Tuesday, September 3, 2002

Achara Ashayagachat and Bhanravee Tansubhapol

Legalise it?

The question of whether or not to decriminalise prostitution has led to broad debate on the matter, especially since an increasingly 'borderless' world is making the trafficking of women and children for the flesh trade easier than ever

The debate over the legalisation of prostitution is returning to the fore as trafficking in women and children expands with an increasingly borderless world that has made the commission of transnational crimes easier.

Advancing the debate are non-governmental organisations like the Foundation for Women, which is for legalising the activity in order to enhance protection for the women and girls concerned.

The group finds support in Empower, another help group, but Foundation for Women director Siriporn Sakrobanek admits that opponents abound, even among the raft of non-governmental organisations working against exploitation.

The government's lead actor on the question, Deputy Labour Minister Laddawan Wongsri-wong, certainly opposes registration of those involved in the world's oldest trade, saying it would justify young women seeking the easy way out.

Khunying Saisuree Chutikul, chairperson of the National Committee on Combating Trafficking in Women and Children, seems to be on the fence in the debate, saying cultural values, including male domination of society, as well as morals and religious issues, would pose obstructions.

The debate on legalisation that Siriporn encourages at every public forum she addresses coincides with a similar one in France, where opponents urge the punishment of "clients" as a more effective solution.

The French Foreign Ministry's latest monthly magazine, circulated in Bangkok, dwells on prostitution as part of a cover story on the state of gender equality in that country.

The issue spawned debate after the French Senate in March opposed a draft law advocating penalties for those who pay for sex with minors Siriporn argues for legalisation of commercial sex in Thailand on the grounds that prostitution is a job like any other, hence people engaged in it should enjoy the basic welfare benefit provided to other workers.

Cambodian prostitutes set up their own labour union, she noted, but unfortunately the government in Phnom Penh misinterpreted the move, and closed down brothels, which sent the girls underground and worsened their plight.

In Thailand, she says, girls and women in the sex industry are already registered for health services. "If there is a system that looks after them as a category of workers no different from those in the construction sector, I think this would help alleviate the related problem of human trafficking," Siriporn said.

NGO opponents of decriminalisation say it would be tantamount to recognition of prostitution, which they fear would adversely affect the attitude of the public at large about an activity they believe should be condemned.

Chantawipa Apisuka, director of Empower, says the legalisation of prostitution would help regulate sex workers' terms of employment, including working hours and holidays, and ensure they get access to proper social welfare.

"This could transform the mafias into [proper] employers who would be obliged to give pensions to prostitutes on their retirement," she added.

Laddawan, whose constituency in Phayao is a main source of young women for the sex trade, says legalisation would work against government efforts to raise education standards in the provinces and create more appropriate jobs for women.

"We should not relinquish the problem too soon," she said. "If we do that, women upcountry will think they don't have to study that much and can still find an easy job."

Senator Wallop Tangkananu-rak, of the Senate Committee on Women, Children and Elderly People, supports legalisation, but notes that a number of prostitutes themselves oppose it because they would be "ashamed to be registered" as such.

Around the world, prostitution is widely seen to have increased over the past several years with the surge in the trafficking in women and children made easier by globalisation.

While estimates vary as to the number of people engaged in commercial sex globally, the French Foreign Ministry magazine suggests a figure of more than five million, most of whom are women and children. A US estimate last year put the number of women and children engaged in prostitution at two million, with Southeast Asia accounting for a quarter of that.

Thailand, which is a source, recipient and transit country for trafficking in human beings in general, is home to hundreds of thousands of prostitutes, say NGOs.

According to NGOs cited by Senator Wallop, there are up to 200,000 prostitutes in the Kingdom, of whom 30,000 to 60,000 are girls under 18. This does not include underage boys, whose number is unknown.

The Centre for Protection of Children's Rights says there are two million prostitutes, and an additional 800,000 children in commercial sex. But Khunying Saisuree contested this figure as it implies that one out of every 15 women in Thailand is engaged in prostitution which, she said, "is quite incredible".

