VANESSA HO (b. 1987), SHERRY SHERQUESHAA (b. 1991), WANY DEE (b. 1983)
Vanessa Ho, Sherry Sherqueshaa and Wany Dee are the three women who run Project X, a group that supports the sex worker community in Singapore. It was set up in 2008 by social worker Wong Yock Leng, who passed the mantle on to Vanessa in 2011. Every year, the organisation helps an average of 100 workers, with problems that can range from mental health issues to drug use, abuse to physical assault. It also conducts outreach activities to educate sex workers of their rights and safety.
The cases that Project X faces are often very complex and difficult, as sex workers rarely have the law on their side. Some are arrested after their clients offer them money to take drugs with them. Sex workers who have been assaulted also rarely make police reports for fear of being arrested, blacklisted or deported. “I keep seeing people’s lives slowly being destroyed by state mechanisms, not their actions. Obviously personal responsibility is important, but we have failed as a society because we did not make sure that they didn’t end up where they are in the first place,” says Vanessa.
Both Sherry and Wany, who started working at Project X in 2014, have done sex work, and as transgender women they are familiar with the accompanying social stigma. Sherry was unable to find a job after transitioning when she completed National Service, while Wany lost her job during the SARS period. “Society doesn’t welcome trans people. That’s why they are being pushed into doing sex work,” says Sherry.
Joining Project X opened Sherry up to a career as an activist – besides being a researcher and writer, she regular speaks about sex worker rights at events both in Singapore and abroad. Just last year, she travelled to Nepal for a workshop that was part of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
Wany is the “kakak” (big sister) of the group, who remembers the bustling community of trans sex workers who used to congregate at Changi Village in the 1990s. She transitioned only after her conservative Muslim parents had passed. “Looking back it was very difficult,” she says. “I tried to find opportunities online. I was among the first few to embark on that journey of discovery.”
Vanessa, who identifies as queer, knows what it’s like to be discriminated against, though she rightly acknowledges her privilege in the space that they’re working in. At the same time, she uses her ability to “cross both worlds” as an advantage.
Says Vanessa: “Our work requires a lot of brainstorming, knowing people, talking to people, understanding their point of view, and then slowly piecing together all these ideas to try and build a case for people. It’s extremely challenging and extremely fulfilling at the same time. It’s extremely important work.”
Project X is one of the 7 projects supported by T:>Care, an initiative established by T:>Works to support projects created and developed by women for a positive change in the community.
To know more about Project X, visit www.theprojectx.org.