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Date: Sun, 13 Jun 1999 14:58:39 -0500 (CDT)
From: rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: RIGHTS: Asian Meet Undecided on Legalising Sex Workers
Article: 67359
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.7948.19990614121629@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

/** ips.english: 517.0 **/
** Topic: RIGHTS: Asian Meet Undecided on Legalising Sex Workers **
** Written 9:05 PM Jun 10, 1999 by newsdesk in cdp:ips.english **
Copyright 1999 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.

Asian Meet Undecided on Legalising Sex Workers

By Laxmi Murthy, IPS
10 June 1999

KOLHAPUR, India, Jun 10 (IPS) - It is one of the oldest professions in the world, but whether prostitution is work or social evil is yet to be settled even among sex workers as was apparent at a meeting of mainly Asian groups here.

Prostitutes, some said, are workers and eligible to be governed by labour laws and accorded workers' rights. Others were wary of any move to make it legal, as it would officially sanction the terrible exploitation of women.

Still others said prostitution may be called "service work", since clients are consumers of a "particular service" provided only by sex workers.

One global alliance went so far as to say the sex industry was "one of the most organised and lucrative transnational industries" -- a view aired indirectly by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) which called for its economic recognition last year.

The ILO said in December 1998 that the sex industry contributed to the GDP of four South-east Asian nations, but it stopped short of calling for its "legalisation".

The meeting at Kolhapur, in the western state of Maharashtra this March, brought together groups from 10 Asian countries, and many others working for women's rights.

"In a capitalist society everyone has to sell their labour, and sex-workers sell their bodies ... but false morality denies it the status of work," declared Sholan of the Taiwan Association of Licensed Prostitutes.

For Or from Empower in Chiang Mai, Thailand, the important issue was that of choice. "How freely does she 'choose'?" she asked the meeting. "Sheer poverty may lead girls into the booming sex industry," she said. Or she may have been "raped, deserted or a single mother".

Yim of Zi Teng, Hong Kong, which describes itself as a "concerned group for sex workers" felt that they must be guaranteed occupational safety since sex-work was a "social" service.

Like any other social service or job, they too should have the right to protest against social abuse/assault, neither should the nature of the work prejudice law enforcers to ignore complaints of rape or sexual harassment.

Relating the Philippine experience, Nelia Sancho, secretary general of the Asian Women's Human Rights Council, said any sex worker who reports sexual assault or rape "is open to getting booked under the archaic Anti-Vagrancy Law".

What are the choices before sex workers?

Some women's groups have been pressing for legalisation of the trade. But there is also a genuine fear that this would arm the authorities with the arbitrary power to revoke licenses, thus leaving sex workers even more open to harassment.

Again if sex-work is to be recognised as legitimate work, it would imply the de-criminalisation of the infrastructure of the trade -- brothel, brothel-keeper, agent and pimp which are all essential to her work.

A valid concern here however, was how to empower the sex workers vis a vis those who control the sex industry.

Ratna Kapur of the Centre for Feminist Legal Research, Delhi, said de-criminalisation would be meaningless unless certain rights of sex workers are enforced: rights of liberty, work, safe conditions, freedom of movement and custody of children.

Also "globalisation has taken prostitution out of the hands of women and made it a big business in the hands of men", said Jyoti Sanghera of the Canada-based Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women -- a view that was shared by an Indian group whose acronym is VAMP.

In southern Maharashtra, VAMP said, brothel-based prostitution controlled by 'madams' has been overtaken by the more anonymous, soliciting on the highways, run by men who are part of a larger syndicate, sometimes with global links.

In many countries like Hong Kong, Thailand and India prostitution is a crime, and soliciting an offence.

Over the last few years, the Durbar Mahila Samanvaya Committee, an association of 40,000 sex-workers in West Bengal, eastern India, has emerged at the forefront of a campaign for the recognition of prostitution as work.

"Sex workers have to be empowered, so that we can protect ourselves from violence and exploitation by those who control the sex trade," said Mala Singh, the general secretary.

Indian laws like the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act to check trafficking only penalises the sex workers, she said, and have done nothing to stop the forced entry of thousands of poor girls and women into prostitution.

Instead the Durbar Committee's own 'self regulatory boards' that work within the sex-workers' community have been far more successful in restricting forced and child prostitution, Singh added.

Even their experience of promoting safe sex has been positive. In Calcutta's famous Sonagachi area, condom use has gone up from a mere 3 percent in 1992 to 90 percent last year, which "outside" intervention could scarcely have achieved, Singh claimed.

Unionisation and the collective mobilisation process has raised the self esteem of sex workers, she said, which means they take better care of their health. No matter how much cash is offered, they insist on clients using condoms, she said.

"There is no sense in earning our livelihood by paying the price with our lives," Singh pointed out. Sex workers know what is best for them, seems to be the message. (END/IPS/lm/an/99)

Origin: New Delhi/RIGHTS/

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