Elizabeth Ann Gray – Hong Kong SAR

Linked with Action for Reach out.

She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

She says: “These women live at the margin of society. In trying to accompany them, I too have experienced being pushed onto the margins and felt a strong sense of the need for solidarity among women” … and: “Ever since arriving in Hong Kong, I have wanted to work with this group of women. I see they are the outcasts of a society in which it is acceptable for a man to go to a prostitute but not for a woman to be a prostitute. They are looked on as the lowest of the low. After listening to some of their stories, I am often filled with admiration for them. Many are married with children, often divorced or separated, struggling to support not only their own children but children of relatives as well as elderly parents”.

She says also: “These women live at the margin of society. In trying to accompany them in their struggle, I too have experienced being pushed onto the margins of society as I come face to face with the refusal of officials at various levels to address their problems. To my surprise and deep gratitude, this has developed in me a strong sense of the need for solidarity among women”.

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Elizabeth Ann Gray – Hong Kong SAR

She works for Action for Reach out.

Elizabeth Ann Gray (53) is a Columban Sister from Scotland. She is one of the founding members of Action for Reach out, the first NGO that provides support and services to sex workers in Hong Kong. As a foreigner, Ann not only has to overcome the language barrier, but also other social and cultural boundaries in working frontline with these women, who are being looked upon as outcasts and considered immoral.

Over the past 13 years, Ann has serviced and empowered this stigmatized and marginalized group, fostering their self-esteem, and promoting and protecting their basic human rights.

Born in Scotland, Sister Elizabeth Ann Gray graduated from a Teacher Training College and holds the Bachelors Degree of Arts and Theology. She taught primary school for four years in Scotland and one year in Sierra Leone, West Africa. After that, she joined the Missionary Sisters of St Columban and stayed in Ireland. She spent eight years in Ireland with one year working with street sleepers in an inner city project. It was here that the seeds of compassion and empathy for marginalised and vulnerable communities were sown.

Sister Gray came to Hong Kong in 1985. Before starting her service with the local community, she worked hard to overcome the language barrier. She spent two years studying Cantonese. In the early 90s she was charged with the responsibility of starting a project to provide support and service to sex workers in the territory. Research undertaken in the late 80s by the Missionary Sisters of St Columban showed that women in the sex industry were sadly neglected.

Sister Gray believes that every woman has the right to fair and just treatment under the law, no matter what her educational, social, religious or occupational background.

She has the right:

  • to have the terms of her contract honoured;
  • to be free from violence and coercion;
  • to safeguard her health;
  • and to not be used as a commodity.

Moreover, she sees in these women the dignity and love of humanity that is often neglected by society.

Over the last 13 years, Sister Gray has been working on the project she committed to in the early 90s. REACH OUT, a non-governmental organization that provides support and service to women in the sex industry in Hong Kong, was set up in 1993 for this purpose. It is the first of its kind in the territory, and Sister Gray was one of the founding members.

Sex work is not illegal in Hong Kong. But the laws relating to it make it very difficult for sex workers to work in a safe and healthy environment with respect and dignity. Like in many other places, they are often treated unfairly and are denied of their basic human rights and other services. Worst still, they are often targets of police as well as triad abuses and harassment. Their self-esteem is very low.

Under these circumstances and where there was no prior experience in working with this stigmatised and marginalised community, Sister Gray and her colleagues faced disapproval, suspicion, and rejection particularly during the first few years of REACH OUT. “We walked the streets for more than a year so that the women would become accustomed to us. Gradually we began to approach them inside the doorways and staircases where they wait for clients. At first they were suspicious and, for the most part, refused to talk to us”, Sister Gray recalled the early days of REACH OUT.

The road from rejection to acceptance is often long. And it can take even longer time before sex workers are able to re-build their confidence and self-esteem. Many factors are at play here. The larger environment that is prejudiced and discriminative toward sex workers needs to be changed. Many of the unjust laws and practices are products of social, cultural and political prejudices and exploitative ideologies.

The Chinese community strongly holds the view that sex is something ‘not to be discussed’ and that sex workers are social and cultural outcasts who are dirty, immoral and should be eliminated. Challenges come not only from sex workers, the bigger social, cultural and political environment, but also from within the Church where Sister Gray is affiliated. For many Christians, sex workers are seen as sinners and they should repent.

Sister Gray’s attitude in REACH OUT is one of acceptance, inclusiveness, tolerance, and openness. “After listening to their stories, I am often filled with admiration for them. Many are married with children, often divorced or separated, struggling to support not only their own children but children of relatives as well as elderly parents”. Sister Gray always talks about her ‘women’ with compassion and understanding.

Sister Gray chooses to work hand in hand with these sex workers through various projects, and leads her team by being an exemplary model. Enormous efforts have been put into reaching sex workers who used to work in relatively clandestine situations. It has taken considerable strength and persistence to break the ice and to gain their trust, confidence and respect.

Educational materials have been prepared, and sharing sessions and discussions among sex workers have been organised to enhance their understanding of their basic human rights and health issues. And, different kinds of skills training classes have been organised to empower sex workers in areas they have interests and strengths.

To eliminate social and cultural discrimination, and overcome social and cultural boundaries, Sister Gray works closely with women’s groups and others to make people aware of the situation of sex workers so that they can begin to understand their problems.

Through continuous efforts in promotion and education, more sex workers are now aware of their legal rights, and otfen approach REACH OUT and other organizations for assistance. Many practise safe sex. And with new skills acquired from the training sessions, many sex workers have more confidence in themselves. The computer sessions for instance are said to have helped improve sex worker’s relationships with their children and keep them up-to-date with modern technologies.

Through her coaching and mentoring, many staff at REACH OUT are also touched and and are attempting to develop non-judgemental attitudes. In addition, at least one more sex worker’s group has come up in Hong Kong after REACH OUT. (1000PeaceWomen).

Sorry, I can find no other information of Elizabeth Ann Gray, Hong Kong SAR in the internet.

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