NGOs face cost challenges in helping sex workers

Ms Sherry Sherqueshaa (right), one of the sex workers helped by Project X to quit the industry, met group director Vanessa Ho two years ago. Ms Ho recruited her as a volunteer.
Ms Sherry Sherqueshaa (right), one of the sex workers helped by Project X to quit the industry, met group director Vanessa Ho two years ago. Ms Ho recruited her as a volunteer.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Advocating for sex workers is expensive work. Last year, non-governmental organisation Project X spent $90,000 on outreach programmes, rent, staff salaries and condoms.

Meanwhile, it is not easy to get donations from the public. "Sex work is a topic that nobody wants to talk about," said Ms Vanessa Ho, 28, director at Project X, the only NGO here focused solely on helping sex workers.

To raise funds and get conversations started, Project X has launched an online store at selling items ranging from tote bags to badges with slogans such as "I'm a sex worker ally".

The group, which also raises funds through corporate donations, aims to raise $10,000 through this platform by early September. The sum can fund activities at its community centre for a year, where sex workers - including transgender sex workers - can gather, attend talks given by lawyers, and go for art workshops or yoga.

Such social events give sex workers a chance to meet one another and receive support and advice, said Ms Ho. "It gives them a sense of belonging."

The money raised can also pay for a year of condoms, lubricants, wet wipes and brochures - items Project X volunteers give out to sex workers on the streets.

The outreach effort, Ms Ho said, is crucial in letting sex workers know of Project X, a small NGO of five staff that was started in 2008, so they know whom to turn to for help.

"Usually people come to us for a few things. A lot come to us over non-payment of services or robbery," said Ms Ho.

Some sex workers have had money stolen from them while they were in the toilet, while others call to report instances of harassment.

Project X volunteers will accompany the sex worker to make a police report.

The group also helps sex workers who intend to leave the industry, sitting them down to plan an exit strategy, including how much money to put aside, where they can live and which jobs or upgrading courses they can go for.

Last year, about 12 sex workers approached Project X to ask about new jobs.

Project X researcher and writer Sherry Sherqueshaa, 25, is one of the sex workers helped by the group to leave the industry. She was doing street-based sex work two years ago when she met Ms Ho, who recruited her as a volunteer.

"Project X gave me the space to talk to students and adults at events and I really enjoy my work. It proved to me that I can change my future," said Ms Sherqueshaa.

Another NGO, T Project, a shelter for homeless transgender people, has also launched an online campaign to raise funds. The shelter opened in 2014 but has to move out of its space at the end of this month. To lease new premises for another year, T Project founder June Chua has started a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo with a US$45,000 (S$60,700) target. As of last Thursday, the campaign had raised US$13,448.

"Rental here is very expensive," said Ms Chua. "If we don't raise enough, our current residents will not have a safe place to live in."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2016, with the headline 'NGOs face cost challenges in helping sex workers'. Print Edition | Subscribe