Sunday, December 16, 2012
A rare encounter with truth and honesty.
Isn’t it amazing how much more difficult it is to try to do something properly, compared with the relative ease of simply shooting one’s mouth off with whatever vacuousities pop into one’s cavernous skull at any given moment?
Such as it is that this year’s World AIDS Day post seems to have taken me quite a few weeks to write. The reason being that for this year’s post, I’ve decided to hold-up on the belly-aching introversion and soul-searching from years gone by, and instead focus very much on the here and now. This year I am going to come clean on a whole chapter of my life which certain, pretty awful circumstances demanded I kept secret from this blog, and the internet generally. I’ll leave it up to you and yours to decide on whether action is required. But in short, for this one-post-only, never-to-be-repeated occasion, I am going to have a go at using this blog for good, rather than evil.
Most of you will know a little something about Tibet; maybe you’ll be aware of the chuckling fat statesman living in India’s hilly north, and perhaps you’ll know that he’s there as a result of an invasion of an ancient kingdom by a now-great superpower some sixty-odd years ago. If you know that, then you’ll have heard that many countries (a majority of those being ‘Western’ ones), while verbally condemning said super-power for its continued occupation of Tibet and rumoured oppression of its people, have never once made a substantial attempt to moblise international, diplomatic, political and/or military pressure towards the exiled leader’s return, nor the restoration of Tibetans’ religious, political and civil freedoms.
This is the stuff which makes the news (albeit still a long way from the headlines), but what is not so well understood outside of the politically secluded and media-shrouded Tibet Autonomous Region, is some of the very real vulnerabilities which the average Tibetan faces on a daily basis.
A rough business.
Within what I could only, honestly describe as a pretty fortunate life, I consider one of my greatest fortunes to have been the four and half years I spent working with an amazing, dedicated group of young Tibetans who, every day for the past eight years, have taken to the streets of Lhasa to provide educational resources and condoms to young Tibetan women and men who work in, or live on the periphery of the Tibetan capital’s thriving sex industry.
This might seem a little surprising to the reader who knows Tibet only as a seat of Buddhist enlightenment, but it’s not uncommon in societies whose culture and practices have not been influenced by conservative Christianity, to have fewer hang-ups when it comes to handing over a tenner for a quickie on the way back to the office after a heavy lunch of soup and wontons.
But despite the remarkable client through-put, one shouldn’t go mistaking the commercial sex scene in Lhasa as akin to the seemingly sexual enlightenment of say, Bangkok or São Paulo. On the contrary, this is an industry whose continued existence is very much driven by the political, social, religious and economic oppression of these unfortunate people. The reality for Lhasa sex-workers (and their clients) is gritty, grubby, dangerous and (in terms of health, well-being and life-expectancy) very, very dire.
Tibetan sex workers are young; they hail from rural areas, and in most cases, have never engaged in sex work prior to arrival in the city. They were drawn to sex work as the only alternative for survival, due to a variety of factors which severely limit their opportunities for formal employment.
First and foremost, the majority of Tibetan sex workers have little or no formal education (a few might have completed the poor standard of primary education available in their home county), so literacy is low.
Many of them are also non-citizens. While there is some relaxing of China’s One Child Policy in the Tibet Autonomous Region, larger, traditional Tibetan families are penalised such that the third, fourth and fifth children are not registered as citizens, and therefore are ineligible for government work, housing and all other state-run services (healthcare, education, social welfare etc).
But one government service that Tibetan sex workers, be they registered citizens or otherwise, are all too familiar with, is the security service. As the Central Government decrees quotas for city clean-ups, sex workers are systematically and regularly harangued, harassed, locked-up, exploited and abused by the civil and military security forces, of which there has been a dramatic increase in recent years. Since the civil unrest in Lhasa in March 2008, poor and hungry sex workers have had little alternative than to risk incarceration by working the streets during regular security crackdowns and week-long curfews. With military foot patrols working day and night and perhaps one of the most sophisticated closed-circuit TV camera networks in the world operating on every street corner, sex workers are regularly caught and/or extorted by the authorities, and incarceration is common.
Added to this, their state-supported, Han-Chinese bosses further exploit them by taking the lion’s share of their meagre earnings, and are complicit in the government’s regular rounding-up of sex workers for enforced blood tests; a human rights violation in itself which is further compounded by the authorities rarely bothering to communicate the results to the frightened sex workers who have unwillingly contributed to meeting government HIV testing quotas.
These young women work out of grimy, confined, poorly-ventilated, unsanitary spaces designed for shop store-rooms, seeing upwards of ten clients a day. With few exceptions, these Tibetan women had no awareness of sexually transmitted infections (and certainly not HIV) before commencing sex work. Most had never seen (or even heard of) a condom.
Tibetan sex workers are frighteningly vulnerable to the short and long term effects of sexually transmitted infections; their poor knowledge of these infections and how to prevent them makes them vulnerable, as does their limited literacy, which excludes them from accessing safe sex messages within information booklets and pamphlets. Added to this, they have few resources with which to obtain condoms, and even if they can buy them, they have little power to negotiate safe sex with their clients. In the event of contracting a sexually transmitted infection, many have limited legal opportunities to access the government treatment and counselling services, and are forced to secure health care services from exploitative private providers who peddle questionable treatment regimes.
A glimmer of hope.
So you see … not a feel good story this year. But there is hope, and that hope lies in the hands of that dedicated team I mentioned earlier. They have been working with young women and men from the Lhasa sex industry for nearly a decade, educating them about the dangers of sexually transmitted infections, both in terms of their immediate health, and their long-term opportunities to give birth to healthy children.
The program works hard to assist young women and men to remain disease free and healthy long enough for them to reach the inevitable end of their sex work careers. In the meantime, the program staff engage with the sex workers to foster an understanding of, and promote healthy sexual relationships and gender equality with a view to their contributing to a family and/or community in the future.
Sadly, the program is in danger of coming to an abrupt end early next year. Since the civil unrest in Lhasa in March 2008, China has made it very clear to the outside world that it will not tolerate political dialogue from other nations on Tibet. It has closed ranks on the issue and shut international tourist traffic down to a well-muzzled trickle. As such, governments and other international donors who used to support HIV prevention programs in Lhasa, are now too scared to do so for fear of damaging those all-important trade relationships.
And so it is not even a slight exaggeration to say that without support from interested, non-government donors, the vulnerable young women and men of Tibet who find themselves with little alternative than to work the Lhasa sex trade, will soon lose one of the last vestiges of support open to them. And without this support, they could well be denied the opportunity of reaching any kind of potential as citizens, or simply to dream for a healthy future.
Maybe you’d like to help?
This World AIDS Day, or perhaps this Christmas, if you really want to make a difference to someone’s life, get onto your local MP and tell him or her and their government to grow a pair. Tibetans suffer some of Asia’s worst poverty, are poorly educated, have limited access to health care and suffer the ongoing physical and emotional abuse of systematic oppression. The Australian Government should be doing more, and supporting non-political programs like the one I have described could well be a way to make a difference to Tibetans’ lives, without contributing to the propping-up of an unjust regime.
Thanks for remembering World AIDS Day, everyone, and Merry Christmas.