News / Asia

UN Report Calls for Decriminalization of Prostitution in Asia

A night scene of the red-light district in south Pattaya in Chonburi province, 70 kilometers south of Bangkok (2000 file photo).
A night scene of the red-light district in south Pattaya in Chonburi province, 70 kilometers south of Bangkok (2000 file photo).
Gabrielle Paluch
Results of the first U.N. study examining how the criminalization of prostitution has affected the lives of sex workers across Asia and worsened HIV epidemics have been released. 

The U.N. surveyed sex workers in 48 countries across Asia to determine how prostitution laws affect the safety and health of prostitutes and their families.

Lack of rights

Noi Chantawipa Apisuk runs a foundation for sex workers in Thailand called EMPOWER.  She says sex workers in the country can earn enough money to support their families, but they lack the legal protections given to workers in other industries.  She has been lobbying the Thai government to change that.

"Sex work is work, and entertainment work is business," she said.  "Entertainment workers are protected under the labor law, like manufacturing sector workers, agricultural sector workers.  So if we recognize it, if they have problems it can be solved by employer and employee in the labor court rather than go to the police."

HIV protection

Researchers say in places where prostitution is banned, sex workers are especially vulnerable because their work is stigmatized and illegal.  They argue that removing legal penalties for prostitution allows for better access to health checkups and treatment programs.

The acting director of the U.N. HIV Health and Development Practice, Dr. Mandeep Dhaliwal, says there is evidence some governments are making progress towards changing laws that are hampering effective HIV prevention.

She applauded Vietnam and China for stopping programs that detained sex workers and their children.  In Cambodia and Burma, governments have asked police to stop harassing prostitutes.  But she says there are still many contradictory policies that pose public health risks.

"On the one hand, you spend millions of dollars providing condoms to prevent HIV transmission, and then on the other hand you have police confiscating condoms or using condoms as evidence to arrest or harass sex workers.  It is an absurd contradiction that is costing people's lives," said Dhaliwal.

Less punitive approach

Human rights lawyer and author of the report John Godwin says countries that endorse a less punitive approach also minimize human-rights violations and health risks.  He says grass roots efforts to work with police and local authorities are making progress in carving out a healthy work environment for sex workers.

"Initiatives that are community led, who are actually organizing themselves to have a dialogue with the police and local authorities to improve their conditions of work.  They are having de-facto support of the authorities to work in healthier situations, to work without police harassment.  You are seeing successes, as I said, in Calcutta," said Godwin.

Besides India, the report also singles out Papua New Guinea, Mongolia, Thailand, Fiji, Laos and the Philippines for making progress on laws that improve efforts to treat and contain HIV.

While researchers say decriminalizing sex work in those countries would further improve the situation for prostitutes - the situation is different in Indonesia.  There, although prostitution is not illegal, the U.N. says sex workers are routinely abused by law enforcement agencies and discriminated against by the public and the government.

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