Putting A Face To It
Some years ago, I had the opportunity to walk the streets of our red light district with a group of volunteers. For those unfamiliar, Singapore does have a red light district and there are local groups and organisations who reach out to sex workers to offer help of various kinds. In this post, I share the unforgettable encounter.
A Chanced Breakfast
A year before this event, I had an unplanned breakfast meeting with a couple of friends and a lady who volunteers with one of these groups. Over breakfast, she shared with us many stories of these girls whom she worked with. In particular, there was a story of a young girl who was given her first client when she was only 14 years old, by her own mother who was herself a sex worker. This girl grew up in an environment no child ever should, and I lost my appetite for breakfast instantly.
I listened to story after story of trafficking and abuse, and left that meeting feeling extremely lost and confused. I was a typical Singaporean kid studying in a polytechnic, sheltered from the realities of such absurd injustice and suffering. As I headed back to class that afternoon, I felt like my entire education and academic pursuits would be utterly meaningless if all I achieved in life was my just own comfort and material success.
So a year later, as the group of us headed out that night, I was eager to meet these ladies in person to find out their stories for myself. We carried light snacks and bottled water and offered them to these women who stood by the road side waiting for clients. While doing so, we would strike a casual conversation with them and this was supposed to help make them feel treated more like a human and less like an object.
A friend and I approached this foreign girl who looked pretty young. After some small talk, I sneaked a more personal question and asked her why she was doing sex work in this country. Did she want to do it? Was she forced and trafficked here? I was curious. Long story short, it was her second time in the country and she wasn't trafficked. The first time she came though, she was tricked by an agent who told her of promising work and economic opportunities here in Singapore. But as it turns out, she was brought here on a visitor pass and made to work as a prostitute. Helpless, she did what she had to do and as soon as her visa was up, they brought her back to her home country. Her voice was just a little shaky as she shared this.
I then asked her why she had came back after that experience. To which she shared with us her family situation back home and the financial responsibilities she had to look after her younger siblings. There were no economic opportunities for her back home that could adequately put food on the table and a roof over their heads. So over the short-term, it was a choice between her dignity or providing for her family. At this point, she was clearly holding back her tears even as she tried to sound confident and convinced, that her trip here was worth it.
Theory of Change
I left that conversation with a thousand thoughts going through my head and a myriad of emotions within. This girl that I spoke to, we were of the same age. Yet our lives were vastly different. I was still in school, pursuing my dreams and ambitions. While she was standing out on the streets, waiting for clients. She suffers the consequences at the very end of the line where businesses choose to increase their profit margins by squeezing their supply chain. In desperation out of a lack of economic opportunities, vulnerable women are exposed to undignified work as the only solution.
When I think of inequalities and the unethical treatment of workers in developing countries, I think of this girl that I had a conversation with. She is unaccounted for, a victim of a larger eco-system where executives in luxury homes consciously make the decision to cut everyone down the line. One does not need a degree in philosophy or a masters in business administration to understand ethics and ethical business practices. We simply need to value people over profit.
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