Fellow Since 2000
This description of Surang Janyam's work was prepared when Surang Janyam was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2000.
Surang Janyam is bringing basic reading and writing skills to Thailand's sex workers, a largely illiterate group. Her educational program bolsters the students' self-esteem, broadens their opportunities, and allows them to come together as a united voice for industry reforms.
The New Idea
Surang has designed a non-formal education program for sex workers in major cities in Thailand and Southeast Asia. She has developed a flexible curriculum tailored to the students' unique needs and schedules. With help from her staff of volunteer teachers, including former sex workers, Surang is equipping women (and some men) in the sex industry with basic language skills, as well as information relevant to their health and safety, such as information on legal rights and sexually transmitted diseases, including Aids. In addition to providing daily classes, Surang is helping her students lobby for improved access to social services, including health care, social security, and educational opportunities. In coordination with the Ministry for Education, Surang has been successful in implementing components of her non-formal education model nationally.
Girls and women from poor rural families make up the majority of sex workers in Thailand. Informal estimates suggest that seventy percent of sex workers have made it through middle school, while the remaining thirty percent have only a primary school education and are illiterate. As their employment opportunities are severely limited, sex work is attractive to many who desperately need money to support themselves, and in many cases, their children and families. Even the salaries paid to the lowest level workers, those working at "beer bars," are ten to twenty times higher than the alternativean unskilled factory job. Sex workers in Thailand are employed by two types of establishments: bars and brothels. While both are illegal in Thailand, the distinction is significant in terms of the benefits and freedoms that accrue to the employees. Women who work for bars enjoy relative personal freedom and live on their own. In contrast, sex workers who live in and work for brothels experience severe limitations and are vulnerable to extreme forms of abuse and exploitation by brothel owners. These girls and women are basically sex slaves, often sold into the job to support their families. In the major cities of northern Thailand, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, an estimated sixty percent of sex workers work in brothels. For sex workers in both bars and brothels, information about legal rights and such issues as sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, is not widely or consistently available.
Over the last ten years, Surang's educational center in Bangkok has enabled thousands of femaleand some malesex workers to learn how to read and write and to pass their high school equivalency exams. Fully half of the students have left the sex industry to pursue job opportunities in other fields, becoming secretaries, teachers, or travel agents. Some return to the center as volunteer teachers. All cite the center as providing them with the tangible skills and the nurturing, supportive community they needed to assert themselves in other professions.As Surang has expanded her educational program, she has found that working conditions are much more challenging outside Bangkok. The success she has achieved in Bangkok is owing in part to the freedoms unique to the "independent contracting" lifestyle of women working in Bangkok's bars. Elsewhere in Thailand, the majority of sex workers work in brothels, where they enjoy few freedoms. In confronting these new obstacles, Surang has been forced her to develop a new approach. Thus, in some areas outside Bangkok, she helps sex workers organize locally to demand freedom, benefits, and equal rights. As they are not guaranteed the legal resource, it is critically important that they support one another and stand together in a united front.Surang has been successful in launching non-formal education centers for sex workers across Thailand and internationally. From a base of two centers, one in Bangkok and the other in Chiang Mai, Surang plans to expand to several cities in Thailand, the first of which will be Chiang Rai later this year. The second step is to incorporate her approach into national policy. She is urging the government to adopt a national curriculum for sex workers that would cover health issues, legal rights, and economic alternatives in addition to teaching basic reading and writing. Once her approach is incorporated into the Ministry of Education's nonformal education program, it will reach communities all over Thailand. Surang is taking her work to neighboring countries as well. Working with Medecins Sans Frontiers, she is introducing her work to Siam Riep and Phenom Phen in Cambodia. In addition, she meets regularly with civil society and public health organizations that assist sex workers in Malaysia and the Philippines.In the future, Surang hopes to hand over the day-to-day operations of her education centers to former sex workers and to focus her attention on building unions. As the number of women coming through her centers grows, she is encouraging them to form local committees to lobby for improved access to health and other services. For example, in Bangkok any bar owner with ten or more employees must register them for social security benefits, but the rule is not enforced for sex workers. Surang is organizing current and former sex workers to pressure the government to force compliance on the part of bar owners. She believes activities like this will help sex workers across the country come together and eventually form a national sex workers' union.
Born in 1965, Surang grew up in a poor family in a rural area of Thailand. Education played an important role in her family as her father, a teacher, made sure that the family's eight children attended school. Surang watched her mother save and borrow money to provide her brothers and sisters and her with this opportunity, so she never took her education for granted. When she was eleven, she left her village to study dramatic arts at a school in Bangkok. While in college, Surang came across Empower, the initiative of Ashoka Fellow Chantawipa Apisuk and one of Thailand's leading organizations for sex workers. Surang saw that many sex workers came from a similar background to her own, the only difference being her continuing access to education. After working as an unpaid staff member at Empower for a few months, Surang began teaching sex workers basic Thai language skills. She observed that in a very short time, her students gained not only tangible skills but also, and more importantly, self-respect and confidence. Surang has continued to work in partnership with Empower, using its reputation and network to spread her ideas throughout Thailand and Southeast Asia.