undesirable. This perpetuates the myth that women can never be sex workers through choice.”
Image source: trip-dream-live.ru