'Prostitutes also need protection'

'Prostitutes also need protection'

Plying their trade in the dark, seedy back lanes of Geylang and Desker Road is not without its dangers.

Sex workers here have complained to social workers of being harassed by people, abused by customers and targeted by thieves.

Help will soon be available. On Aug 28, the Law Society of Singapore launched a $2 million project to increase public access to legal aid.

This includes the introduction of mobile legal clinics to reach out to sex workers. These will be launched next year.

A Vietnamese sex worker - who wanted to be known only as Lucy - told The New Paper recently that these cases often go unreported because many are afraid of prosecution themselves.

She claims she knows this from experience: Here on a social visit pass, Lucy works as a freelance prostitute at one of Geylang's many clubs.

But one question has emerged.

Could such a programme be seen as giving legitimacy to the flesh trade that society frowns upon?

Prostitution is not an offence in Singapore, but it is against the law to solicit in public.

Sembawang GRC MP Vikram Nair, who is a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law, said the issue addressed here is separate.

"I don't think that is the intention of the Law Society. The people in the sex trade also need protection as they may be victims of crimes themselves.

"Also, I don't think it is the intention of the lawyers volunteering in the programme to teach these workers how to get around laws either," he said.

Criminal lawyer Josephus Tan - one of two lawyers who volunteered at the Law Society's two trial clinics held earlier this year - agreed with Mr Nair: "Our intention is to provide legal advice to people with questions, to provide access to justice because that is everyone's basic legal right.

"We are not teaching these women ways to circumvent the law or even encourage criminality."

The 34-year-old was chosen by the Law Society as the Pro Bono Ambassador of the Year 2013.

Earlier this year, the Law Society linked up with Project X, a volunteer outreach group that protects sex workers' rights.

Since 2008, the group has been pounding the streets of Geylang, Changi Village and Desker Road every week, befriending sex workers and distributing safe-sex resources such as condoms, health guides and HIV testing coupons.


In March, the first pilot legal clinic - conducted by former criminal lawyer Nadia Yeo - was held at a shophouse in Rowell Road for 30 sex workers from India, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Three months later, Mr Tan and Project X coordinator Vanessa Ho held a second trial clinic at a shophouse in Geylang for 20 sex workers from Singapore, China, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Both lawyers said they did not encounter any resistance from either pimps or gang members during the clinics.

All the women involved in the trial clinics are streetwalkers who previously interacted with Project X during their outreach programmes.

Common questions at both clinics dealt with tenancy, health, family violence and immigration, they added.

"Interestingly, the foreign women I spoke to wanted to know what laws they must abide by while they are in Singapore," said Ms Yeo, 28, now a legal counsel with the Personal Data Protection Commission.

"Furthermore, the clinics will be a way for them to learn what their legal rights are because they are under-represented.

"If nobody helps them, sooner or later their problems will be society's problems."


'We do not go to the police because what we do is illegal'

Singapore is a safe country, but in this line of work, some people will take advantage of you. -Lucy

In her first week here, she was nearly assaulted by a "violent customer", Lucy claimed.

The 22-year-old, who declined to give her real name, said she managed to get away. But after talking to friends, she said she realised such incidents are not uncommon.

"Singapore is a safe country, but in this line of work, some people will take advantage of you.

"But we do not go to the police because what we do is illegal, so we have no one to turn for advice," said Lucy, who is on her fourth visit here.

Lucy's experience was not nearly as harrowing as that of another Vietnamese woman we spoke to.


Hanoi native Anna (not her real name) said the last thing she expected in clean and safe Singapore was to be assaulted by a customer.

The slender 1.6m-tall woman, who works as a hairdresser in Hanoi, claimed the incident happened last year, during her first visit to Singapore.

Speaking through an interpreter, Anna told The New Paper in Mandarin: "I was naive. I agreed to follow him to his house, even though my friends said the safest place was at a hotel."

Without revealing details, Anna - who is single and on her fifth visit here - said she met her assailant at a bar in Geylang.

After sharing a few drinks, she agreed to follow the man home for $200.

"He then stopped on a quiet road and said he just wanted to talk," said Anna, who is here on a social visit pass, which does not allow her to work.

"While talking, he suddenly tried to grab my handbag. I resisted, but he got violent and punched me in the face repeatedly," claimed Anna.

The man tried to prise the bag from her hands. When he failed, Anna claimed, he pushed her out of the car and drove off.

"I never reported the incident to the police because I wasn't badly hurt. I only had a bloody nose and a bruised lip," said Anna with a wan smile.

"He didn't steal my money or my passport.

"Besides, I couldn't go to the police because I was doing something illegal by working here as a prostitute," she said with a sigh.

Ms Vanessa Ho, 26, a coordinator at Project X - a volunteer outreach group that protects sex workers' rights - said incidents like the one Anna faced are not uncommon.

"We have heard of cases of beatings and rapes in our interactions with prostitutes and there are varying degrees of violence involved," said Ms Ho, who was recently named Young Activist of the Year by gender-equality advocacy group Association of Women for Action and Research.

"Other times, these women are harassed by members of the public, or have their cash stolen by customers," she added.

Usually, these women do not report such instances of abuse or assault because "many shrug it off as hazards of the job", said Ms Ho.

"That is why I think these legal clinics would be helpful, it helps people to know there is a solution to their problem.

"Also, I think having them talk to a lawyer can help open up their minds to the possibility that these instances are not part of their job," she added.


The Law Society of Singapore plans to organise and operate more mobile clinics aimed at giving legal advice to sex workers.

This will happen next year and will take place once a month.

When contacted, a Law Society spokesman said social workers approached the Law Society Pro Bono Services Office earlier this year.

The spokesman said: "Under the pilot project, our volunteer lawyers operated from mobile, rather than fixed venues which were near to the workers' workplaces, for their convenience."

With more clinics expected next year, The Law Society said it would also "require around 10 volunteer lawyers as the initial target pool to adequately support the increased frequency of these clinics".

This programme is part of the Law Society's expanded portfolio of access to justice and community outreach initiatives under its Justice for All project.

On Aug 28, the Law Society launched a $2 million project to increase public access to legal aid.

Also in the works is a plan to expand the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme to benefit 6,000 a year, instead of the current 400, and an island wide roll-out next year of the Appropriate Adult Scheme, which will tap trained volunteers to help mentally or intellectually disabled people when they are arrested.

A six-month trial last year at Bedok Police Division involving 60 volunteers, helped 30 accused people. The Law Society aims to train 300 such volunteers.

This article was first published on September 09, 2014.
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