Activist Ye Haiyan continues 'dirty battle' for sex workers' rights

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 June, 2013, 5:25am

Activist Ye Haiyan has been called everything from a hooligan and troublemaker to a prostitute, feminist, sex workers' rights activist and a pro-democracy crusader.

To Professor Ai Xiaoming, a Guangzhou-based scholar and documentary maker, Ye is "a rare and courageous woman who fights the dirty battle for sex workers' rights in China". But some conservatives have described her as a crazy liar who leads a raunchy lifestyle and colludes with hostile foreign powers to create trouble.

She was released from 13 days of detention on June 12 after she scared off three trespassers to her home, soon after she returned from protesting in Wanning, Hainan, outside a school and a government school where a school principal and a government clerk were accused of raping six girls, aged 11 to 14.

On the day of her release, Ye's 13-year-old daughter lay quietly in bed beside her controversial mother, who was busy being interviewed by journalists.

"I'm just happy to have my mum back," she said. "I only began searching my mum's name online a few days ago. I don't really know what she is doing but I think she is helping women and girls who got raped by a principal.

"She's like [the character] V, who can move people and liberate a nation," her daughter, a fan of the movie V for Vendetta, said.

"I think she's liberating [women] and sex workers."

However, she's also afraid of the constant harassment they have faced. "Our lives have been derailed," she said.

Ye and her daughter are looking for a new place to live away from Guangxi after just two years in Bobai county.

Born in a rural part of Hubei's capital, Wuhan , Ye once dreamed of becoming an author. She worked as a substitute teacher in rural Wuhan but the pay was only 240 yuan a month so she moved to Bobai county at the age of 21, hoping to make a better living.

"I realised I was never going to become an author so I came to Bobai where I worked in a karaoke bar and met my husband," Ye said. The marriage only lasted a year, leaving Ye a single mother with a newborn daughter.

Her main goal then was to get a good job and raise her daughter properly. She worked as a hotel manager, secretary, website editor and medicine sales representative and also as a rights advocate, travelling to Europe, the United States, Hong Kong and India for training. She has published more than 200,000 words online and her microblog has more than 70,000 followers.

Ye first became famous in 2005, when she posted a nude photo of herself online. Under the pen name Hooligan Swallow, Ye raised eyebrows with her bold articles on sex.

But she really caught the public's attention in 2010 when the China Grass-roots Women's Rights Centre - the NGO she set up in Hubei - started a petition drive in Wuhan calling for the legalisation of prostitution. Ye said she was spurred into action because many women who shared her rural background ended up in the sex trade.

"Pushing for the legalisation of sex workers' rights contradicts the government's ideology," she said. "The government does not wish to see this topic being promoted and the mainland media are banned from discussing it."

She was forced to move away from Wuhan after her campaigning for sex workers' rights upset the government.

Ye's China Women's Rights Workshop used to operate in the heart of Bobai county, only a three-minute walk from a bus terminal packed with travellers from rural areas and migrant workers.

A former workshop volunteer who declined to be named said they conducted outreach services each week, giving out free condoms and tissues.

"We used to track down a few sex workers who were over 60 years old and give them a monthly allowance of 50 yuan each, thanks to private donations from internet users," the volunteer said.

A woman who used to run a brothel said she had never heard of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/Aids before Ye started the outreach service.

"At first we were only after her for freebies such as tissues and condoms but we became friends because she genuinely cares about our sisters," the woman said. "My girls would attend her talks about safe sex and some even became volunteers."

To experience the life of a grass-roots sex worker, Ye worked in a local 10-yuan sex shop briefly in January last year - without charging her clients. Dubbed the "free sex for migrant workers" campaign, it became an online sensation.

"Every sex worker I have been in contact with has been either threatened or arrested and brothels which I visited were shut down," said Ye, who has since distanced herself from local sex workers to make it easier for them to carry out their work. "I'm too much of a target here."

From May last year her workshop was constantly wrecked by thugs, leaving her no choice but to shut down.

A Bobai policeman who recently arrested Ye asked her why she was advocating prostitutes' rights. "He asked if I was crazy. I told him we come from two different worlds and that he would never understand."