©New Straits Times (Used by permission)
by Nisha Sabanayagam and Minderjeet Kaur
Most sex workers have a story of woe to tell about why they entered the oldest profession in the world. Many are unable to leave due to the stigma of the ‘job’ with some forced to stay after being infected with HIV.
NISHA SABANAYAGAM and MINDERJEET KAUR take a look at the sad lives of Malaysian prostitutes.IT is a no–win situation for local sex workers.
Not only do they have to contend with the threat of HIV infection, the pain of being ostracised by family and the fact that they have to sell their bodies to earn a living, but today, there is also a far greater challenge in terms of competition from Chinese, Taiwanese and Indonesians who use their looks to attract clients and charge less to keep them.
This has led to people like Minah (not her real name) being forced to charge as little as RM15 to RM20 per customer when the rate was usually between RM20 and RM40 10 years ago.
Minah, who has been in the trade for 10 years, said she had to work longer hours to make the same amount of money she did earlier.
"Those days, we worked for two to four hours. And we were happy. We got our day’s income.
"Now, we have to work double the hours and charge a lot less."
Minah said many men preferred sex workers from China and Taiwan who were also younger and better groomed.
"Men say they are also polite and treat their clients like kings," she said.
Minah is a perfect example of a Malaysian sex worker — a school dropout driven to the streets by poverty.
"Those on the streets are uneducated, school dropouts and illiterate. We have encounters with the worst type of men," she said.
Some are exploited by their boyfriends and willingly "sell" their bodies every night to raise money to support the latter’s drug habit or to support their own.
"I try not to rationalise the things we do for a living. I try to stay high on drugs as much as I can so that my senses stay numb," she said.
Due to that, dadah abuse is also high among sex workers.
The New Straits Times visited a small shoplot that houses some of the sex workers in the Chow Kit area.
There were between 20 and 30 "off–duty" sex workers resting there.
Some of them had just returned from "work" while others were resting for the night ahead.
Most had scars due to abuse by clients, boyfriends or others linked to the profession.
The majority of sex workers were not attractive and looked haggard because of the hours they kept.
Another sex worker was eating lunch but had difficulty chewing her food as she had lost most of her teeth due to years of dadah abuse.
Most of them were at first reluctant to speak to reporters, especially on their background and why they got into the trade.
They said society looked at them as "pariah" who were not worthy of respect.
Because of a lack of self–esteem, the women also felt useless.
Many did not even try to leave the industry as they believed they could not do anything else.
"But believe me, no one wants to do what we are doing. We are doing it for a living.
"We do not know what else to do. This is the only thing we know," said Alice (not her real name).
Mary (not her real name), another sex worker at the centre, said most of them took drugs to forget their misery.
"Some of us service up to 60 men a night during weekends. To forget our sorrow, we take drugs."
She added that most of them continued in the trade until they were too old to work.
"Most of us have children due to unprotected sex. There are a lot of social problems as the children are either left with our parents or left to beg on the streets."
Mary hopes the government will create greater awareness about the importance of safe sex.
"It will definitely save a lot of lives," she said.
How other countries are coping with the spread of HIV/AIDS
The government launched a "100 per cent condom programme" in the mid–1990s. The focus was to ensure that sex workers practised safe sex. The use of condoms in "commercial" sex has jumped to 90 per cent. The programme instructs sex workers to refuse intercourse without condoms, monitoring health clinic statistics to locate brothels that allowed sex without protection.
Soon after the first reported case of AIDS, the government set up an action plan to protect and prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS among sex workers.
'I tell them I have HIV and that they should wear a condom, but they refuse.'
RINA (not her real name) delivers a death sentence every night to at least five men.
This translates into an average of 35 men a week or 140 men a month who may contract the deadly disease because they refused to use condoms.
In a year, this adds up to 1,700 men, who could be walking time bombs, unaware or uncaring that they are infected.
Add to the equation is the fact that Rina was infected at 15 and has been a sex worker for the past 21 years.
Work in Health Ministry figures that 13.6 per cent of the HIV–positive cases diagnosed in Malaysia are through heterosexual transmission, which includes sex workers infecting their clients or vice versa, boyfriends infecting girlfriends, and husbands infecting wives.
Do the math.
In short, almost everyone is a potential victim.
Despite the fact that Rina carries condoms with her all the time, she says half of her customers refuse to use them.
"I tell them I have HIV and that they should wear a condom, but they refuse.
"I tell them the disease is infectious, but still they refuse safe sex," she said.
The men insist that the condoms are too "uncomfortable".
A former sex worker, Aini (not her real name) said that more sex workers were carrying condoms these days but clients still choose not to use them.
"If one sex worker insists on using a condom, the client will move on until they find one willing to have sex without protection," she said.
Minah (not her real name), another sex worker, agreed.
She said only 20 per cent of her clients chose to wear condoms. If she refused unsafe sex, they would look for someone who agreed.
Minah services about 20 men on weekdays, the number increasing to 60 on weekends.
It is not surprising then that the number of HIV cases in the country has risen from 73,429 in June last year to about 80,000 cases today.
"We are facing a crisis," said Pink Triangle chairman Hisham Hussein.
