A friend of mine once told me how he became aware of his HIV status, in an explanation that went beyond what I had expected.
“Dia kata kalau buat ni (rapid test for HIV screening) kena bayar. Tapi kalau tak nak bayar, dia boleh tolong, dia suruh main. Aku mana ada duit.”
In Malaysia, rapid tests for STD screening are available at all public health facilities. What should also be known is that they are free of charge.
As someone from an underprivileged background, my friend had quit his secondary schooling and was forced to become a sex worker as he had no means of finding a job in the city without any qualifications. Living from hand to mouth through sex work meant that my friend was not given the opportunity to empower himself through education as his time was spent making sure he would not go hungry each day.
I was shocked at his casual confession, but what saddened me was his remark – “Kau tahu orang bodoh memang macam ni lah, mana aku tahu” – when I told him he had been exploited.
He knew it was important for him to be aware of his status, yet he was never told how to seek help.
“Tapi kawan aku yang lain pun sama je, diorang pun kata kena main.”
My friend was not alone in his exploitation; his acquaintances were also coerced into sex in exchange for a simple rapid test widely available at all public health care facilities. Such exploitation was seen as normal and unquestioned. There was no one to tell my friend or his acquaintances that it was an ethical violation, and that they should never have given in to such a proposition.
They, the victims, had normalised the problem and internalised the perception that they are deserving of such exploitation. To whom can they turn to if they do not know? In what way can they file their complaints if they cannot find a way to put into words the discomfort of the exploitation they face? Their feelings are valid, yet to absolve their circumstances requires a way that is accessible only to communities other than theirs.
We should not see these incidents as an isolated and simplistic form of exploitation. We need to ask how this matter was allowed to happen. The culprits target the vulnerable: the uneducated, the disempowered and the underprivileged. While the culprits can be identified as persons and punished for their actions, the system in which they and their victims must be reflected as well. We must be aware that such incidents are calculated moves allowed by the systematic oppression of the underprivileged.
There has been active advocacy for sexual and reproductive health rights issues. Efforts in HIV and AIDS activism have been successful in that high-risk individuals are urged to know about their condition. But this success may only be those who are privileged enough to be empowered through these campaigns. Underprivileged people who do not have the opportunity to be actively included in these efforts will be left out and will face exploitation, as has happened. Would it be fair to question the whereabouts of social workers and activists then?
Blame must not be placed on advocacy efforts alone. Where is the presence of authority figures in making sure that this form of exploitation does not happen in the first place? Are underprivileged individuals even a priority for them?
The success of advocacy efforts cannot be guaranteed without the assistance of authorities. This issue cannot be tackled if there is no way of regulating social assistance that would prevent such negligence.
Efforts to educate and advocate continue, but efforts to adjust to the needs of the underprivileged must also be present. We can tell these people to seek help and to know about their condition, but if we do not provide any means by which they can seek help, our contribution will stop there.
“Susah jadi orang tak pandai ni. Kalau aku pergi sekolah, tak campur dengan orang jahat, mesti aku jadi macam kau. Tak apalah Sin, dah jadi.”
These underprivileged individuals are bound to question their lives, and are filled with questions of what they could have been if they had taken a different path. But their condition is a bitter reality that they have to accept.
It is disappointing to see them eventually blaming their struggle on their own powerlessness when they were simply not given the liberty and opportunity to empower themselves.
Many of them will continue being underprivileged, with no chance of tasting freedom from exploitation or the hope that their lives could be a little bit different if they were just given a chance.