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Thailand Debates Legalization of Prostitution - 2003-11-27

The government of Thailand is debating whether to legalize prostitution, which although illegal, is tolerated in the kingdom. Public opinion is deeply divided over the issue.

Two hundred government officials, academics, social activists and sex workers gathered in Bangkok to talk about the merits of legalizing what is often called the world's oldest profession.

An estimated 200,000 women and men work in the multi-billion dollar sex trade that accounts for three percent of Thailand's gross national product. The sex trade is illegal, but is tolerated as a transaction between consenting adults.

However, the openness of Thailand's trade is known throughout the world, making Thailand a destination for sex tourists.

Many sex workers come from impoverished rural areas and enter the industry voluntarily. But human traffickers trick some people by promising work in the city then selling them to brothels.

The Thai government wants to legalize prostitution among consenting adults in order to give sex workers access to social services and health care, and to protect them from abusive brothel owners and human traffickers.

The government also wants increase tax revenues while eliminating a source of corruption.

The government recently legalized the national lottery for these reasons and has launched a national debate on whether to legalize casino gambling as well.

Many Thais oppose legalizing prostitution. Some, in particular religious leaders, oppose it on moral grounds. Others say legalization would foster greater commercialization and encourage more people to become sex workers.

And, they say, legalization would further hurt the kingdom's image abroad.

Many, in particular women's rights groups, do not want prostitution legalized because they say it institutionalizes the exploitation of women. They say education and better job opportunities are a more just solution.

Sex workers who have been interviewed as part of the debate hold differing opinions. Some support legalization because it would allow them better benefits and protection.

Most, however, say they oppose the registration of sex workers that would come with legalization, because it would stigmatize them forever. And, they say, they are only working in the sex trade until they can find better jobs.