In late 2015 the Red Umbrella Fund announced they would provide funding to $carlet Timor Collective in Timor-Leste for advocacy on human rights, capacity building, training, and health services for sex workers.
“The funding is a lifeline for us,” said Richella Campos from APNSW member $carlet Timor, “it will let us carry on our programme.”
$carlet Timor Collective began in partnership with Scarlet Alliance (Australia) in 2009. They worked together for four years promoting advocacy and health treatment for sex workers. They have reached over 500 female, male and transgender sex workers working in the capital of Timor-Leste, Dili.
After completing the initial project and partnership with Scarlet Alliance, it was always planned that Scarlet Alliance’s support of $carlet Timor Collective would stop. However, the overseas aid priorities of the new government in Australia in 2014 meant that funding for both organisations stopped. By 2015, $carlet Timor had no funding at all and had to give up their office space.
“We try to keep going just using our own homes, but it has been very tough,” said Richella.
The situation for sex workers in Timor-Leste is very difficult. Sex work is criminalised, and it is hard to work. Both traditional culture and the dominant religious views consider sex work as a “bad practice.”
Stigma and discrimination in medical settings is common. Sex workers do not have many options for accessing health services in Timor-Leste. One of the most popular sex worker friendly health care programmes recently closed due to financial irregularities. “This is very sad because this NGO has been a good friend to sex workers. Right now $carlet Timor has nowhere to refer sex workers for healthcare. There are the public health facilities, but sex workers do not want to go there,” added Richella.
The problem sex workers face are not limited to healthcare. Sex workers may be arrested anywhere, whether they are doing house-based or brothel-based sex work, and often experience violence from police.
There are no organisations that exist specifically to support sex workers who have been arrested. However, $carlet Timor works with the National Human Rights Office (PDHJ), women’s rights organisations and the UN office for human rights in the country.
Sometimes this helps. In one case in 2015, migrant sex workers from Indonesia and Philippines were arrested and police took their money, phones and possessions. After intervention from PDHJ and an NGO the belongings were returned and the sex workers released.
More commonly, however, migrant sex workers are arrested for ‘visa violations’ and deported. Arrests do not happen all the time, but in 2014 one newspaper quoted a police inspector saying over 1700 arrests were made in relation to selling sexual services in the first ten months of that year alone, and “everyday we are making arrests.” According to $carlet Timor, the number of arrests in 2015 was lower.
Sex workers have also reported that when police beat or arrest them it is often because they refuse to provide sexual services for free.
Migrant sex workers are especially vulnerable to this type of abuse because they do not have a visa or work permit for doing sex work, and this puts power in the hands of police. Arrests are not limited to migrants though. According to Timorese sex workers “there is no law that protects sex workers in Timor-Leste or recognises our right to exist. We are always being arrested.”
The National Human Rights Office does not refer to police treatment of sex workers in their 2014 annual report. The general findings on uniformed personnel are shocking. During the preceding year, it says, members of both the military and the police forces “[…] committed violations of human rights […] that demonstrate lack of capacity, knowledge and indiscipline from actors who do not know the limits of their power, and a lack of direction, control and correction by superiors.”
Further research and investigation into police treatment of sex workers is necessary.
In the meantime, the voices of sex workers in Timor-Leste are clear: “There is no difference between a local sex worker and a migrant sex worker, both need the law to protect them and their human rights. Sex workers have a right to safety and to be free from violence. Let them freely choose their work, and let the state work to end stigma and prevent discrimination.”