This week at the International Aids Conference (IAC), Asia Catalyst presents preliminary findings from a joint research project on transgender sex workers conducted with two Chinese organizations, Beijing Zuoyou Information Center and Shanghai CSW & MSM Center.
Shanghai CSW (commercial sex worker) & MSM (men who have sex with men) Center (SCMC) was established in 2004 to focus on the rights and wellbeing of vulnerable sexual minorities in China. SCMC works to improve sexual minorities' access to medical and legal services, and to improve the environment surrounding these vulnerable groups. As the secretariat of a sex workers network platform, SCMC also works in coalition with academic institutions, mass media, and other groups to improve public understanding of the discrimination faced by sex workers.
Respectively, the founding of the Beijing Zuoyou Information Center was prompted in 2004 by the rising threat of HIV/AIDS in China. The original goal of Beijing Zuoyou was to promote gay culture and advertise a healthy attitude towards sex. The center's founders began by organizing events for gay men in Beijing, speaking publically about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and promoting safe sex. Through the activities held at the center, Beijing Zuoyou became a uniquely safe, open space for a demographic that is often ostracized in Chinese society.
In 2007, Beijing Zuoyou began to provide services to transgender sex workers through outreach efforts. The organization aimed to improve professional safety by teaching violence avoidance; protecting legal rights; and decreasing risky behavior by offering HIV and syphilis testing, medical referral, and case management.
With these unique skills and backgrounds, Shanghai CSW & MSM Center and Beijing Zuoyou Information Center partnered with Asia Catalyst in late 2013 for a research, documentation and advocacy project. Although both groups initially planned to work with Asia Catalyst on separate advocacy projects, after discussion it became evident that a joint research project would be beneficial to both organizations, strengthen the content of the work and focus the advocacy strategy. . The topic selected was the situation of transgender sex workers in China.
For both groups, this research is an important tool in furthering their goal to end discrimination against transgender sex workers. They hope to better understand how discrimination affects transgender people by examining the experiences of individuals. As little is known about transgender sex workers, the research will help to identify community needs, what the best ways to provide intervention services are, and raise the profile of the kind of stigma the community faces. As SCMC explained, "We normally are not able to adequately understand these problems. Through this kind of research, we can make different classes of people see their problems."
In the first half of 2014, Asia Catalyst conducted three workshops with key members of both organizations to solidify research and documentation skills. Proper training and preparation for this research was vital because, as SCMC puts it, "many transgender people's main work is sex work, they are nervous that, after participating in an interview, their identity will be exposed." The research methodology developed with Asia Catalyst is sensitive to these concerns, and does not divulge real names or video tape the interviews.
Beijing Zuoyou explained the importance of this research project: "In addition to sex work being illegal, which results in police harassment, [transgender sex workers] also face prejudice from the rest of the sexual minority community for both being transgender and being sex workers. These factors put them at greater risk for physical violence as well as sexually transmitted diseases. Our initial goals were to raise the visibility of this community, promote greater understanding thereby reduce the risks [sic]."As SCMC adds, "stopping all discrimination against all sex workers is very important."
During this year's IAC in Melbourne, Asia Catalyst, SCMC and Beijing Zuoyou will distribute preliminary findings of the joint research project to peer groups, policy makers, AIDS experts and other stakeholders at this international event. The full report will be released at the end of 2014. In the meantime, SCMC and Beijing Zuoyou remain optimistic that the AIDS community can reach a common understanding about how transgender people are discriminated against and the negative effects discrimination has on their right to health. Beijing Zuoyou hopes that this report will "create an environment where male and transgender sex workers will be free from discrimination and violence...and enjoy the rights of other citizens."
Cheng Yuan's life changed completely when his girlfriend, Liu An, was effectively fired from her new job after testing positive for the Hepatitis B Virus (HBV). After watching her struggle against employment discrimination and becoming involved himself with the HBV community in China, Cheng Yuan decided to leave his then-flourishing career in finance and focus full-time on advocacy to end HBV-related discrimination in China.
Of the 350 million people worldwide living with HBV, nearly one-third reside in China. Discrimination against people living with Hepatitis remains pervasive in the country. Children living with Hepatitis B are commonly rejected from kindergarten classes; high school graduates with HBV are rejected from university admissions; and, as in Liu An's case, qualified workers can be barred from employment if they test positive for the disease in pre-employment physicals.
