Malee's Journey

Photo: Malee protesting for sex worker rights. In this photograph you can see one of Malee's new converts.

"Jaol sal dovl mil-a lol?” How are you? That is my language from my first home. I have 6 or 7 languages, some broken, some not. Just as I speak many different languages, I play many different roles in my life and I have many different names.

To my 2 beautiful teenage children, I am "Mum".

I am "wife" to the husband I've divorced and married twice (and before you make any assumptions about me re-marrying him for his money, or him re-marrying me because I know too much, let me point out to you that I earn more money than he does, what happens in our bedroom is none of anyone's business but our own and that I am the undisputed head of our household.)

My home village is across a border and I send or carry across what my family and community needs. They call me “provider” and I've done more to contribute to the infrastructure of my village and the basic needs of my family than any government, INGO or NGO ever has.

To the men who pay me to be their short-time (or long term) girlfriend, I go by many names, some of which you will only discover if you agree to the fee I demand.

To other sex workers, I am called a “friend”, “advisor”, “confidant”, “motivator”, and an “ideas woman”, a “source of information and support ”or a“ guide

Within EMPOWER, the sex worker organisation I have worked with since the mid- 1990s, I am known as an important, multi-skilled “decision maker”, “leader”, “woman of action”, and “pacesetter”. I am also called “demanding”, “bossy” and “iron willed” because I believe in pushing our organisation and my sex worker friends past the limits of what we believe we are capable of achieving, and because once we have a plan to further sex worker issues, we should get started on enacting it, not just keep talking about it.

Academics, researchers and journalists come to Empower to learn from us, but many seem uncomfortable speaking to an actual sex worker, especially one who knows her own mind like I do! They call me rude names like “prostituted woman” and “victims”. Maybe after they leave they call me other things too! They usually begin by telling me how very important their research project will be to sex workers. Next they tell me that they need me to understand how important their research is, and they ask me to sign a paper that means nothing to me, to say I consent. I sign to show how unimportant is-who would sign it if it mattered? Next they ask me personal and rude questions:  How many clients I've slept with?; How much do I charge? ; How old am I?; Does my mother/ daughter/ husband/ cat/ dog/ know I’m a sex worker? My answers don't fit in their boxes and neither do I, so they get sweaty and red faced and tell me I am confused or don’t understand...ha ha ha, poor silly me!

 To the men in suits and ties who invite me to meetings in Bangkok and other countries, I am a "community representative", a "community spokesperson", or a "community member". For HIV NGOs, I am a “MARP” or “KAP” or “non venue based” or” hard to reach” or whatever term is fashionable and helps to get them funding.

 My friends, family and community recognise me in all my roles and identities, but outside this, most others do not look to see me as what I do beyond the time I am doing sex work.

My name is Malee Van Derberg. That's not my birth name, but it's the name that almost everyone in my life knows me by. I don't have an issue with telling you my birth name, but unless you speak my native language, I doubt you would be able to pronounce it, and you would just end up embarrassing yourself and boring me by having to repeat the correct pronunciation over and over. I can't tell you my exact age, because where I was born, there is no hospital; in fact, there is not much at all and we know our ages by season of birth, days are similar and only seasons change. As no record of my birth exists, I had the privilege of choosing my own birth date and my age – how many other people have had the opportunity of choosing their birth date and year? This means that I can legitimately claim to be 20 every birthday!

I'm a proud Akha woman, who originates from Burma. My reason for identifying publicly as an Akha woman is not just to promote rights of Akha peoples; rather I want people (including the Akha community) to recognize that I am a sex worker. Akha mothers have been blamed for selling their daughters into prostitution for decades. The stigma associated with Akha women and sex work means they are quick to deny and reject anything to do with sex work. This is made worse by the influence of the many Christian missionary groups who converted the Akha villages around Northern Thailand decades ago. Newer fake and/or fanatic "Christian" groups prey on village stigma. Standing up as an Akha sex worker challenges history and stigma all the way across the board. I’m too real to be denied. It also shows the wonderful variety we have in sex workers here...bad girls don’t just go everywhere, we come from everywhere too!

