PETALING JAYA: When Ros (not her real name) married at a young age, she had dreams of being swept off her feet by a dashing young man. It never happened. Instead, she ended up destitute and desperate when her husband abandoned her and her infant son a year later.
Her relatives were no help – her husband’s father and brother both wanted to bed her.
Now 35, she makes a living doing sex work, which at least provides her with financial independence.
Speaking to FMT, researchers Janarthani Arumugam and G Selvi, under the auspices of Asia Pacific Network of Service Workers, said this was a textbook scenario for many sex workers in urban areas in the country, especially for unskilled and poorly educated women left poor by circumstances.
Telling Ros’ story, Janarthani said she had been actively working for more than five years, after finding that she could not get support from her own family through conventional means.
“When she needed help to buy milk powder, her father-in-law basically told her, ‘If you sleep with me, I can provide you with financial support’. The same thing was said to her by her brother-in-law,” Janarthani said.
Feeling humiliated by the way her own family was treating her, she decided that she needed to depend on herself to provide for her child.
“She couldn’t go to any organisation that provided aid. There was no other avenue for her.”
Janarthani said Ros was positive about the future because now, she was educating her seven-year-old child and could care for her elderly mother.
During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ros also reported being able to give back to society, giving donations wherever possible.
“She is also dependent on government financial aid, of course, but she feels that this job is able to provide her with some sense of financial security.”
Ros was one of the 30 sex workers from Kuala Lumpur, Selangor and Seremban interviewed as part of Janarthani’s and Selvi’s research.
The researchers said many sex workers, on top of their existing financial stress, were also severely affected by the movement control order (MCO) which made it difficult for them to meet clients, who were mostly migrant workers.
They are now mostly dependent on the government aid given to them from the economic stimulus packages.
For the aging sex workers, poverty is a harsh reality as their income falls as demand for their services goes down and younger girls take over their clientele.
“They don’t get clients the way they did when they were younger. Their income has dwindled severely. They experience health issues but they still have to work, because they don’t have EPF or Socso. They also don’t have insurance – none of these things are available for them,” they added.
“That is the reality in Malaysia today which a lot of policymakers refuse to admit. Poverty is a serious issue among single mothers, aging women, women who are uneducated and most women who don’t have secondary school education.”
“They are also those who are educated and employed who do this as part-time work because the options for well-paying jobs are so limited.”
Janarthani said many do not admit that they are doing sex work because of the stigma that is associated with the work.
The researchers, however, have found that Muslim sex workers experience something a lot more serious because sex work was also a crime under shariah law.
“They face a lot more barriers. A lot of them are single mothers, their husbands are not paying nafkah, etc, so they go into sex work.
“But the kind of stigma they face is multiple compared to others. The others don’t face religious enforcement,” she said.
Selvi, who has worked as an outreach volunteer in many sex worker communities and brothels for the last 20 years, said one of their biggest concerns was consistent testing for sexually transmitted diseases and infections (STDs and STIs).
She said that even though most women interviewed were already under existing HIV prevention programmes, such as the one offered by the Malaysian AIDS Council, there was a need for programmes to cater to sexual reproductive health needs such as pap smears.
This was crucial for women who are in their 40s and getting into their 50s.
She said even though most already have health records in hospitals for HIV screenings and other infections, they still reported discrimination or unfair treatment when seeking medical services in other units of the hospital.
“They treat them like they are dirty. Thus, they avoid going for these sexual health screenings in government hospitals.
“In fact, they are willing to pay more at private places, because they can talk about their issues and disclose that they are sex workers, and they know they are not going to be treated differently.”
Selvi also reported observing new trends among sex workers in Malaysia, where drug addiction was on the rise due to clients pressuring the girls to take drugs.
“Clients want them to use certain drugs in order to be hired. If you are not using say, for example, meth, the clients won’t hire them.”
Harassed by enforcement
The research had also found an increase in police raids where the women worked during the MCO.
“During the MCO, sex workers were among the main targets,” Selvi said, adding that authorities were actively looking for sex workers, perceived to be a high-risk group for spreading the Covid-19 virus.
“They were not working for six months but the raids were still going on. Women who were staying in the brothels were severely harassed by the police.”
The researchers added that women claimed police would even threaten them with violence if they do not admit that they are doing sex work, making it very difficult for them to negotiate with police.
Most women were not aware of their rights during raids and would not even ask officers for their identification cards.
Almost all sex work related activities are illegal under Section 372 of the Penal Code, which makes soliciting for prostitution in any place and knowingly living on the earnings of prostitution illegal. Section 21 of the Shariah Criminal Offences Act provides for fines and whipping to punish “any woman who prostitutes herself”.
It is also punishable under Section 12 of the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988. Under this law, it is an offence for a person (who knows or has reason to believe that they have HIV) to do any act which they know or have reason to believe is likely to lead to the spread of HIV.