Wi Mayeo is a community leader: she’s a trusted advocate with policy makers and teaches Thai literacy and computer skills. Wi Mayeo is also a sex worker.
After moving to a small village in Northern Thailand, Wi worked different jobs before becoming a sex worker. Like many migrant sex workers from Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and China, she was denied her right to education. Wi realized that in order to protect herself against exploitation, she needed to learn how to read and write Thai.
While searching for literacy classes, she found the Empower Foundation, a Global Fund for Women grantee partner run by a collective of sex workers. Through Empower, she took courses in business, labor rights, and foreign language. With its 30,000-strong membership, the heart and soul of Empower’s work is to eliminate exploitation and decriminalize adult sex work by equipping its members with information and education.
“Human beings need to belong,” said Wi, who is in her mid-twenties and from the ethnic minority group, Akkha. “We all need a community to celebrate together, mourn together, and grow strong together.”
Creating a Safe Community
Women doing sex work in Thailand contribute about seven percent to the country’s total GDP, the largest single contributor -- even above rice sales. The lack of legal protection for an estimated 200,000 sex workers establishes them as a large group of vulnerable and exploitable labor, exposing them to possible injury and dangerous situations.
Empower organizes against unfair labor practices and advocates for equal rights. Empower sex workers sit on government committees and advise local policy makers on fair labor laws.
In fact, after years of lobbying, Empower was able to push for the inclusion of sex workers in Thailand’s social security scheme. Now, sex workers like Wi have access to maternity and medical benefits.
Raising the Bar
With the goal of showing policy makers, employers, and society what safe working conditions for sex workers look like, Empower members raised money to build the Can Do Bar, an entertainment bar owned and operated by Empower. Can Do Bar employees work a maximum of eight hours per night and have one day off per week. Condoms and lubricant are freely available and workers are trained in safe sex education.
The same DJs who spin at the Can Do bar also broadcast information about women’s health, HIV/AIDs, and women’s resources twice a day over the community radio.
“Empower is our community,” said Wi. “It’s a space we own and belong to. We learn, laugh, share and build a place in society for us to stand up together and insist on our human rights.”