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Photo: Malee  wearing traditional Akha clothes at an exhibition promoting the Kumjing project. The Kumjing project involved undocumented migrants in Mai Sai who cannot travel throughout Thailand or around the world because they don't have passports or ID cards to cross arbitrary borders, which we think are just pieces of land. 

The Akha people are called an "indigenous hill tribe", but we are simply a culture of nearly half a million people who tend to live in small villages at high altitudes in the mountain ranging through China, Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Thailand. There are approximately 80,000 Akha living in Thailand; many of us migrated here, undocumented, across mountains, through jungles, and across rivers, amidst the background of a war against ethnic groups in Burma. Most Akha live in the Shan State where the Tai Yai people are the majority. The Tai Yai people have been fighting for an independent State from Burma for decades. We Akha have never had a state or country and often we are caught between two or more armies in Burma and must find a way to survive in the war zone.

Boy soldier

I remember when I was a kid of about 9 or 10; I was on the outskirts of the village we lived in, which was in Shan State. We lived in a village that was high enough in the mountains that neither the Burmese troops nor the Shan State Army (SSA) came to demand shelter, food or rations, or conscripts. However, this particular day the SSA came and ransacked everything. Taking whatever they thought would be useful - including me as it turned out! I was sleeping in a tree and a soldier spotted me. The other villagers had fled into the surrounding jungle. At that age, I really looked like a tomboy with short hair and ratty old shorts. The soldier took me as a child soldier –we were called Tigers. For the next 2 or 3 years I lived as a boy soldier with the SSA. I was given a rusty old gun and trained in jungle guerrilla warfare with all the other young kids. It wasn't until my hormones kicked in and I began to physically develop into a woman that anyone had any idea that I was anything but a boy. When they realised that I was a girl they had a big meeting to decide what to do with me. I wasn't deemed tough enough to stay so I was sent back to my village after being made to promise that I would never say anything about what I'd seen or done during my time with the SSA. My family were so shocked to see me, they thought I was dead!

When I was 15 or 16, I decided that there was no future in Burma. I decided to set out on an adventure and if I was lucky, build a better life for me and my family too. It was natural for me to become the head of the family. No one else was going to provide -I was able-bodied and childless, so that was my responsibility. Millions of us young girls around the world have been in this situation and make the same decision- to try, to leap and see where we land. My leap led me to Thailand from my home in the Burmese mountains. People in the region were travelling for centuries before the arbitrary drawing of international borders and boundaries. In olden terms I came to Thailand, but in modern language, it’s called "illegal migration". I didn't have any documents to show the border guards, so I simply went around them. I moved to Chiang Mai; it was the closest and most accessible city of any size near to the Burmese border, and I knew there was a sizable undocumented Burmese migrant population living and working there who could give me some tips about where to look for work, which employees or ‘middle people' to avoid, what working conditions to expect and accept, and what working conditions and wages to flat out refuse.

My first job was as a domestic worker- cleaning the residences of middle class people whose houses I initially thought were mansions. My next job was working in the backroom of a kitchen. After deciding I needed a change in low-paying career, I became the night time security guard of a school. The job was easy, but the work was mind numbing. Although I had taught myself to speak Thai during the years I'd been living in Chiang Mai, I was frustrated that I wasn't making as much money to send home as I imagined I would be when I left, and because I was an undocumented migrant, the only jobs I could get were low paid.

