Meet the recipient of the Community Ally Award at the latest HERO Awards—an annual gala promoting HIV awareness and LGBT rights in Asia and the Pacific.
Surang Janyam, 52, is the founder of SWING (Service Workers in Group), a foundation that works with sex workers in Thailand. She won the Community Ally Award at APCOM’s latest HERO Awards—an annual gala promoting HIV awareness and LGBT rights in Asia and the Pacific. We spoke to her about the sex work situation in Thailand and her recent victory over cancer.
How did you get involved with sex workers?
My teacher-parents expected me to become a teacher too, but I knew I wanted to do social work like my sister, so I intentionally failed my exam. In 1984, Thailand’s first HIV patient was diagnosed and I started volunteering with female sex workers. The women always asked me to read them the daily horoscope—I realized they couldn’t read, so I started teaching them. The women all had dreams of studying but they were scared of judgement, so I asked the Office of Non-formal and Informal Education (ONIE) to hold classes at our foundation. I learned from my gay male friend that many male sex workers lacked rights and education, too. So, after 17 years, I began my own foundation (SWING) that works with both female and male sex workers. I’m proud to say that the first funding I received was from my former students, who now are living much better lives.
"I want the government to recognize that sex work is work."
Tell us about the projects at SWING.
We provide both general education and education about HIV. Seven years ago, we opened an HIV clinic, training former sex workers as our consultants. Our clinic has proper standards as recognized by the Thai Red Cross. Our next goal is to open a restaurant so we can fund ourselves.
What have you learned from working with sex workers?
I’ve learned to be strong. I come from a decent family where everything was easy for me, now I realize that some people have had it way worse, so I don’t complain about small things anymore. Another thing is sharing. The people I work with always bring me gifts, even though they don’t have much money. Another thing is gender equality. Gender is just a make-believe thing.
Tell us about some of the people that you’ve worked with.
Back in the day, the majority were from northeast Thailand, but now they are from everywhere. Most Thai sex workers had to leave education early and get into sex work due to their financial situation; they are usually doing it to provide for others—around 60% are single moms. Most of the sex workers usually have three to five people behind them that they need to provide for as well. The government says these people are a burden to society, but they are just trying to work hard not to be. How about admitting that a huge chunk of our tourism economy is actually from this?
What’s the situation like in Thailand now with sex work?
Stricter laws mean sex work is presented instead as “massage” or “karaoke,” but the number of sex workers hasn’t decreased—it’s just harder for the workers to make money and for us to identify them and educate them about HIV.
Should Thailand legalize sex work?
I want the government to recognize that sex work is work. Sex workers should be considered as laborers and be under the labor laws. Sex is for everybody, everyone has sex, the difference is just whether it’s free or for sale. Strict laws haven’t decreased the number of workers, they have just pushed them underground. The Thai officers think more people will become sex workers if they legalize it. Are you kidding me? Sleeping with strangers for money is not that appealing of a job.