Swing and Sisters: HIV outreach to sex workers in Thailand
19 March 2009
Picking her way through the crowds Surang Janyan waves a friendly hello to her friend Gop. This is one of the many people she will meet tonight in Pattaya’s Walking Street – a long street running along the cost of one of Thailands red light areas.
Surang Janyam is the Founder and Director of Swing, a small organization which provides support for sex workers in Thailand. She regularly visits Gop around midnight to check whether she or her staff need anything. Gop is the owner of one of Pattaya’s most popular bars, the Wild West Boys, where men go to watch a show and pay to spend time with the male sex workers, in the bar or for sexual services in private.
Gop has around 70 sex workers working for her and Surang knows many of them well. “Swing workers come to talk to us and give us condoms,” said Gop. “And they show the boys how to use them properly.” Swing members and volunteers distribute several thousand condoms each month and provide information about HIV and how to protect themselves against the virus.
"HIV among sex workers and access to services are among the biggest challenges to the AIDS response in Thailand. It is extremely important that sex workers gain access to HIV prevention and treatment services without fear of discrimination."
Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS
“HIV among sex workers and access to services are among the biggest challenges to the AIDS response in Thailand,” said Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS. “It is extremely important that sex workers gain access to HIV prevention and treatment services without fear of discrimination.”
Swing works with a lot of bars and bar owners particularly. “Gaining the confidence of the bar owners is an important entry point for gaining access to the sex workers themselves,” said Patrick Brenny, UNAIDS Country Coordinator in Thailand. “Knowledge about HIV is worryingly low among sex workers in Thailand, at around 28% and it is important that they receive education about how to protect themselves and their clients.” Further down the Street Surang meets another of her friends Nueng who works for Sisters, the first counselling service in Thailand to cater exclusively for the transgender community. Pattaya is home to around 1000 transgenders in high season.
“We set up the centre in 2005 to get public support and greater acceptance of the transgender community in Pattaya,” said Nueng who is the Sisters Outreach Supervisor. “Before we started the transgender community had nowhere to go and no one to turn to for advice and support. There were services for male and female sex workers but nothing for transgender, we were on our own and people didn’t understand us.”
Pattaya, became the favourite ‘rest and recreation’ place of US troops during the Vietnam war and has since become a well trodden path on the sex tourism trail drawing in thousands of visitors a year.
Sisters, like Swing runs a drop-in centre in Pattaya where they provide medical services, counselling, skills development as well as club activities such as make-up, sports and cooking.
Nueng is transgender herself and so understands the stigma and discrimination faced by the transgender sex workers. “We have many problems because we are transgender,” she said. “If we try to access health services staff are often very unkind to us and treat us unfairly. So we try to offer our transgender sisters support and broaden awareness in the community so that people will accept us.”
Nueng wears a T-shirt the group printed for themselves so that they can be easily recognised when they carry out their outreach work. The T-shirts are bright pink and carry the words ‘Sisters, where our second home is.’
Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS visited workers from the two organizations this week to get first hand experience of how they carry out their outreach work among Pattaya’s sex work community. Working in partnership with sex workers to identify their needs and to advocate for policies and programmes that improve their health, safety and engagement in the AIDS response is a proven strategy and an essential feature of UNAIDS approach.