One night, when I was around 21 or so, I was talking to another Akha migrant worker who told me about working in a whiskey bar where she "sold her body". I remember thinking at the time, "How can she sell her body and she seem alright - which bits does she sell?” It was a renowned torture method used by the Burmese Army to slice pieces of flesh from captives and make them eat themselves. So naturally I thought it was something like that. I wondered how it would feel to cut pieces of myself and sell it? Would I be brave enough to do this for my family? I'd get paid more money than I'd ever make by guarding primary schools. Maybe they would give me whiskey so that I could just pass out and they'd do it to me without me feeling anything."So, despite my fears for the worst, that night I turned up at a rickety bamboo bar. It was decorated with fairy lights and there were quite a few men drinking there. The woman in charge kept trying to set me up to talk to some of the men, but I was so nervous about "selling my body" I was pretty rude to them and kept refusing to go anywhere with any of them. The woman in charge was getting very frustrated with me and asked me what I was doing there if I wasn't going to go with a customer. When I told her "How can I go have fun with them when I have to sell bits of my body soon?” When she understood she roared with laughter. I found out I only had to sleep with the men, not sell my body parts to them! "Is that all - what a relief!" After that little hiccough I was making much more money than I'd ever previously had in my life! I would make in 1 night of sex work what I would make in 1 month in my previous jobs! The work was interesting too. I got to meet men from all walks of life. The bar used to attract Thai men, some migrant men, and sometimes even falang (Western men) who'd lived in Chiang Mai for a few years and worked around the city and could speak a few basic Thai phrases and words. Over time, I got to know a few of the falang by face and name, but I couldn't really communicate with them beyond telling them the price and agreeing where to go. I became more curious about English and decided to learn it myself too. I really wanted to ask them did they have sex workers like us in their countries and to find out why they'd come to Thailand from such rich countries. It was through these customers that I learnt that there were other bars where all the clients were falangs and who paid even more! I was determined to learn English and I was teaching myself more and more English with every customer. I had one regular falang customer with who I could communicate with fairly well. I told him to write down the name of the street/s where the higher-paying bars were.

Standing up against what isn't fair

Once I knew where to look, off I went. It was easy to find a job but I wasn't impressed with the "bar rules". There was a small monthly wage, but there were also "bar rules". These restricted virtually aspect of our working conditions- if the staff couldn't or wouldn't comply with the "bar rules", we would have our salary cut. The “bar rules” applied to everything: only one day off a month; how long I could spend in the toilet; a quota for how many drinks I needed to have bought for me that month (or be fined for each drink I was under quota!); a quota for how many customers I needed a month (or again be fined for each customer under quota); how I should dress (even if I couldn't afford it); how much time I had to spend dancing; and how I should behave around customers (never have a problem with the customer, no matter what he does); when late we were charged by the minute! I never got my full salary ever. By 1990 I had worked at a number of falang bars and was getting a reputation for standing up for anything I thought wasn't fair. Also I had done so many things people came to me for advice. Other workers would ask me about lots of things, like how to talk with police, what to do if you had no documents and got sick, how to contact home, how to get customers to become regulars- all kinds of things.

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Photo: Muay Thai is centuries old form of martial arts, using only your body as your weapon. Empower holds Muay Thai boxing contests, with sex workers fighting contestants representing our enemies- stigma, discrimination, access to universal health care, migration policies, criminalisation of sex work, lack of access to a national occupational health and safety policy for sex work venues, radical feminists, people who want to rescue us, a lack of recognition of sex work as work, and many other issues we fight against every day. Malee: "In this photo I am fighting all these issues, and needless to say, I won the fight!"

Over the years I'd been living in Chiang Mai I'd heard about some organisations which dealt with different issues. There are hundreds now but 20 years ago the only organisations I heard about were teaching about HIV, environment groups and Christian groups to tell you to give up sex work and sew bags. I had heard about a group, Empower, which had just recently started a drop in centre in Chiang Mai. From the stories going around about them, they had started in Bangkok and were offering free education and other activities too-just for sex workers. I thought that this organisation sounded a lot more suspicious than any of the other groups I'd come into contact with -offering free services to sex workers? I thought there had to be a catch! I did my own brand of research on them. I asked everyone I knew. For a few weeks I waited outside the centre in the street watching to see if women came and left freely. It seemed OK so far, so I decided to conduct a trial and go in and check it out for myself. I came involved with Empower in 1994. Empower was a small two room apartment and it was regularly packed and overflowing with workers as we learned Thai, English, discussed life, law and love. I found Empower had no hidden agenda except for safe fair work and acceptance for all in society as equal human beings. The activities on offer were those that sex workers identified, things we really needed, not an NGO plan. Services were only half of Empower though, more than that we had our own space and resources to organise and act to create social change. In those days so many sex workers, including our key leaders died from HIV/AIDS. Bad policy, horrific working conditions, stigma; I learned firsthand how all these things are killers. There was no care for positive sex workers anywhere, let alone treatment. I am strong in my heart so I was one of those who cared for our dying - many in our drop in center. We became experts at organising funerals, which is especially difficult when Thai law makes it illegal to die without documents. I also began to speak up about this reality in public forums, to media and at government policy level. I was trying to get them to hear that sex work is work and that our work does not cause HIV but bad law and stigma does.

