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Border Thinking on Migration, Culture, Economy and Sex

Letter from Empower to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Nossal Institute of Global Health at Melbourne University.

Dear Brigitte,

Empower had a second long joint discussion about the proposed training. Empower has decided to be faithful to our original position and not take part in the training in Bangkok. We would like to explain this position to your team as well as UNFPA.

We understand the point of the training is to decrease stigma and break down sterotypes. However, we see the very process of the development and implementation of this training reflects the prejudices held by UNFPA programmers. It is simply not acceptable to hire a team of non-sex workers to create a training module about working with sex workers. The fact that the your team at Nossal contacted sex woker groups to participate in the development is perhaps to your credit, but it does not address the original insult. There are many very capable, very credible, sex worker organizations that UNFPA could have and should have hired directly to create and implement the training module. How would it be if a sex worker organization was hired to develop and implement a training module on Nossal Institute…it would be senseless, yes? Why does should it make any more sense in the reverse? We know we were certainly not the only sex worker organization to refuse to take part. We also felt our expertise was being undervalued by the small token payment you were able to offer under your funding guidelines. The project is 27 months long, obviously funded at UN rates, yet from memory you could only afford to pay Empower around $AUS800 to act as advisers. We are sure the UNFPA would not accept such small payments for their staff.

However, the money is a small part of the issue. The greater concern is that UNFPA thinks this is an appropriate process! It says to Empower that the UNFPA does not believe that sex workers are intelligent, capable, valuable partners in the fight against HIV. It says to Empower that UNFPA still sees sex workers as people who are only capable of providing colour…telling some stories and acting as sex tour guides on training field trips. It says to Empower that UNFPA still does not understand concepts like “community participation” or “best practice”. For example you said [name] was helping with your project. She came to us as a young intern to learn FROM us…we are the ones who tried to teach her how to be a part of a commuity organization and now she is better placed than us to design this training!?

When will UNFPA and others see us as educators, trainers not just targets, tools or fools?

All this leaves us wondering what kind of impact can a training that is not owned by sex workers have on the attitudes of individual UN agency staff especially while the stigma and prejudice about sex workers is so obvioulsy entrenched in much of the UN system. We note that the UNFPA and other UN agencies,as late as March 2008, are still using offensive terms like “commercial sex worker” and “high risk group” in some publications despite promises made. That such a small detail as this has proven too hard for the UN to address does not bode well for the outcome of the trainings, does it?

We acknowledge that Can Do Bar is public property so we cannot decide for you whether you include whatever the video is that you made or not. You asked us to approve the script but we cannot. We have no idea where the quotes you have came from but they are not accurate. For example we never use words like “girls” Pornpit is a sex worker too and does not use terms like “they and them” – it’s “us and we”! There are about 50,000 Thai sex workers who have been involved with Empower over 20 years. We have had a handful of westerners over the same period in minor support roles. If you quote Liz instead of us, the Thai sex workers of Can Do and Empower, it encourages people to continue to believe we are stupid and can only do something if a foreigner helps us. It also just doesn’t sound like us or Can Do Bar!

Our position is not meant to reflect in any way on those groups who chose to help you… or any other group’s involvement.


Translated by Liz Hilton : On a personal note I was horrified to see my name in the acknowledgements in the Handbook. I have not knowingly or willingly contributed to your process in any way at all. Please take my name off all and any materials associated with this project. Thanks.


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