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Many good reasons for legalizing prostitution in Sri Lanka!

29 November 2015 07:44 pm - 4     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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ast week, there was an interesting article in this newspaper that weighed favourably the merits of legalizing prostitution. That media, rights groups and civil society in general are viewing those complex issues in an increasingly pragmatic way -- finally having overcome the dominant yet arcane moralistic posture -- is a sign of maturity.  

That is a pleasant contrast to the recent past. Nearly a decade and-a-half ago, an English newspaper published an article that suggested lesbians deserved to be raped by men in order to cure their ‘illness’. Though it may sound shocking now  (and so was even then), the newspaper concerned refused to apologize and the then press council stood by the newspaper, agreeing that lesbianism was immoral and anti- social, hence needed to be cured.

 For decades, the public discourse in those intimate yet intricate matters was dominated by moralists, bigots and religious leaders. And when complex social issues are viewed through the binary views of religious and moralistic teaching, it causes more harm than good. To further confound the problem, newly independent countries in our part of the world inherited a hefty load of arcane Victorian laws, which even by the time of independence were largely dormant. The political will and courage in our independent leadership were in short supply to rid our countries of those straight jacketed laws of the by-gone era. For instance, criminalizing prostitution under vagrancy and brothel ordinance is one such; criminalizing homosexuality is another.

Those arcane laws have caused more harm than good. Take for instance laws that criminalize prostitution. They leave hapless women who work the streets at the mercy of often corrupt police, who take ransom and sexual favours. Then there are pimps, who take a cut from the woman’s earning in return for protection, or simply letting her work in areas that they have demarcated as their territory.  Thus a law that was meant to protect women has the opposite effect.

Second, the underworld-organized criminal gangs and local thugs tend to control the space in most affairs made illegal by the law. In Colombo, most brothels are run by organized groups and thugs. On most instances, there is a nexus between the police and those brothel owners, who pay monthly protection money to the police top brass in order to avoid raids.

When the underworld and thugs rule the roost, women who work there have little protection. Those circumstances create fertile grounds for abuse and sex-trafficking. Women are left with little legal recourse against abuse, given illegality of their work and stigma associated with it.

Third, criminalizing prostitution, thereby forcing it to the shadows makes it difficult to regulate the profession and to enhance the safety of both sex workers and their clients. One such requirement in terms of safety is testing sex workers for Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) and HIV.  Countries which have legalized sex trade have imposed mandatory monthly testing for sex workers, thereby significantly reducing the prevalence of STD.

Fourth, legal implications associated with their profession (and stigma) prevent sex workers from organizing themselves to advance their rights and well-being. That also makes it difficult for the welfare agencies of the government and the Non-Governmental Organizations to reach out to sex workers. The government and non-government agencies can help in many forms, ranging from sex education, family support and assistance for sex workers who wish to quit the trade, by providing them alternative employment opportunities, financial aid and other means.

Finally, notwithstanding legal status of their trade and all the adverse impacts associated with it, which have been worsened by the existing legal provisions, women continue to work in sex trade. The current laws make their plight worse; instead of protecting , the law victimizes them.’ Conservative estimates put the number of sex workers at 50,000. We never know the actual figures, since sex workers operate in the shadows.

The advocates of criminalizing prostitution have strange bedfellows: feminists and moralists, though they differ in their logic. Feminists argue prostitution is ‘exploiting’ vulnerable women, turning them into sex objects. There is a lacuna in this argument for that as far as most sex workers are concerned, it is a consensual choice, which they have opted to, having weighed both cost and benefits associated with it. As for the others, who have been forced against their will or trafficked into prostitution, an outright ban on prostitution, which forces it to the shadows and dark alleys, makes it harder for the law enforcement agencies to trace victims and perpetrators. Whereas legalized and regulated prostitution makes it much easier to tackle the trafficking.

Second, since feminists alone cannot claim the monopoly for the female body, it is up to the individual women to choose what they do with what is their own. An individual of legal age is the guardian of his or her physical and physiological well-being, not the State (nor are the feminists).

Moralists have their own logic: prostitution is immoral, a social evil and a sin, they say. They agree with its negative impact on women, but direct their wrath, largely on its impact on the cultural and moral ‘decay’. However, their cohort is fast shrinking and the most articulate of their ranks have failed to recognize that the world has moved a long way since those puritanical times of the Victorian era values.
Countries have addressed prostitution in various means. Places such as Sweden - through laws underpinned by feminist position -- have sought to fine clients who solicit sex, and not the sex workers. That however has not stopped women standing in frozen alleyways in Stockholm, looking for business. In Singapore, prostitution is not illegal, but, soliciting sex is.  However, the government turns the blind eye to the hordes of hookers that throng Geylang. However, grey areas in the law have given rise to abuses and trafficking of women from neighbouring South East Asian countries. A couple of years back, Sri Lankan police probed an organized local ring trafficking local women to Singapore. In places like Thailand, prostitution is not illegal in a strict sense, but solicitation is. The government enforces strict checks on STD tests on women working in clubs in its myriad of red light areas. Thanks to those requirements on testing, Thailand managed to cut down its HIV prevalence rate, which was at an alarming high in the early 90s.

Sri Lanka can take a leaf from international experience and device our own laws to regulate prostitution. What is clear is that the current laws have outlived the time and become part of the problem, rather than a solution. Legalizing prostitution would also have to be accompanied by strict laws against trafficking and pimping and laws that mandate regular health checks, safety and welfare of sex workers, including assistance to those who want to quit.

Finally, there is a strong economic logic in legalizing prostitution: Though, one would find it somewhat politically incorrect to mention that, legal prostitution could help income redistribution, channelling money to the social groups who are generally at disadvantage.

Based on the earlier conservative estimate of 50,000 sex workers in the country, potential economic multipliers of letting them do their trade legally, without bribing police and pimps would be, enormous. Many sex workers do it due to financial duress and quit the trade when they acquired sufficient means to address their financial worries. Legalizing their trade would help them save, and give them a greater economic autonomy.  All those are good enough reasons for Sri Lanka to regulate prostitution in a way that it helps and protects the very people the law intends to care for: sex workers.
 

Follow Ranga Jayasuriya @RangaJayasuriya on twitter

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  Comments - 4

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  • alisten Sydney Monday, 30 November 2015 07:36 PM

    This will also control HIV because the girls can do legal blood and health check

    muhammad Friday, 15 April 2016 01:04 AM

    We. Srilankans never allow to legalise immoral act. Why we should think negative. Why can't we stop prostitution in our country. Do anyone likes their daughters Mothers or sisters involving in prostitution. Shameless people get shameless ideas.

    Rajeev Monday, 30 November 2015 04:14 PM

    yes to take this mafia we need full power and support of public,. i support cracking this industry and allowing legal status for poor sex workers - but no one should force them.

    S.P.AMKUMAR Monday, 30 November 2015 04:42 PM

    this have been done from ancient time, legalize or not no one can stop this work.


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