The push to register prostitutes in order to extend them greater protection follows structural and legal efforts to curb the scourge. In 1994, the government set up, under the Prime Minister's Office, the national committee led by Khunying Saisuree. Together with parliamentarians and researchers, the committee has come up with a national plan of action that addresses several aspects of the problem, including the rescue and protection of sex workers. The plan also provides for the recovery and reintegration into society of the women, the repatriation of foreigners drawn into the trade, and prosecution of procurers.

Khunying Saisuree emphasised the need to improve law enforcement by both police and the judicial system.

"There are many problems related to the prosecution of perpetrators," she said. For starters, police considered prostitution, as well as trafficking in women and children, a low priority compared to murder and drug trafficking.

In addition, police officers tended to rely on NGOs to take action first, and lacked knowledge and skills in dealing with children and women, as well as in conducting investigations. Complicating matters was the usually long legal process, and the use, by organised syndicates, of money, influence, violence and other illegal means to get their members off the hook.

The judicial system, moreover, does not provide sufficient protection for witnesses, hence many are too afraid to give information or testify in court.

Plans to set up a full-scale ministry later this year to deal with social issues is another bid to address the prostitution problem by establishing an organisational structure.

Deputy Labour Minister Laddawan stresses that commercial sex is a "structural problem" that needs to be solved by promoting "virtue and ethics" as well as by law enforcement.

"I'm trying to develop a practical network of employment information in the provinces so that [young women] will have enough access to job-placement services, which will prevent them from turning to prostitution," she said.

Laddawan joined NGOs in affirming that the country has sufficient laws to deal with the prevention and suppression of prostitution.

Khunying Saisuree cited two particular laws — the 1996 Prostitution Prevention and Suppression Act, and the 1997 Measures in Prevention and Suppression of Trafficking in Women and Children Act — as efforts to decriminalise prostitution, and criminalise consumers of sex with underage people. Section 8 of the 1996 law lays down a prison term of one to three years and a fine of between 20,000 and 60,000 baht for those who have sex with people under the age of 18. The penalties go up to two to six years in prison and fines of between 40,000 and 120,000 baht for sex with people under 15.

The provisions came three years before Sweden enforced a law prohibiting the purchase of commercial sex in January of 1999, and is recognised as a pioneer in the field. The Swedish law punishes clients of sex workers of all age groups, not just of minors.

According to Pol Gen Jongrak Jutanont, the deputy metropolitan police commander, about 100 clients of underage prostitutes are arrested yearly under the 1996 Act, but less than half end up in court.

The most famous and still pending case under the act is that of former Senate Speaker Chalerm Promlert, who was charged on February 21 last year with abducting minors, statutory rape, and seeking sexual services from underage girls. He had been arrested a month earlier after allegedly having sex with five girls, aged 14 to 17, at a motel in the province of Pathum Thani.

Law enforcement is, by all accounts, a problem, and while police with vested interests may obstruct the process, the prostitutes themselves complicate protection efforts by willingly engaging in the activity.

According to Senator Wallop and Pol Gen Jongrak, most prostitutes volunteer for the job. Pol Gen Jongrak cites extravagant tastes as well as economic necessity as factors that pull women and men into the industry.

For Khunying Saisuree, closer co-ordination among government agencies and NGOs is essential to improve law enforcement. She also advocates the setting up of a permanent police unit to enhance protection of women and children.

Seasonal transfers of police have obstructed passing on of the special skills needed to deal with victims, and a permanent unit would provide the officers concerned with a specialised career path, she said.

National police chief Pol-Gen Sant Sarutanond has promised to set up the unit by the end of this year.

Whether or not NGOs gain support for the decriminalisation of prostitution, the government, in recognition of the transnational nature of the problem, is close to finalising the first Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the subject with a neighbouring country. The MoU with Cambodia, under discussion for two years, will co-ordinate procedures related to victim protection and assistance as well as repatriation and reintegration, Khunying Saisuree said.

Region-wide, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has mapped out, as part of a plan of action against transnational crime, work programmes on trafficking in women and children that call for information exchange and training among police and judicial agencies in Asean.

[World 2002] [News by region] [News by topic]

Created: September 8, 2002
Last modified: September 9, 2002
CSIS Commercial Sex Information Service
Box 3075, Vancouver, BC V6B 3X6
Tel: +1 (604) 488-0710