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(Updated 4:40 p.m.) If the United Nations will have its way, soliciting sex or paying for it in the Asia and the Pacific region will no longer risk imprisonment. In a recent report, the UN recommended the decriminalization of the world’s oldest profession to help curb the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV. “Removing legal penalties for sex work assists HIV prevention and treatment programmes to reach sex workers and their clients,” the UN said in its report titled “Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific.” The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, known to condemn prostitution, cannot be reached for comment on the subject, as the organization’s secretariat said the bishops authorized to talk about the issue are out of town on official business. But at least one bishop has blamed prostitution for the spread of HIV and has urged a crackdown on the illicit livelihood. The UN report makes the opposite argument. By legalizing prostitution, the government can make sex work safer, extend health services to sex workers and thus slow the spread of the virus. Malacañang, meanwhile, said in a briefing Friday that it will leave the issue of legalization of sex work to the country’s legislators.
“We have no comment. We would rather leave it to our legislators,” said deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte at a press briefing.
But Valte stressed that Philippine laws make prostitution in any form illegal. “Primarily, that’s illegal. Under our present laws that’s illegal which is why the LGUs are also in charge of cracking down and making sure that hindi lang doon sa establishments but rather people who traffic [are also apprehended].”
Susceptibility to HIVThe UN said the criminalization of sex-related jobs increases workers’ susceptibility to HIV by “fuelling stigma and discrimination, limiting access to sexual health services, condoms and harm reduction services; and adversely affecting the self esteem of sex workers and their ability to make informed choices about their health.” The recommendation is also a move to stop the exploitation of sex workers and to give them basic rights by suggesting that their jobs, too, should have typical workplace standards in line with the law and government. “Decriminalization enables sex workers to organize within their communities and register their organizations, obtain identification documents so that they can fully access services and entitlements, engage in advocacy and respond to the health and safety needs of their peers,” the UN said. The UN noted that, with the exception of New Zealand and the state of New South Wales in Australia, all countries in Asia and the Pacific criminalize sex work or associated activities. In the Philippines, for one, sex work and soliciting sex work are illegal, as well as the establishment of brothels. According to the Revised Penal Code, vagrancy is an offense, with the code defining prostitutes as vagrants. Sex workers caught may be fined up to six months in prison under the code’s vagrancy provision.
Valte said the government is continuously fighting prostitution and trafficking in the Philippines. “It is a point of concern which is why the IACAT (Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking) continues to work on improving ‘yung mga conviction when it comes to trafficking in persons. We continue to work with---or the member-agencies in ensuring na nababawasan at mawawala po ‘yung mga ganitong kaso.”Condoms The UN study said in the Philippines, despite the government’s support for efforts to promote condom use among sex workers, many people in the sex industry still steer clear of condoms for fear that it may be used by the police as evidence against them once they are arrested. The UN report referenced a 2003 study that found that many street-based sex workers refused free condoms offered by outreach workers because of the police issue. “Police impeded their access to HIV prevention services by confiscating condoms, using possession of condoms as evidence of sex work, or arresting them for vagrancy,” the UN report said. Ways to decriminalize sex work The UN listed ways to decriminalize sex work. “To enable the sex industry to be regulated as a legitimate form of work requires removal of the range of laws that criminalize activities associated with sex work, including removal of offences relating to soliciting, living on the earnings of sex work, procuring, pimping, the management and operation of brothels, and advertising,” it said. Its report also debunked claims that countries in Asia and the Pacific where sex work is illegal have low HIV rates and prevented the epidemic to spread among sex workers and their clients. In fact, the study said evidence suggests areas that decriminalized sex work have “very high” condom use rates and increased access to sexual health services. — with Patricia Denise Chiu/KBK/RSJ/HS, GMA News