Yesterday night, I went out with a group of Christians for an exposure walk around Geylang. For those not familiar with Singapore, Geylang is Singapore’s infamous red-light district – although also famous for its good food! Each group spent about 40 minutes walking along 4 streets. We also entered the alleys. It was definitely an insightful experience for me.
This group was a bunch of progressive-leaning Christians from the Student Christian Movement (SCM) and Free Community Church (FCC).They’re hoping to start a ministry to the sex workers in Geylang and so this was an awareness trip organized for people interested in the ministry.
I brought an East-Timor missionary friend I met at the YWAM gathering I attended two weeks ago. Incidentally, YWAM has also been working with sex workers. Just before that gathering took place two weeks ago, YWAM held a mooncake party for sex-workers in the same room. Both FCC and YWAM are situated in Geylang and so it’s good that they’re working with these people.
Anyway, this group hopes to use some form of English classes to reach out to the sex workers. That’s definitely interesting and it’s been done before. For example, there’s an x:talk project in London which gives “free English classes for sex workers by sex workers”. A Thai NGO, Empower, also offers English classes to sex workers. From a Christian bent, you have Rehab Ministries.
For these people, improving their English empowers them:
Many foreign sex workers struggle to string a sentence together when they are negotiating prices and sexual acts with clients. When men put pressure on them to provide sex acts without a condom, it is much harder to refuse when they are unable to cajole punters into accepting something safer. The language barrier means they also fail to secure themselves the best possible deals and working conditions with brothel owners.
But of course there are many important issues to think about. For example, by teaching English, are we thus “encouraging them to do the work”, which was a criticism of the Thai NGO Empower (see Robert Preece’s “The Edge of ESP: English for Sex Workers” article in the Aug/Sep 1997 edition of TESOL Matters). That is, are we legitimizing their kind of work?
And if we see this as “ministry” to sex workers, what is the purpose of our ministry? What are we trying to help them for? Should we even be seeing what we do as trying to “help” them? Is that being too condescending? Or should our work been seen as more of coming alongside them? x:talk quoted Australian Aboriginal activist Lila Watson in their website:
If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
How do we define our success? Do we seek that they quit their jobs and find a new one? But what if they can’t find a better job – in their home country or here? The problem is definitely more complex than just getting them to quit their job, if indeed that is one of our goals.
Do we see this from a moralistic (“oh, sex work is really bad and it’s a sin!”) point of view, or do we see this from another perspective? And very importantly, because we’re Christians, how does the gospel of Jesus Christ fit into all this? A lot of tough questions to think about. And how we answer, I would argue, depends a lot on our ideology and Christian beliefs. The more progressive SCM/FCC would view their ministry differently from how YWAM views their ministry. I’m sure both will have similarities, but also differences. For me, I’m more progressive in relation to most evangelicals, but more conservative in relation to SCM/FCC.
Anyway, this last month or so has opened up my eyes to the opportunities in using teaching English to reach out to people beyond international students. I’ve been working with Christian friends over the past few months to start a weekly free English class for international students. That’s been going well, but we still need more support and help so if you’re reading this and would like to be involved in any (however small) way, do get in touch with me! But along the way I’ve come across people who have asked me to consider free English classes for migrant workers and now I’m thinking about how such can be done for sex workers. I’m not sure I’ll really get into working with migrant or sex workers just yet because working with international students and working with migrant/sex workers is very different. At least I can relate better to the international students who are around my age and with whom I have a lot in common. But I definitely want to move towards working with the migrant and sex workers in the (hopefully near) future.