Meet Bowie Lam, an Advocate for Hong Kong’s Sex Workers

By Lauren James

The founder and executive director of Teen’s Key explains the challenges of advocating for sex workers in Hong Kong

Tatler Asia
Bowie Lam works with abused girls and young women, including underage sex workers, providing a supportive environment and a chance for them to decide their own future (Photo: Affa Chan/Tatler Hong Kong)
Cover  Bowie Lam works with abused girls and young women, including underage sex workers, providing a supportive environment and a chance for them to decide their own future (Photo: Affa Chan/Tatler Hong Kong)

When Bowie Lam started Teen’s Key in 2011, there was no support for young female sex workers in Hong Kong, despite a proliferation of apps and social media causing a boom in newcomers to the industry at the time. The NGO, which offers access to information, care for sexual health, community and legal support, and liaison with authorities to girls as young as 11, was founded after the 2008 murder of a 16-year-old girl involved in the sex trade. “The most shocking thing wasn’t the tragedy; it was the reaction by the media and the public. Some were blaming the girl, saying she deserved it. It made me want to take action.”

Here, Lam details Teen’s Key’s work, the difficulties her organisation faces, and why legalisation might not be the answer.

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In Hong Kong and Asia, people are conservative about topics like sex, and especially sex work. At Teen’s Key we don’t take a “rescue approach”: we emphasise the context behind the situation. We want people to understand that rescuing can also bring problems. It doesn’t make sense if the girls leave sex work but don’t know how to live independently.

Ultimately, what we want is to help the girl grow, so she knows what she wants to do, whether that’s staying in the sex industry or not. We have programmes to help the girls plan for their future career and a social worker to help the girls if they are ready to leave. We provide options and support to the girls but we don’t force them to change careers. Some just aren’t ready yet.

We go to nightclubs and give out free condoms and do rapid HIV tests on-site. For the mamasans, we are good for their business because we keep the girls healthy. Sometimes we get calls from mamasans, saying a girl is pregnant, and asking whether we can help. We have strict guidelines for the team and volunteers to keep us safe. We give the girls a small name card with our numbers so they can text us or come to our centre for breakfast. But the bottom line is that if we find out there’s any child abuse, we will take action.

In Hong Kong, sex work is in a grey area: it is not legalised, but it’s also not illegal. Most sex workers favour decriminalisation over legalisation. Legalisation in Hong Kong is not practical: where would you start a red light district? But with decriminalisation, they could register their business and there would be regulation, for example, around age, and they would pay tax and buy insurance.

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For girls under 18, the police and legal system are quite kind to them because they are treated as a victim and children, but sexual violence victims can experience discrimination. It’s complicated to report it to the police, and they have to talk through it again and again. We count just under ten successful prosecutions this year. But we still encourage girls to report, because you never know: over time, we might see improvement in the legal system.

After years of advocacy, they finally agreed to assign a female police officer to a sexual violence victim and use a partition in court so when a girl makes her statement, she doesn’t need to look at the lawyer or criminal. There are little improvements happening, but it’s still not enough. But hopefully we will see more progress soon.

See all the honourees from Hong Kong on the Gen.T List 2022.

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