Shaylen Foley - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Career goal: To plan, manage or evaluate international health programs, specifically focused on women’s sexual and reproductive health in Southeast Asia.

Internship outline: Shaylen conducted research on the reproductive health experiences of female sex workers (FSW) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She specifically focused on how FSWs prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted illnesses. Shaylen collaborated with staff from the University of Malaya’s Center of Excellence for Research in AIDS (CERiA), as well as three local NGOs that provide outreach to sex workers. With the help of her research assistant, Chella, she completed 31 interviews in multiple locations across the city.

Value of experience: While this was not my first experience living overseas, it was definitely my first time managing and coordinating my own project. Recruiting female sex workers was difficult. Sex work is illegal in Malaysia, which means sex workers, as a population, are hidden and extremely wary of those outside their community. I quickly learned that getting things done meant relying on others, while also remaining flexible and patient when things don’t turn out how you want. The people that I relied on came from the community but worked in local organizations doing outreach. All of these outreach workers were former sex workers and many were transgender or gay. Spending time with such a diverse group of people, all with their own unique life experiences, was an additional learning experience for me. 

Best moment/experience: My favorite moment of the summer was when I presented my preliminary findings to both researchers from the University of Malaya and staff from local non-governmental organizations (NGO) that are on the ground daily reaching out to sex workers. Having researchers and clinicians dialogue with outreach workers that used to be or currently are still sex workers was an amazing experience. The conversation was open and respectful, but there was so much ground to cover in such a short time. I think it proved to me how important it is to engage community members in as many aspects of the research process as possible. 

Funding source: The Downs Fellowship