In conjunction with Law Awareness Week from 9 October to 16 October 2010, and as a slow easing off from LoyarBurok’s Porn Week, the KL Bar’s Posters and Articles Committee was asked to cover various activities held by the Kuala Lumpur Legal Aid Centre (LAC). One of these was a Dialogue session with sex workers. Find out more here.
Q: What’s the Difference between A Lawyer and A Prostitute?
A: A Prostitute stops screwing you when you’re dead.
To be honest, that joke came to mind when I was told to cover the Dialogue for Sex workers at the SW centre in Chow Kit. Not very PC of me, I know but little did I know, I was to see and hear for myself about a misunderstood community of women who were just trying to get by. A community which has been dubbed ‘The oldest profession in the world’ yet, ask yourselves, do you think they ply their trade out of choice? Or out of necessity?
Breaking Free of the Vicious Circle
Many of them are caught in a vicious cycle of poverty, drugs and sex work. We can sit and think the worse of them but does that change the reality of who they are and that they need help? They see no other means of getting by or breaking their drug habits. The SW centre’s role is precisely to help them break that cycle. The centre runs three programmes which are the Walk-in Centre, Outreach Programme and LAC/PT/MAC Legal Clinic which include legal aid by BCLACKL on every Thursdays). At the same time, the centre educates the women about HIV AIDS and how to prevent the spread of it. Religious classes are even provided on a weekly basis.
Today’s dialogue was in collaboration with the LAC/PT/MAC Legal Clinic who run the centre. The whole point of the dialogue was to engage with the sex workers to hear their problems and grouses and how we, from the KL LAC could help/advise them. However, that form of help came sooner than we expected!
A sex-worker approaching the clinic that morning was harassed and searched by policemen. Worse of all, they asked her for money! I was appalled to hear that as these women are among the weakest segments of society yet they were being preyed on! This sort of behaviour by police officers discourages women from approaching the centre and I was told how the centre was suffering from a drop in numbers in recent days. Imagine, what can be more incriminating than walking into a centre which caters for Sex Workers (SW), Drug Addicts and Transgenders (TG)? Yet, what right did three male policemen have to conduct a search on a woman?
On that very day, Chitrah from KL LAC and the other women volunteers went down to look for these police officers to explain that such behaviour was counter-productive to their own programme and to tell them how they were not allowed to do so as these women were entering a private building. Here, we had an admirable initiative supported by the government, specifically the Ministry of Women and Family and the Malaysian Aids Council, which are being undermined by the police’s actions. However, while we stood down there looking for the police officers patrolling on their bikes, they did not return. Fortunately, over time, other sex workers did come to attend the dialogue.
One Woman’s Plight
Before the dialogue, I spoke to Rozana, the Drop In Centre coordinator for Sex Workers programme. She told me how for every success story, they have a “sad, sad story“. She also told me how hard it was with the police being counter-productive as freely-distributed condoms were being used as a ground of suspicion for arrest. Even at the recently held “Jom ke Chow Kit” festival, meant to educate the local community on AIDS and their rights, the police arrested a number of suspects nearby the festival! All this was being counter-productive to such attempts to reach out to the community but also may turn people off from future events. It seemed like this dialogue may have been such a case.
I also managed to speak to a former sex worker, Dara*. She admitted to me while she may be no angel but she was trying to rehabilitate herself by seeking help from Agensi Dadah Kebangsaan. She told me how hard it was to get by as the police would arrest her and she would be remanded for seven days. In those seven days, she was unrepresented as she was refused a phone call and legal representation. She told us that at Bukit Jalil Remand Centre, she was one of the many brought before a magistrate to extend their remands orders unrepresented.
Above all, she could lose her rented room as she has to pay rent every few days or be kicked out by her landlord. This caused insurmountable stress on her and when she was released without being charged, her belongings had been thrown out and stolen by others confirming her fears. She also told me about other hardships faced like how her husband lost his job as a security guard and had to ‘jaga kereta’ to get some money just for dinner for the both of them. All this goes to show the difficulty they have in just meeting their bare necessities on top of the prejudice they face from the police.
When the dialogue began, Chitrah opened the floor to the 20 over sex-workers present there. The biggest issue they seemed to face was the harassment from the police. When Chitrah and a volunteer lawyer, Natalie, explained to them their rights and role-played a scenario, the women laughed along but the fear behind their faces was evident for all. Chitrah kept repeating to them that they had their rights and the police were not judges and cannot deny them their rights whatever the circumstances. She told them of due process; that they were not guilty until proven otherwise in the Court of Law. It was clear that these women have encountered the police before and were conditioned to obey and fear them unquestionably. Perhaps, for fear of the loss of livelihood and if they had to spend time in a Police Lock-up. They told us that they did not dare face up to them as they would potentially run into them in the near future as officers were assigned to an area for long periods of time. After being released, these very officers would recognise them and be prejudicial towards them.
One woman described to us how one policeman had yelled to her, “Kamu penagih dadah! Tiada hak!” (You are a drug addict! You have no rights!) before proceeding to beat her. Stories of maltreatment during Police operations were exchanged on the floor.
As part of Legal Awareness Week, copies of the red book pamphlets were distributed to everyone there. One crucial bit of advice that the Centre’s workers gave was to inform each other or more importantly, the centre, so that they could obtain legal representation for the women if any of them got arrested. Also, the women were told to stand up for their rights to make one phone call and let that phone call be to the SW centre who would then contact LAC/PT/MAC Legal Clinic to obtain legal representation. They were also told that under no circumstances can they be body searched without the presence of a police woman.
Another issue raised was how the condoms distributed freely to by them by the Malaysian Aids Council (MAC) were being used against them. These condoms are part of the MAC’s initiative to stem the spread of HIV. Chitrah highlighted that these condoms were unused and above all, MAC have an understanding with the police what their endorsed condoms cannot be used against the sex-workers. Apparently, the packaging of these condoms had the MAC logo on them and could not be used as evidence in court.
The SW centre volunteers raised a question as to the foreign immigrants who came to the centre and whether the LAC/PT/MAC Legal Clinic could help them. To this, Chitrah replied yes and there was also TENAGANITA, another NGO which could help them. It seemed that it was commonplace that the centre had non-Malaysian sex workers walking in.
By the end of the dialogue, the number of participants had swelled to 40 over.
There is a huge power gap between these women and the police. The former have been conditioned to fear the latter to the extent that not many may gather the courage to exert their rights. While we can educate them on their rights, it also comes down to them to assert them.
Lawyers have the power to even the field. Due process and equality are principles enshrined in our constitution. (Art. 5 & 8) Free legal representation would go a long way in helping these principles be put into action. If we had duty solicitors present at police stations to ensure all suspects are treated well and given legal presentation, this would go a long way in ensuring that they are fairly treated from the remand period until trial/bail. Perhaps with government’s legal aid trust fund being instituted, now would be the good time to provide free representation to those who need it the most.
As the riposte to lawyer jokes go:
A good doctor may save you your life, a good preacher may save you your soul but my, a good lawyer?
A good lawyer will save you your ass!
*Names have been changed to protect the speaker’s identity. The SW centre is run by the PT Foundation and openly supported by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development and the Malaysian Aids Council. For more information and how you can help, visit: http://www.ptfmalaysia.org
Idealistic at heart yet a conflicted pragmatist (read: capitalist), Joachim Leong currently thinks voter education and observation is the way forward to a better Malaysia. He also believes everyone is overcompensating for something in life but hey, who is he to judge?