In 1985, Patpong resident and activist, Chantawipa Apisuk (more commonly known within the sex worker community as Pi Noi), instigated “a small project to explore prostitution, sex tourism and issues of exploitation in the sex industry.” Pi Noi began to frequent the bars of Bangkok’s Patpong district and formed friendships with a number of sex workers. In exchanges with Pi Noi, sex workers identified that they wanted to develop their work skills and earning power through increasing their English language skills. Subsequently, Pi Noi began coordinating regular English lessons in Patpong’s bars; however, as the sex worker community learnt of Pi Noi’s classes, the demand for English classes specifically for sex workers increased immensely and Pi Noi rented a small local space to address the demand. As Pi Noi describes, “Initially we offered English language skills and in return we had an opportunity to learn from women how they viewed their work and the surrounding issues.”
From these language classes, Pi Noi and her sex worker friends formed Moolniti Songserm Okard Pooying, or Education Means Protection Of Women Engaged in Recreation (EMPOWER). In 1986, Empower began to publish a Patpong newsletter and opened a drop-in space where sex workers could study English, access referral information, exchange peer support and discuss issues surrounding their working conditions.As there was little information on HIV/AIDS available to Thai citizens at the time, and no resources which targeted the sex industry; in 1987, Empower produced Thailand’s first information resource on HIV/AIDS transmission and prevention. This resource, which was widely disseminated throughout sex worker communities across Thailand, was so well received that it has remained in print ever since, with changes only to update content.
Photo: Sex workers participating in Empower’s English lessons, in 1990. (c) Empower Foundation
In 1990, Empower expanded its focus to include northern Thailand and the organisation opened its second office in Chiang Mai. Empower’s Chiang Mai office attracted a significant number of migrant sex workers from Burma. Subsequently, sex workers from Empower’s Chiang Mai centre have a strong commitment to advocating for the rights of migrant sex workers and are internationally recognised for the work they have undertaken in relation to challenging anti-trafficking policies, the implementation of which have had a tangible impact on the lives of many Empower staff and members.
Empower’s Nonthaburi office, Concrete House, founded in 1993 as a community art space, includes an Empower museum, which spans several floors of the complex and incorporates archival material from the organisation’s history of advocacy and activism.
Empower, who were one of the founding members of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), have recently been coordinating an Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) specific sex worker network, SW-ASEAN (Sex Workers of ASEAN), to advocate for sex worker’s rights within the newly formed ASEAN community.
Photo: Empower members engaged in protest, 1990 (c) Empower Foundation