“Prostitution is a highly organized exploitative system. Legalization would only give pimps, owners of prostitution dens and their customers the leverage to further exploit women as well as children and minors. – Rep. Luz Ilagan, Gabriela Women’s Party
By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — Women’s group Gabriela and Catholic Bishops may have opposing stands when it comes to the Reproductive Health (RH) bill, but they are united when it comes to the issue of prostitution and its proposed legalization: both are against it.
The United Nations, in a recent report it released titled “Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific,” said the Philippines and other Asian countries should legalize prostitution. This, the UN said, so that sex workers can be given access to basic rights. It also said that the decriminalization of the sex trade will help control the spread of sexually transmitted infections, particularly HIV.
The UN’s study examines how the criminalization of prostitution has affected the lives of sex workers across Asia and worsened the HIV epidemic. It surveyed sex workers in 48 countries across Asia to determine how prostitution laws affect the safety and health of prostitutes and their families.
According to the UN, legal recognition of sex work as an occupation enables sex workers to claim benefits, to form or join unions and to access work-related banking, insurance, transport and pension schemes.
It also said that when placed in decriminalized contexts,” the sex industry can be subject to the same general laws regarding workplace health and safety and anti-discrimination protections as other industries.”
The UN said the legalization of prostitution takes the form of repealing of laws that criminalize sex work, being clients to sex workers or engaging in activities associated with sex work.
In the case of the Philippines, the report said Filipino sex workers remain highly vulnerable to STIs including HIV, as well as sexual and physical abuse due to stigma. This, the UN report said, despite the introduction and implementation of laws that seek to prevent HIV and protect infected patients from discrimination.
Under Philippine law, sex work as well as businesses engaged in sex are illegal. These stand to be penalized by up to 30 days of imprisonment for the first offense, while repeat offenders stand to be imprisoned for up to six months.
For all the attempts of the UN to justify its position that the legalization of prostitution will help curb STIs and HIV, however, Gabriela and members of the Catholic Bishop Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) are against the UN proposal.
Gabriela Women’s Party Representative Luz Ilagan said the UN’s recommendation will not in anyway ensure the protection of Filipino women, children and men forced to engage in the flesh trade.
“Legalization will not guarantee protection against sexually transmitted infection and HIV,” she said.
Ilagan said it has been their experience working with prostituted women in Davao City through Talikala to help ensure protection from infection and HIV. This is done by increasing women’s awareness and education as well as ensuring women’s access to health services. She said that instead of legalizing prostitution, Congress should enact legislation to decriminalize it by introducing amendments to the Revised Penal Code.
“Our present laws seek to penalize only the women engaged in prostitution. 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. Prostitution is a highly organized exploitative system.
Legalization would only give pimps, owners of prostitution dens and their customers the leverage to further exploit women as well as children and minors,” she said.
The Auxiliary Bishop of Manila Broderick Pabillo, in the meantime, said the UN report was “morally unacceptable” and that its main proposal for prostitution legalization might well exacerbate the situation.
“Women’s rights should be respected. They should be given decent jobs, not allowed to turn to prostitution,” he said. Pabillo is also the chairman of the National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice and Peace. He also warned that legalizing the sex trade will encourage more predators to abuse more women, but not help contain the spread of HIV or other STIs.
“HIV is still prevalent even in countries where prostitution is legal,” he pointed out. The bishop said the Aquino government should train it sights on programs for behavioral change even as it continues its campaign to stop the transmission of HIV. He said the problem of risky sexual behavior among individuals should be addressed because it is also a reason for the spread of HIV.
Direct attack against women
Gabriela’s Cabuyao-Laguna chapter in the Southern Tagalog issued a stronger statement, saying that the UN’s recommendation was a “direct attack against women.”
The group said prostitution is not a form of labor but rather a form of systematized abuse and use of women for commodity.
“We believe that its not legalization of prostitution that can prevent the disease, but a comprehensive health program for every Filipino. Women are driven to prostitution not because it is a profitable, but because they are desperate and forced into it because of extreme poverty, unemployment and even human trafficking,” it said.
The women’s advocacy group said legalizing prostitution will make the existence of syndicates of human trafficking, white slavery and child abuse, justifiable.
“This would further corrupt our society with the view of women as sex objects. In a patriarchal society like the Philippines women are treated as lesser beings. They are oppressed and denied equal opportunities,” it said. “The oldest profession is not a profession at all; it is a cultural practice that should be abolished in the country.”
Gabriela-ST coordinator Nonie Entena in a statement also said that prostitutes are not criminals. “They are victims of economic and gender inequality. They are unable to access the resources and services we have in the country, legalizing it will only justify the existence of such trade which will go further on more legal grounds on abusing women,” she said.
Protect victims of prostitution
In July 2011, GWP filed House Bill 4934, ‘An Act Repealing Articles 202 and 341 of the Revised Penal Code, and Instituting a System of Protection for Victims of Prostitution’ precisely to address this issue.
To date however, there has been no affirmative action on the bill by the House of Representatives. GWP Rep. Emmi De Jesus said the issue of prostitution should be approached in its entirety.
“The government must cancel policies that reinforce the system of prostitution. Legal efforts should be directed against establishments, pimps and customers and all those who profit from prostitution, not against women and children victims of prostitution. Also, it’s important that policies and programs that will address the situation of the victims of prostitution and will protect them must be developed,” she said.
As for President Aquino, Malacañang has already distanced itself from the issue, saying that it is something for Congress to address. Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the Palace has no comment on the issue because it is primarily addressed to legislators. “This is a decriminalization issue,” she said.