At the onset of his advocacy work, Cheng Yuan got together with a group of like-minded volunteers in Nanjing, some of whom were living with Hepatitis, to protest in city squares and public places. They printed educational brochures at their own expense and handed them out to teach the public about the rights of people living with Hepatitis. They got creative, staging public performance art shows that highlighted the damaging effects of discrimination for the community.
In 2008, Cheng Yuan established the Ganzhilu Volunteer Center in Nanjing. The center started out as a small support group for people living with Hepatitis B, and has since evolved into an advocacy NGO working on a range of discrimination issues. After building a reputation for himself as an activist in Nanjing, Cheng Yuan was recruited by the renowned advocacy organization Yirenping to help launch Tianxiagong, a now-thriving and authoritative policy advocacy NGO in Nanjing.
Like many activists, Cheng Yuan's strengths were in his compassion, drive, and experience, but he lacked the technical skills to build and sustain targeted, rights-based advocacy campaigns and affect change. So, in December 2011, Cheng Yuan participated in Asia Catalyst's one year NGO capacity building program t
o better hone his skills as an activist, organizer, and manager. For one year, he attended workshops by Asia Catalyst with nine other leaders from Chinese civil society, and honed his skills in strategic planning, budgeting, management practices, and advocacy strategy. After completing the one-year program, he reported that Asia Catalyst's trainings "lifted his confidence as an advocacy leader, and gave him unexpected rewards" as he has continued his work.
His experience with the capacity-building program was so positive that he continued working with Asia Catalyst in a training of trainers program in 2014. In Asia Catalyst's trainer program, Cheng Yuan learned to facilitate his ownadvocacy workshops. He became a certified expert on training techniques and human rights curriculum. According to Cheng Yuan, being a trainer offers "a practical opportunity" for engaging in advocacy, "because you have to look at workshop conversations from the other side of the discussion, to consider the ability of individual participants, the level of their knowledge, and other complicated factors."
One purpose of Ganzhilu Volunteer Center is to empower people to understand their rights and take action on behalf of their community; learning the skills of a trainer has helped him develop the tools to be successful in Ganzhilu's mission. As a trainer, Cheng Yuan has also helped achieve Asia Catalyst's vision of a stable, independent civil society in East and Southeast Asia: he has used the knowledge gained through Asia Catalyst programs to train more than twenty other organizations in rights-based advocacy.
The past few years have seen breakthroughs in anti-discrimination policies in China related to HBV, which Cheng Yuan attributes to constant efforts from community activists, including those that he has trained. Where there was once no legal basis on which to fight against employment discrimination against people living with Hepatitis, there is now concrete legislation protecting the employment rights of people living with Hepatitis in China. One of the most amazing things, according to Cheng Yuan, is how his organization's advocacy activities ultimately changed not just China's law, but also the attitudes of the Chinese HBV community itself. He says with a smile, "after being educated in their human rights...the community is now advocating for rights on its own behalf."
Cheng Yuan does not plan to leave his place in rights-based advocacy any time soon. When asked how he keeps faith in advocacy when civil society faces so many obstacles in the region, Cheng Yuan replied, "Drinking tea with some agencies every month can actually be a way of advocacy. Changes are happening in small steps. And I think I am quite suitable for this work."
Asia Catalyst Capacity Building and Community Initiatives Director, Gisa Dang, was in Myanmar to mark the launch of Asia Catalyst's curriculum, Change It, into the Burmese language. Here she reflects on her experiences in the country, and the occasion of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, which took place on May 17.
In Myanmar (Burma), community based organizations (CBOs) have begun to shine light on discrimination and sanctions against marginalized communities in the country. I made my first trip to Yangon in November 2013 as part of Asia Catalyst's assessment of what Burmese CBOs were asking for in terms of capacity, support and expertise. Our focus was on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, although discrimination is by no means limited to that group.
On my second trip last week, I met many of these individuals and organizations again, and increased exchanges with the LGBT community through our colleagues at human rights organization Equality Myanmar Yangon and Mandalay, and LGBT organizations Colors Rainbow, and the LGBT Rights Network (Network). I also witnessed the launch of International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) week in Yangon at the first LGBT photo exhibition that the country has seen. The exhibit opened on Sunday May 11.
On my first trip, I could already feel the excitement among organizations and national networks about initiatives to cultivate and engage policy makers and members of parliament on advocacy issues that their communities cared about. On a regional and international level, Equality Myanmar and Colors Rainbow together with the Network have been quite active over the past year, and I could see that their efforts are seeing first results. For example, the September 23, 2013 report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar to the UN Human Rights Council, highlighted punitive legislation targeting the LGBT community and a particularly egregious case of abuse against LGBT individuals in Mandalay.
