Witness #13 | Latha*
I am here today to share with you my testimony as an activist and former sex worker, and to share why we need to decriminalise sex work in Malaysia. My father died when I was only five years old and I was raised by my mother, who was the sole breadwinner having to feed five children. She was a construction labourer, and struggled to make ends meet. At the age of 10, I began to work odd jobs: first at my school canteen and then elsewhere, to help provide for my family. Then when I was in Form Three, I was stopped from going to school before my end-of-year exams as my older brother was suspicious of me being in a ‘relationship’. After leaving school, I began working as a contract cleaner at an exhibition centre.
When I was working there, a man who was working as a security guard approached me. He proposed to me, and suggested we get married but my family objected, as he was a drug user. Feeling obliged — as I had promised to be in a relationship with him — I agreed to elope. We had a simple ceremony of tying the thali [sacred wedding thread] in front of a photo of deities. It was not official, and I was only 15 years old. We were staying at his family home in an oil palm estate in Selangor with his parents and siblings — a total of seven of us. Within three days of being with him, he started to hit me and become abusive. Every time his family complained about me, he would abuse me physically, verbally, and sexually. He had many affairs. Once when I was 16, he made me watch as he had sex with another woman. He used to hit me with thorned oil palm branches until I was blue and black, and tried to go home. Unable to tolerate this, I even attempted suicide by drinking massage oil (Axe brand medicated oil) but was abused even more for my attempt.
I couldn’t go home to my family when he hit me, because they said that since I had chosen this marriage, I have to endure it. During my first pregnancy, when I was 18, as per custom I went to my mother’s house and stayed there until the child was born, but my husband had disappeared. I was in shock and couldn’t even find him for the delivery. He behaved this way in all of my pregnancies. In fact, when I was pregnant with my fifth child, I made the decision to leave him; he had even abused me in public. At this stage, my mother had asked me to abort the baby and we had tried many ways but were unsuccessful. We were worried about how I was going to raise another child with barely enough to feed four. I struggled to make ends meet, barely making any money as a road cleaner.
It reached a point where I needed money for milk, as I had all my children a year after each other and didn’t have enough milk to feed them. I went back to my mother-in-law’s house to ask her for some money to help me. There, she asked me to check with her eldest son. When I went over to his house, he asked me to come to work with him. I knew that my sister-in-law was a sex worker, but I was told that I would only be doing cleaning. Desperate to find food for my children, I agreed to work for him as a cleaner.
They took me to a hotel in Kluang, and I did housework for a while. We then moved to Mentakab where we stayed at a hotel. Here, when my sister-in-law went to the shop, my brother-in-law raped me and left me in a room. After this, a stranger walked into the room. I screamed so loudly that the brothel owner came to see what was happening. My brother-in-law then pressured me to become a sex worker, and claimed that there was no other way for me to earn a living. I ended up staying there for a month. I was young and in need, and afraid to question them at the time — I tak ada berani [did not have courage] yet. At this brothel, they didn’t give us our pay; they would only give us food, clothes and shelter. Then, finally, there was a raid on the brothel, and I managed to leave.
After the raid, I went to my mother-in-law’s house briefly and then left, saying that I was going to my maternal home. However, I knew that my family would kick me out and not accept me, as I had left my children there and had been away for three months. I ended up waiting at a bus stop in Sentul that night. Five drunk men stopped after leaving a nearby club. They were armed. They took me by force and gang-raped me at the Korea Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Somehow I managed to escape, and stopped a taxi. After sharing with the taxi driver what had happened to me, he took me to the police station to make a report, but I was fearful and didn’t dare to make a report, so I went back to the bus stop.
Another man approached me. I negotiated a rate and asked for food and shelter. He took me back to a hotel where I met another sex worker, who became my friend. I stayed with her for a few days and finally had the courage to go back to my mother’s house. When I went home, I was kicked out, with my children. Not knowing where else to go or who else to turn to, I went to the same friend, who let us stay with her. Initially, I wasn’t doing any sex work but I began to feel like I should shoulder some responsibility in housing myself and my children, so I resumed my work.
Eventually, I began volunteering with the PT Foundation and they helped provide me with shelter. Through this I began to feel more empowered, and became actively involved in advocacy work. I started to take media interviews and slowly began working in the NGO [non-governmental organisation] sector. It was only when I began travelling — my first trip was to Cambodia for a human rights training — that I realised that sex workers have rights. So, gradually, I highlighted various issues faced by sex workers, and even used to go to the courts and police stations when any of us were arrested, to help.
At that point, many women’s and other NGOs didn’t have a good understanding of sex workers’ experiences — how we were often treated in a demeaning way, or how we felt used. Somehow, I was able to start an organisation that focused on empowerment and monitoring legal experiences as well as access to legal aid. However, I was only able to run it for five years.
It was important to me that I run the organisation to work for sex workers’ rights and decriminalising sex work, as I have also endured violence by police and know the different issues that we face. Once, I was arrested and taken to the Jalan Travers lock-up. I was made to strip naked and do squats while the women police officers verbally abused me and called me derogatory terms. Another time, we were arrested and made to clean the police station, and we were also threatened with media exposure. Once I had learned more about my rights, I was a lot braver, but this meant that I became more of a threat to the authorities. One day, the police had come to arrest a neighbour but ended up brutally abusing him in public before taking him to the balai [police station]. Seeing that, I was so angry, I called up my legal aid contact and was told to make a police report, and so I did. I made a report against the police officer — some stations were reluctant to take the report, but I said that I would go to every balai till someone writes the report. Ever since then, I have been tracked and traced; I will sometimes get calls telling me that they know who I am and what I do.
I have faced so many violations as a sex worker — I have been beaten, and bitten. Initially, I had no knowledge about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or HIV/AIDS. After working with the NGO, I learned about them and was more aware. This is important information as, in reality, I had many customers who did not use condoms. We even used to stuff cotton into our vaginas when we were on our period, as we couldn’t stop work. I also faced a lot of stigma from society, and doctors and nurses. When I went for an HIV test, I was afraid of facing the doctors — as soon as they found out I was a sex worker, they tried to avoid me and wouldn’t even allow me to open the door to the clinic. I had to sit at a distance from others. One of them even said to me, “Serves you right if you get sick because you do this kind of job.” This was very demeaning, and I felt ostracised. Sex workers deserve protection too.
But then, I met a client who was very kind to me. He was not a Malaysian citizen and was an undocumented migrant; he was very caring, and would just come to talk sometimes. I jatuh cinta [fell in love] with him — even introduced him to my children — and was really taken by his compassion. I soon began living together with him and planned to get married, but my family was against it because I had to convert to Islam. Once I began living with him, I stopped working as a sex worker. I worked part-time at an NGO and also as a mini-bus conductor, and he was extremely supportive and always pushed me to achieve my dreams and continue with advocacy. With his support, I became chairperson at NSWB Asia.
However, he had a heart attack and stroke — so I went back to sex work using an app. This way, clients booked the hotel and I informed my circle of where I was going, and who with, for safety. These are all the precautions we have to take to stay safe as sex workers.
Up till today, no one in my family knows of my profession. I suspect that my brother knew or heard from someone, but it is not in the open. There is so much stigma around sex work, and we are often asked to change our job because it is not accepted. However, sex work will never end, so it is much more important to decriminalise sex work so that workers are protected, kept safe from violence, and given awareness and access to healthcare.