It’s now 20 years later, but many still haven't heard this message. Fortunately working conditions in the sex industry slowly improved without any help and our HIV rates fell. Now the hot issue is trafficking. Will we spend 20 years saying sex work is work, our work does not cause trafficking but bad law and stigma does? How exhausting! There were so many injustices to fight against, and although it saddened me, it filled me with a fire that continues to this day. Over the past 20 years, a fraction of what I've been part of has included: fighting "raids and rescue", translating for workers in police cells, as well as at a policy level, being part of sex worker community research "Hit and Run" and initiating sewing of a tapestry by the sex workers who had no other way to "write" their report ; challenging the 100% Condom Use Policy (CUP); opening the Can Do Bar, the world's only collectively owned sex worker bar, a model for safe fair work;  co-written, produced and starred in a film, "Last Rescue In Siam"; led hundreds of sex workers through decades of rallies for May Day, International Women's Day and World AIDS Day, ensuring that a diverse cross-section of the community recognize sex work as work; co- developed, created and participated in street theatre in at least 5 different countries (including in several red light districts); and educated and re-educated so many policy makers, academics, students, journalists, UN agencies and religious leaders, that I’ve lost count of how many others! Sex workers learn so much faster than many of these people and throughout the process of education and re-education, I have to be very patient. They should eat more fish- I heard fish is brain food!

When I get asked about "how I became an activist and grass-roots leader", I think people expect that I will answer by talking about undertaking training, participating in workshops, or being inspired by reading some book. The truth is, I don't feel as though any of these activities created the person I am today. Although I feel as though Empower has given me a platform to raise and express my ideas, it wasn't Empower who "made me a sex worker leader". Whether or not I'd ever become involved with Empower, I was always going to be a person who challenges what they don't like or don't agree with. When I became involved with Empower I was already called “leader” by other workers. But one leader is nothing really- a shooting star or a dictator. Empower is a movement of leaders: old, new or unhatched-no matter where people are up to in their personal development as a sex worker and an activist. Now that is a powerful thing to be a part of, and that is how change will happen. Not a single leader but all of us, Empower, together. I also want to remember the sex worker leaders at Empower who mentored me. They were the generation before me and the pioneers in Empower.

I feel as though the experiences of my life have naturally developed my leadership skills. There are some situations in my life where I've had to be uncompromising just to ensure my own survival and the livelihood of my loved ones. There are other situations when I've had to compromise, despite not wanting to. One of the most important lessons that developing leadership skills has taught me is to be flexible. Over the years, I've realized that getting what you want is about context and that the way to win a fight is through using a range of different methods. At Empower we use a number of different strategies, "Sweet, Smart, Strong and Sexy", to achieve the most effective outcome for a particular issue. We are a multicultural, multi-language diverse community and many of us don't read and write, we are the extended family provider, we all do stigmatised illegal work, and lots of us have no legal right to be in the country. This is a great oven to cook up some creativity! We’ve had to get creative because many traditional activism strategies don't work for us.