The estimated infection rate daily is between 18 and 20 people.
Hisham said it was high time that the existence of sex workers was acknowledged and regulated.
"You cannot stop people from having sex with sex workers. If you close brothels, sex workers will go underground," he said. By acknowledging the fact that brothels exist and knowing where they operate, the government can go to the ground and educate sex workers, clients and the public about HIV/AIDS, he said.
This has been done in Thailand and Singapore.
Health Ministry officials in Thailand distribute condoms to sex workers at brothels.
"At the end of the day, they check rubbish bins to see if there are used condoms. This ensures that the condoms are being used," said Hisham.
"All sex workers should be made to use condoms."
Hisham said there was a need for a concerted effort between the Health Ministry, the police, non–governmental organisations and sex workers to prevent the spread of the disease.
The threat of HIV is made worse in Asia, with the trend of men, mainly Malays and Indians, being closet bisexuals.
"They have unprotected sex with other men and then they go home and have unprotected sex with their wives."
Southeast Asia is the hottest region for HIV/AIDS infection in the world after the sub–Saharan countries in Africa.
HIV is largely transmitted by exposure to bodily fluids containing the virus through unprotected sexual contact, blood transfusions, re–use of contaminated needles and syringes and from mother to child during childbirth.
'Their wives don’t treat them well. So their next choice is to pay someone for sex.'
MARY (not her real name) was 17 when she was raped by her boyfriend.
After that, she had no option but to stay with him. She bore him five children — all out of wedlock.
But the large family led to her boyfriend pushing her into prostitution to support him and the children.
Coming from a poor family and a Form Three dropout, she became a sex worker at 26 after her boyfriend introduced her to a pimp in the Chow Kit area.
"He told me to charge RM20 per customer. He took half my earnings," says the veteran sex worker, now in her 40s.
She usually waits for customers in the back alleys of the Chow Kit area between the early hours of the evening and midnight.
On weekdays, she attends to about 20 men and up to 60 on weekends.
Her price ranged from RM15 to RM30 per client, most of whom are Bangladeshis and Indonesians, who return home once every year or two.
She also gets professionals, including doctors and lawyers, and others down the social ladder like contract workers and mechanics.
She said most refused to use condoms despite knowing the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases.
"I tell them to use condoms. But they refuse. If I insist on condoms, they will go to other sex workers," she said.
After more than 10 years in the business and serving thousands, Mary is grateful that she is still free of HIV.
"About 80 per cent of my clients are married. I sometimes have a small chat with them on why they come to sex workers.
"They tell me their wives don’t treat them well. So their next choice is to pay someone for sex without having to dig deep into their pockets."
Mary has also entertained the newly–married who were unhappy with their wife’s "performance" on their first night.
"They are influenced by what they see in pornographic movies and want to try out some of the methods on us.
"Most of us try to fulfil their desires.
"If we do not follow their instructions, we will be physically abused," said Mary, who is now married to a former customer.
Her husband, a cleaner, has stopped visiting other prostitutes after marriage. However, he allows her to continue "working".
"We are happily married now."
She said most prostitutes did not like doing what they did but were forced into the trade by circumstances.
"Most of us are from broken homes with poverty driving us to the streets."
'How else am I going to make a living doing anything else? Nobody will hire a sick woman.'
LILY (not her real name) is the unlikely sex worker.
She is skinny with protruding joints, crooked and rotten teeth, and a limp in one leg.
Her wrinkled face tells a story of long hours and insufficient rest. Lily has asthma, a lung infection and an apparent mental disability.
"Otak saya ini slow sikit (my brain is a bit slow)," she said.
Lily has been a sex worker for 20 years, attending to five men a day on average.
Her journey into the world of prostitution began when, as a teenager, she was raped by her father.
At 15, she dropped out of school to get married to a youth she met while loitering behind Central Market.
He was a dadah addict with no money and who slept under a cardboard shelter in a Chinese temple in the city.
One month into marriage, Lily decided to leave him after she realised that she was getting nowhere with him.
Unfortunately, it was a little too late — he had infected her with HIV.
Her family refused to take her back, and with nowhere else to go and needing to survive, she became a sex worker in the Chow Kit area.
Her ex–husband is now dead, a victim of the disease.
But she does not harbour any anger towards him for giving her the disease.
Apparently, being HIV positive is common in her family. An uncle and a couple of cousins have the problem.
"It’s nothing new," she said with studied nonchalance, betraying the fact that she knew the disease would take her to an early grave.
Having been counselled by NGOs about sexually transmitted diseases, Lily carries condoms with her wherever she goes, even though her clients do not always use them.
When asked if she realised what she was doing, she shrugs hopelessly.
When asked why she did not refuse to attend to men who did not want to use condoms, she replied: "How am I going to find money to eat if they refuse?"
She cannot comprehend the notion that she has other options of making a living.
"How else am I going to make a living doing anything else? Nobody will hire a sick woman," she said.
Lily carries scars from self–inflicted wounds from her wrist to her elbow on both arms.
"Dengan pisau kecil 20 sen tu (I did it with the 20 sen penknife)," she said.
When asked why, she shrugged and said she wanted to feel pain after being numbed by her "job".