History of Project X- Singapore
After seeing the work done by Hong Kong based sex worker organisation, Zi Teng, a Singaporean social worker and ally to sex workers founded Project X in 2008. The initial objective of the organisation was to fill gaps in services for sex workers. This included social services (e.g. housing assistance) and healthcare. Project X gave the example that migrant workers faced barriers in being able to access reproductive healthcare and explained that the social worker helped to bridge that understanding and to find alternatives. In these early days, a small team of committed volunteers (both sex workers and non sex workers) who would walk the streets of Geylang regularly in order to conduct outreach and speak to sex workers.
In 2012 there was a leadership change at Project X. This leadership change brought a shift in focus for the organisation. A plan was put in place to become a community-based and community-led organisation. In their interview with NSWP, Vanessa and Sherry from Project X explained that their core work also saw a shift in that “a greater emphasis was also placed on community building and advocating the end of discrimination and stigma against sex workers.”
Currently 60 percent of staff at Project X are current or former sex workers.
Legal Environment in Singapore
Staff at Project X do outreach to other sex workers to learn about issues facing sex workers. For example, they did around recent law changes in Singapore. There was an amendment to the law that criminalised online websites and applications that facilitate sex work (e.g. BackPage, WeChat, WhatsApp etc.). Prior to this new amendment, the only law that existed in Singapore was that it was illegal to live off the earnings of a sex worker. Project X explained that their response to this law change included deciphering what the new laws meant, and spreading the message among sex workers through peer-to-peer outreach. Project X then went on to consult with sex workers. Sex workers’ opinions and concerns were then compiled and converted into a report to the relevant authorities. “While we don’t have much hope to change the law,” said Sherry and Vanessa, “at the least we would like to be able to amplify the voices of sex workers, to show the public that their concerns are important.”
Project X fears that there will be more entrapment attempts. The police will call sex workers pretending to be clients to criminalise them. Sherry and Vanessa outlined the four forms of enforcement for sex workers,
- “What the workers call "checking", where officers drive around or walk around the area either in civilian clothes or in uniform. When this happens, you are supposed to disperse.
- Raid, where a concerted effort is made to surround an area and break into a compound. We have seen fire engines involved in a raid before. The media is often invited.
- Possession of condoms and/or lubricant.
Sex workers take part in the discussions Project X hold at their centre regarding “hot topics” (e.g. the new amendment).
Another example of sex worker involvement at Project X was their mini photo protest.
Work of the Organisation
One of the key objectives of Project X is “to empower the community, to take charge of their live and be aware of their rights to stand up against all forms of discrimination,” said Sherry and Vanessa.
Their mission is to:
- Empower sex workers of all sexual orientations and gender identities and expression to take charge of their lives by providing space for self-determination;
- Increase sex workers’ awareness of their basic human rights, thereby increasing reports of violence and abuse;
- Speak out against violence against sex workers from law enforcers, clients, and members of the public;
- Increase sex workers’ knowledge of health issues, including but not limited to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV;
- Advocate for universal access to high standards of reproductive and sexual health services;
- Foster a community that is supportive and inclusive through workshops and events;
- Dispel myths of sex work and the inaccurate conflation with sex trafficking;
- Advocate for the end of legal oppression of sex workers.
Project X provides a number of different services to sex workers. Their focus is on both local Singaporean as well as migrant sex workers in Singapore. Outreach is conducted to sex workers including sex workers working on the streets, in brothels as well as online freelance sex workers.
Project X “provides legal and social welfare assistance when required.” When it comes to their biggest success so far, Project X identified their collaborative work with the Pro Bono Services Office of the Law Society. “We have referred 3 cases where sex workers required counsel but could not afford it to their office and all their cases were resolved to the best extent. For example, a worker who was charged with false statement was facing up to 7 months imprisonment, but after being represented, the charge went down to a $3000 fine. Another worker was charged with slapping a police officer and was eventually sentenced to 24-hours in prison as the officer was the one who struck first. In another case, a worker who was facing 5 - 7 years imprisonment for drug consumption had her charges reduced to 18 months imprisonment after being represented.”
Project X also documents reports and evidence of abuse against sex workers whether police officers, public, clients or the general public perpetrates the abuse. This information is then shared around with other sex workers so they can be aware or keep track of these events and relevant information about them. “This program was inspired by the Ugly Mugs programme – but the word ‘mugs’ is not used in our country” Project X told NSWP, “which is why we call our programme the Abuser Alert.”
Project X engages in public speaking to schools and various organisation about the issues faced by sex workers and transgender people. Processes such as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) have also seen advocacy by Project X around sex worker rights. Project X spoke about their recent work lobbying the government, as well as foreign embassies in the lead up to Singapore’s latest session of the UPR which happened in January, 2016. “For the UPR, we were part of an alliance of civil society groups (which included folks from the anti-death penalty campaign, migrant worker organisations, women’s rights groups, anti-detention without trial groups, and environmental groups).”
Project X explained that the UPR process was important as it was an opportunity to demonstrate solidarity among the various civil society groups and show that sex workers are part of the fight to end human rights abuses. Sherry and Vanessa also pointed out that it was important because it is one of the rare opportunities where the Singaporean State is obliged to respond to their questions . However, they added, that the State “still has every right to ignore some parts of our report.”
Vanessa explained, “We had sex workers attend the meetings and consultation with other civil society groups, as well as in the consultation with the State and Embassies. Then the Project X team decided on what were the issues we wanted highlighted in the report.” Project X’s report addressed issues such as the HIV travel ban and gender recognition, but unfortunately neither of the issues were addressed. Vanessa said it was still good to be involved in the process: “the process of being recognized by other CSOs, by other activists, and being at the table in the consultations were fruitful for those who were involved.”
Challenges Faced by Project X
Project X faced similar challenges when they tried to secure venues for events (either public or private). In Singapore, many events, such as film screenings and art exhibitions require approval from authorities including censorship boards. “For example, to organise a film screening, you need to get the films rated and approved; to organise an art exhibition, you need to get a license,” said Sherry and Vanessa. The applications also cost money which create more barriers.
Project X also identified “funding and sustainability” as one of their biggest challenges. Due to stigma against sex workers, it is tough for Project X to get local funding. It is even tougher to secure funding that is on their terms: that supports rather than undermines sex workers rights and self-determination. Sherry and Vanessa from Project X explained, “it is an uphill battle to convince people of why they should be supporting sex workers. In addition, in many people’s minds, a charity is one that helps ‘those poor people’ rather than one that fights for human rights. In other words, an organisation purporting to help sex trafficked victims, and trades in poverty porn, will have a much easier time fundraising.”
Project X also noted that as an organisation based in a country defined as “high-income” by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), they are not entitled to many forms of international funding and support.
Does the organisation have a message for the sex worker rights movement?
When asked this question, Project X spoke about the power of solidarity that the wider sex worker rights’ movement has brought them. “For the sex workers rights movement, firstly we would like to thank them for allowing us to learn their strategies and stories which one way or another we could apply in our work.”
Does the organisation have a message for people outside of the movement?
In speaking to those outside of the movement and/or allies they hoped that they “continue spreading awareness and positive mindset towards sex workers.” Project X summarised their organisation’s philosophy in their final words of our interview: “sex work is work and sex workers are like any other professional workers and they deserve mutual respect, understanding, and lastly to be included in various human rights movements.”