'Always be prepared for any situation'

I feel as though there are so few opportunities to advocate for sex worker rights that sex workers need to have a range of different skills and tools, and be ready to use them whenever we have the opportunity. We not only need to know how to be "Sweet, Smart, Strong and Sexy", we need to know what these words mean in relation to how we undertake advocacy, and when is the most effective time to use these strategies. I also think we should provide a visual presence- at the very least it makes people notice us , think about what we are doing within that space, and perhaps even come and talk to us about who we are and what issues we are fighting for. Some of the approaches I've used in international conferences have included: engaging other delegates in street theatre; wearing t-shirts with sex worker slogans; carrying a red umbrella; positioning myself near a microphone during an oral session to ensure that I have access to it and that everyone hears what I have to say; knowing when and when not to speak to the media; and organising sex worker flash mobs or protests. Whether it's in the media or at a conference, I feel that sex workers never get enough opportunities to speak for ourselves, usually there is a doctor, academic, or some other "expert" speaking about us, so we need to be prepared to take every opportunity we can to speak for ourselves, or to create a situation where we can. Forgetting the "Dibbing and dobbing", we need to liberate the Boy Scout's mantra of "Always be prepared for any situation" (and maybe retain their fire-starting badge too:)!

When new sex workers become involved at Empower, they often look to me as a "sex worker leader", simply because I've been involved with Empower for so long and have relationships with so many people within the sex industry. I've also lived in Chiang Mai for so many decades now, that I literally know thousands of people, so if something needs doing, I can usually solve the problem. When new workers come to Empower they walk into a strange place with women sitting around, reading the paper, posing for selfies, preparing food, eating, gossiping, washing each other's hair, making props for a new street theatre, helping each other compose texts to clients/ boyfriends, using the Internet or attending a Thai or English lesson class. On a busy day, the sound of sex workers socialising is a raucous cacophony, and my voice is usually the loudest of anyone's. I think the best way for me to help a new member to start to feel at home amongst all this activity is to simply introduce myself and ask her if she'll help me with what I'm doing. I really believe in action and I believe in human ability. I don't accept "I can't" from myself or other sex worker activists - old or new. I believe that all people learn best by having to use their own initiative, cultivating their own ideas and by actually doing something - no matter what their effort yields, the process of doing it is what's crucial.

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Photo: Malee (back row, 2nd rfrom the right) with friends at Empower in Chiang Mai. Together they set up the sex worker-led Can Do bar . In the front row of the photo, on the left hand side, you can see Lek, one of our dear friends who departed this earth in 2010.

At Empower we use a practical theory called "Learning By Doing" to develop our skills. There's no point when someone graduates as an activist, we are always learning together by challenging ourselves and each other to develop new aptitudes and expertise. So, when new sex workers become involved in Empower, I simply get them to help me in what I'm doing. Sometimes just cooking, sometimes preparing for visitors, sometimes mending our performance costumes, whatever needs doing at the time. This is how I begin to grow other activists. Many of our best ideas have come from gossiping together as we do some task or other. No one ever knows where the original idea came from. It is just there and everyone adds to it, shaping it, tweaking it until suddenly we have a plan for a film, a new performance, a petition, a t-shirt, a public meeting, an art exhibition or whatever. Everyone has added something and been a part of it so we all have a sense of pride and ownership over the action. "Learning by doing", builds confidence, experience and knowledge that we have the ability to challenge issues in our lives.

 I believe that another important aspect for growing sex worker activists is modelling. We have so many negative models that society has created for us. We are constantly told that we are stupid, passive, uneducated, a victim, or that we should look and act a certain way. I think it’s important that sex workers are not just represented by me but rather can be right there to see and hear how I speak out against issues I don’t agree with. Once they see that Malee is just the same as them and can do it, they know they can do it too!

Just like being a sex worker leader isn't just about saying things and not doing them, being a village leader means more than just sending money back to my village. Every year I take a holiday back to Burma to visit my family. Even with a new dirt road connecting the district, it's still a 1hour hike to my village from where the songtaw (a form of public transport which is basically a ute with a hooded roof and wooden slats down either side of the tray to sit on) drops me. Depending on my level of involvement in current Empower projects; I usually go back home at planting or harvesting time because that's when my family needs me the most. Even though I know my family miss me, and I miss them, we all know that their quality of life wouldn't be as high as it is now if I lived with them back in Burma.

When I return from my "vacation", you can literally feel the calluses on my hands! The anti-sex worker feminists who think that "sex work destroys the body" should try a day of planting or harvesting rice in the hot sun using traditional farming tools and re-think that statement! 

Profile written by one of our regional correspondents based in Asia Pacific.