Mixed reaction to UN report on sex work
A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report “Sex work in Asia and the Pacific” issued in Bangkok this month argues that governments in Asia and the Pacific should decriminalize prostitution to curtail the spread of HIV and AIDS.
The report explains that if governments rescind laws criminalizing prostitution, sex workers will have more access to HIV prevention and treatment programmes.
Author and human rights lawyer John Godwin says in the report, “There is no evidence from countries of Asia and the Pacific that criminalization of sex work has prevented HIV epidemics among sex workers and their clients.”
Representative Luz Ilagan, of the Gabriela Women’s Party, is also in favour of decriminalization of prostitution, and has co-authored House Bill 4934 to repeal Articles 202 and 341 of the Penal Code, laws that criminalize sex work.
Speaking in response to the report, Ilagan said in a statement, “The legalization of prostitution will not in anyway ensure the protection of women, children, and men forced to engage in the ﬂesh trade.
“Prostitution is a highly organized exploitative system,” she said. “Legalization would only give pimps, owners of prostitution dens, and their customers the leverage to further exploit women as well as children and minors.”
The UNDP report has raised concerns centring on promoting public health and removing the social stigma attached to sex workers.
It argues that criminalizing sex work leaves workers and their clients at risk for contracting HIV because laws limit access to health screenings, information and condom distribution.
Laws criminalizing sex work also help maintain sex workers in an underclass that stigmatizes them due to the moral standpoint behind such laws.
Within the report, Godwin cites the state of New South Wales in Australia and New Zealand as success stories in reducing HIV transmission with the sex trade due to decriminalization.
Decriminalization differs from legalization in important ways.
Under decriminalization sex workers are subject to regular employment law and their work is not treated as different from other forms of employment.
Conversely, governments that legalise prostitution regulate the industry within a separate legal structure designed especially for sex work.
In a 2007 New Zealand Ministry of Justice report entitled “International Approaches to Decriminalising or Legalising Prostitution,” Dr Elaine Mossman of the Crime and Justice Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington, explained that legalizing sex work can create significant problems if the regulations are too stringent.
She explains that a “two-tier” system of legal and illegal sex work can emerge if a government creates too many regulations.
With decriminalisation, sex workers regulate themselves under existing labour laws.
“Decriminalisation also aims to remove the social exclusion which makes sex workers vulnerable to exploitation and difficult for them to move out of the industry.”
Godwin’s UNDP report supports decriminalization as the preferred strategy.
He says, “We currently have a decriminalised sex industry in [New South Wales] that has proven to be very successful in terms of both HIV prevention and ensuring a safe and healthy work place for sex workers.”
However, Gabriela, the National Alliance of Women in the Philippines, objects to both legalizing and decriminalising prostitution because it believes women are exploited within the sex industry.
Gabriela deputy secretary general Gert Ranjo-Libang said, “Prostitution can never by any means become a profession for women [as it violates] their rights.”
“This UN report is widening the door for women’s rights violation.”
Libang also points out: “Even factory workers in the Philippines are deprived of their rights under the Labour code.
“They remain underpaid, working in very bad conditions, without access to health care, and prevented in forming unions,” she said.
Libang cites poverty as a major reason women go into sex work.
“It is the poor women who are pushed into prostitution,” she said.
“Mass education is the one way of preventing the spread of preventable diseases including sexually transmitted illnesses such as [AIDS].”
Ilagan believes however that her proposed repeal of the Penal Code will eradicate the inequality in the law and better protect women.
She said, “Prostituted women are treated as criminals rather than victims of poverty and gender inequality.”
“Our laws do not penalize pimps, bar owners and operators or those who pay to use and abuse these women.”
House Bill 4934 is pending with the House committee on revision of laws.