KASAMA Vol. 15 No. 4 / October-November-December 2001 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network
P.O. Box 1323
COLLINGWOOD VIC 3066
First Floor, 124 Napier Street,
FITZROY VIC 3065
Phone: (03) 9416 3401 - Fax: (03) 9417 0833
During October this year, RAQUEL IGNACIO from BUKAL, travelled to Australia as a guest of PROJECT RESPECT. KATHLEEN MALTZAHN wrote about Raquel's trip to Australia.
Dried mango, tubaos, and an idea for an organisation. Somehow, when I returned to live in Australia from the Philippines in 1996, my pasalubong 1 didn't quite fit the normal pattern. As well as the usual Baguio silver, Mindanao cloth and dried mango from the airport, I had the tiny seed of a plan.
Having worked for almost four years with women in prostitution in the Philippines, I wanted to do something similar in Australia. My plan was to join one of the few existing organisations working with women in the sex industry, but I had a pretty good idea that there was space for something more. Five years on, that something is Project Respect, an under-resourced, over-ambitious project that tries to tackle sex industry issues other groups haven't addressed.
Based in Melbourne, Project Respect focuses on violence against women in the sex industry, and that takes us both into brothels and tabletop dancing venues to work directly with the women, and into government departments, community groups and conferences to do advocacy and community education.
The organisation is still tiny - with only one (occasionally) paid employee, but the momentum for our work is definitely growing, and there is more and more interest in issues such as trafficking in women and other forms of violence against women in the industry.
One of the recent events that helped build that momentum was a visit by Raquel Ignacio, from BUKAL, the Bukluran ng Kababaihan sa Lansangan, or Association of Women in the Street, a Philippine women's NGO working with women in street prostitution in Quezon City, Metro Manila.
A few months before Raquel came to Australia, I did an interview with some of BUKAL's core group members. (see page 12 …Ed.) This was published in Filipino in Project Respect's first newsletter for women in the industry, so the Filipino women we met in brothels in Melbourne knew about BUKAL and were keen to talk with Raquel.
In her three weeks in Melbourne, Raquel spoke to a range of groups, and visited brothels, particularly ones with Filipino women. Like many women in the industry, few of the Filipino women can tell their families or friends what they do. For most of us, talking to friends about our day at work is an in-built coping device, something that makes work manageable. It never ceases to amaze me how women in the sex industry get by without this support, especially given the stress and danger of prostitution.
Meeting Raquel gave some of the women an outlet for discussing their lives and their experiences in the Philippines and Australia. Importantly for Project Respect, it provided another way of building the women's trust in us, and already it is clear that Raquel's visit helped increase our rapport with the women. Since Raquel left, they have been talking more and more about some of the difficulties in their lives - while this is sad to listen to, it is encouraging that they feel that we can work together with them to make life easier and less violent.
Raquel's formal talks to groups were equally powerful. Many people were impressed by the strength and determination of the women at BUKAL - while Raquel clearly described the violence and discrimination that prostitution exposes women to, she talked clearly of how hard the women were working to challenge this violence. It was in stark contrast to the pathetic pictures of aid recipients that many 'development' organisations still expose us to.
I was struck by how much these images shape people's thinking. While many were overwhelmed by what Raquel described, and inspired by BUKAL's work, there was still resistance to the idea that she was presenting a model that would work in Australia. For example, at one organisation, they were very happy to describe to Raquel things they did here in Melbourne that they thought she could try in Manila. But, when it came to discussing whether BUKAL's model would work here, they very quickly dismissed the idea, saying that the conditions were very different. This not-so-subtle racism surprised me, in part because the people involved were so oblivious to it. It seems many Australians automatically understand descriptions of activism in Asia as pleas for help, rather than as challenges to our ways of doing things.
I encountered this at many stages when I was establishing Project Respect. People couldn't see how a model drawn from the Philippines could work here. As Project Respect grows and strengthens, we are proving them wrong.
Raquel's visit was important in terms of educating Australians about the global sex industry, and also for Project Respect in re-invigorating our work. We are keen to continue this exchange, and are hoping that Raquel can return to Australia to work with Project Respect for a few months. Formalising the partnership between BUKAL and Project Respect would facilitate our ability to work together to strengthen both organisations. After all, if sex tourists and traffickers are working bi-laterally, we can too.
1. A gift usually given by a traveller on arriving from a journey.