Sunday, March 29, 1998

Rupam Banerjee

REUTER-10:00 03-29-98

Asian prostitutes meet to demand legal status

CALCUTTA, India -- Hundreds of prostitutes from Cacutta's red light districts attended a three-day conference on Sunday to demand their rights, backed by representatives of sex workers from around Asia.

The prostitutes came in processions to the conference inaugurated by three Indian women -- a sex worker, the daughter of another sex worker and a housewife.

They demanded legalisation for prostitution and proper legal status for sex workers as well as better working conditions to help prevent the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

"We cannot improve our lot and play our role in prevention of HIV transmission if our demands are not fulfilled," said Mala Singh from the port city's Sonaganchi red light district.

"I cannot force a client to use a condom if a pimp holds a dagger at my throat. I have to sleep with him without a condom," she told the gathering.

She urged her colleagues to fight for the scrapping of India's Prevention of Immoral Traffic Act (PITA) and for the formation of a regulatory body.

The conference is the second held by the India-based Women Coordination Association, a cooperative of sex workers which looks after their health care, education of their children and vocational training for former sex workers.

The first conference was held in Calcutta last November and the meeting will decide on a venue for the next.

Representatives are attending from Malaysia, the Philipines, Nepal and Bangladesh, Thailand and Australia.

Smarajit Jana, a doctor working with prostitutes under an STD/HIV prevention programme, said the conference would make Indian prostitutes more conscious of their rights.

"The conference will enable them to chalk out their

Prostitution is a growing menace in India where there have been fears over the spread of AIDS and reports of young girls being abducted and forced into prostitution.

Sue Matzenrath from Australia told Reuters: "We are focusing on issues of commonality among sex workers in the Asia-Pacific region, including the struggle for law formation, better working conditions and challenging the negative attitude of society against sex work."

She said sex workers had better working conditions in countries where prostitution was legal and legalisation had not encouraged more girls to become prostitutes.

"Morality is an individual issue and people who live in glass houses should not throw stones at others," she said.

But Meena Seshu, secretary of the Indian organisation Sangram, doubted if legalisation would help.

"We don't want to penalise the women. On the contrary, we want to penalise the pimps, the criminals and corrupt officials. Legalisation, in the prevailing situtation in India, will only help the pimps, criminals and corrupt officials to exploit the women more," said Seshu.

"What we need to do now is to get them (prostitutes) a pro-right approach, a trade union and a regulatory body," she said.

Khartini Slamah from Malaysia called for greater regional interaction to strengthen the stuggle for better working condition and medical facilities.

"All the time we talk about international organisation but we do not have a body to coordinate our work in the region. So we decided to form the regional network," she said. "It will be easier to tackle the problems regionally than globally."

But Calcutta police officials worry that scrapping the current anti-prostitution law would mean children turning to prostitution.

"Their (prostitutes) demands for rights can be considered. But scrapping of PITA and legalisation of prostitution will pave the way for entry of more minors into the profession. It will be dangerous for society," said a police official who did not want to be named.

Pompit Putman from Thailand said legalisation would help get better working conditions and medical facilities which, in turn, will help prevent HIV transmission.

"Legalisation depends on the respective governments. But if we get our rights, we can improve our condition...We can ensure proper medical check up and we can educate clients about the prevention of AIDS," she said.

Lin Chue of Global Action on Trafficking of Women called for more autonomy for prostitutes. "We have to restore the rights of those victimised...give them support to stand on their own. The need is to increase autonomy, self-determination and self-representation," Chue said.

Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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Created: >April 10, 1998
Last modified: September 9, 1998

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