Reaching out to sex workers in Malaysia: Rose’s story

Rose has been a sex worker for 15 years. She was reluctantly introduced to sex work by a violent ex-partner. Despite her traumatic experiences Rose has a personal strength and warmth that enables her to use her experiences for something positive.

She is an outreach worker for the PT Foundation in Kuala Lumpur, which provides information to sex workers. “I regret that PT wasn’t around to help me when I was going through my difficult times ... maybe I would have become something else. But I still feel that I can be whoever I want to be.”

PT Foundation partnered with Alliance Linking Organisation, the Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC). MAC is the Principal Recipient of a Global Fund grant (Round 10) which supports activities to prevent the transmission of HIV among people who inject drugs, sex workers, mak nyah (transgender people) and men who have sex with men.

In Malaysia, an estimated 105,400 people are living with HIV and the estimated number of new infections annually stands at 10,375. Female and mak nyah sex workers have an HIV prevalence rate of 10% (second only to people who use drugs). These two groups are not distinct populations, which only serves to further increase their risk of HIV infection.

Thanks to the partnership between Malaysian civil society and the Global Fund, Rose and her colleagues are able to provide outreach strategies and sensitisation workshops targeted at key community leaders, and law enforcement officers and state-level religious authorities who frequently arrest or fine sex workers.

The PT Foundation also developed a leaflet to inform sex workers of their rights. “This has been very helpful,” says Jlofa, a sex worker who has experienced problems from the state-level religious authorities in the past. “When the authorities come I tell them I know my rights. As soon as we start talking about rights they just move away.”

Rose agrees. “We get a lot of stick from the police. They’ll say that we are encouraging people to sell sex by distributing condoms but that’s not true. I am proud that I am part of PT Foundation’s mission to help reduce HIV in vulnerable communities.”

“It is hard to get sex workers to test for HIV and then to disclose if they are positive. If someone did say there were HIV positive there would be support for them but it is difficult. A sex worker friend of mine, we were inseparable, but I did not know she was living with HIV. Only three months before my friend died I found out. If I had been working with PT Foundation at the time then I might have been able to save her life,” says Rose.

There is now hope for the estimated 60,000 female and mak nyah sex workers in Malaysia.  This Global Fund supported programme aims to reach 11,900 of them over the five year period of the grant.  Success will be measured in terms of increased coverage and increased safe behaviours.
 

“When the authorities come I tell them I know my rights. As soon as we start talking about rights they just move away.”

— Jlofa, sex worker