Myanmar is also currently chairing ASEAN and the coalition was able to actively engage in advocacy planning for Myanmar's first ASEAN summit. Networking at the March 2014 ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People's Forum (ACSC/APF) held in Yangon resulted in LGBT, sexual orientat
ion, and gender identity issues being highlighted throughout the conference's final statement. Through their strategy of attending a variety of workshops, listening, and connecting their issues, they have been able to make themselves heard.
But how do the issues raised reflect locally? What is it like to be LGBT in Myanmar's larger cities and what daily realities do LGBT individuals have to face? In Myanmar last week for the launch of the Burmese edition of Asia Catalyst's advocacy curriculum for community based organizations, Change It, I had the opportunity to conduct a one day workshop with 22 staff and volunteers of LGBT organizations and their allies in Mandalay. A few of the participants are focal points for the LGBT Rights Network and had previously participated in trainings on LGBT rights. But, for most of the participants, it was their first experience discussing advocacy.
However, the priorities were clear for everyone. From the beginning, participants stressed equal marriage as their main goal, followed by the right to employment and establishing legal protection for LGBT rights. In hot and humid workshop conditions, participants described to me and each other their first hand experiences of homophobia and how it was at the root of much of the rights violations against LGBT people in the country. However, beyond the social and cultural environment, discrimination is also still entrenched in law with Section 377 of the Penal Code criminalizing unnatural sexual behavior and still being used against the LGBT community today. Human rights education is also very limited with the general public's knowledge of LGBT realities understandably lacking.
Hearing about their challenges, I was struck by the strong representation of transgender persons in the workshop - something very unusual, for example, in China. The trans peoples' stories of discrimination endured told of culture and tradition; of religious values that, for example, dub LGBT people as violators of women in a previous life. But most of all, the people whom I met struck me as proud. Proud to be who they are and where they were in their lives; with dreams of a meaningful life, a fulfilling profession, marrying, forming families, becoming Ms. Myanmar, and of families accepting of their choices.
The pride of the LGBT Community showed in every picture of the &PROUD exhibition in Yangon.
&PROUD is a currently ongoing LGBT photo exhibition at Witness Yangon Art Space based on submissions to a two month photo competition for local LGBT youth. I spoke with many visitors to the exhibition's opening event who were touched by the images full of life and diversity. The secret stars were the couple whose recent gay wedding was widely publicized in domestic Myanmar print media reports. The originally positive reports generated a lot of hate speech and attacks in the aftermath, but the photos on display at the exhibition depicted the moments of happiness and excitement that everyone should have the right to enjoy, should they so choose.
Asia Catalyst celebrated the Burmese language launch of its expert curriculum, Change It: Ending Rights Abuses, with a series of workshops for community based organizations across Myanmar this week.
Change It: Ending Rights Abuses, which teaches groups to design and implement a successful advocacy campaign at the local level, was launched in Myanmar this week through a series of capacity building workshops hosted by Asia Catalyst. The workshops in Mandalay and Yangon hosted community representatives from Myanmar's marginalized populations, who used the tool to plan focused advocacy projects to end stigma and discrimination against their communities in the country.
Asia Catalyst developed the human rights training manual Know It, Prove It, Change It: A Rights Curriculum for Grassroots Groups in response to requests from community based organizations in the region. The curriculum collected and codified the advocacy experiences of Asia Catalyst and project partners Thai AIDS Treatment Action Group in Bangkok, Thailand, and Dongjen Center for Human Rights Education and Action in Beijing, China, through an innovative, participatory drafting process. The three-volume curriculum, developed in consultation with local groups and field tested over the course of two years, is designed specifically for community based organizations working at the intersection of human rights and HIV/AIDS. The whole curriculum is available in Chinese, English, and Thai, with Change It now also available in Burmese.
For more information on Asia Catalyst and Know It, Prove It, Change It in Myanmar, please email email@example.com or see here for more tools and resources.
It has been just over one hundred days since the unexpected passing of activist and pioneer Andrew Hunter. As the human rights community comes to terms with the profound loss of a passionate and dedicated leader among its ranks, Asia Catalyst Capacity Building and Community Initiatives Director Gisa Dang takes a moment to reflect on a life well lived.