BANGKOK (AlertNet) – It was an early Monday evening and the red light district in Thailand’s capital was already heaving -- full of locals and foreigners drinking sundowner cocktails and enjoying the flesh parading before their eyes. Street vendors were selling food, clothes, souvenirs and Valentine’s Day gifts.
They probably weren’t expecting a group of (mainly) fuchsia-clad men in towering heels, bouffant hairdos and sashes advocating safe sex, but that’s exactly what they got.
(Staff and volunteers from SWING, the Service Workers in Group foundation, get ready to promote safe sex in a Thailand red light district in Bangkok, Monday Feb 13, 2012. Pictures by AlertNet correspondent Thin Lei Win)
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen,” purred Thii into the loud speaker while standing in front of the punters, with one arm akimbo on the sparkling metallic mini dress he was wearing.
“Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day and we would just like to remind you that it’s important to have safe sex. Please remember to use condoms,” he added with a slight lilt.
(SWING's Thii with a megaphone)
The punters and the female and transgender workers sitting next to them giggled and held out their hands for the free condoms that were being distributed by Thii’s colleagues.
For the next six hours, nine staff and volunteers from Thai non-governmental organisation (NGO) Service Workers in Group foundation (SWING) made their rounds at three Bangkok red light districts, weaving in and out of pubs, clubs, go-go bars, cabarets and other shows located in a maze of buildings and streets.
They spoke to club and bar owners, dancers, staff, and even food sellers out of doors with a mix of bawdy jokes and gentle cajoling about the importance of safe sex, while giving away condoms.
(SWING volunteers walk along the clubs and go-go bars in Bangkok's neon-lit red light district.)
(Workers in Bangkok's red light district getting their hair and make-up done before the entertainment shows start.)
(Female sex workers with condoms given away by SWING, who says its programmes reach 5,000 male and transgender sex workers and 3,000 female sex workers in Bangkok alone. It also has programmes in Pattaya and has started a new programme in the Samui island in southern Thailand.)
INFECTION LEVELS STILL HIGH FOR SEX WORKERS
SWING, established in 2004 to provide support to male sex workers, conducts awareness campaigns in red light districts of Bangkok and the beach resort town of Pattaya.
Former and current sex workers take to the streets as volunteers on the eve of such big event days as Valentine’s Day and World AIDS Day to take part in a lively and interactive HIV/AIDS prevention programme. They target male sex workers, female sex workers and men who have sex with men – groups labelled by experts, along with injecting drug users, as “key affected populations”.
(A map of the red light districts in Bangkok where SWING works.)
(SWING staff and volunteers preparing at the office.)
(SWING volunteers also dress up in condom fashions they make themselves, like this pair of wedges adorned with colourful condoms.)
Thailand has been widely praised for its work in containing the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus. The number of new infections fell to 12,200 in 2009 from a peak of around 140,000 a year in 1991, according to United Nations (U.N.) statistics, mainly due to higher condom use.
But concerns remain.
According to Thailand’s latest country report, the number of new HIV infections among indirect and street sex workers nearly doubled between 2005 and 2008 and infection among men who have sex with men remains high in large urban centres and important tourist locations. Currently more than 532,000 people are living with HIV in Thailand.
Surang Janyam, founder and director of SWING, said despite Bangkok’s image as a tolerant, “anything-goes” fun capital, sex workers – especially those living with HIV – continue to suffer stigma and discrimination.
“The sex workers are accepted only because they earn a lot of money for the country, but they are not accepted as socially or are allowed to have an equal quality of life (as other Thais),” she told AlertNet.
SWING, which now provides education and support for both male and female sex workers, “is about the empowerment of sex workers to be strong and the importance of protecting themselves and testing for HIV,” said Surang.
“We never blame the bar owner or the police. We also befriend the customers. Our strategy is to work together to help the sex workers,” she added.
(Staff and volunteers from SWING support each other before starting their awareness campaign.)
(SWING staff and volunteers with a visitor to Thailand.)
(At times SWING volunteers became the centre of attention.)