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Should the Philippines decriminalize prostitution?

UN-backed report on sex workers splits Philippine opinion

Prostitutes talk with potential customers in Davao City (photo by Karlos Manlupig) Prostitutes talk with potential customers in Davao City (photo by Karlos Manlupig)
  • Kerima Bulan T. Navales, Davao City
  • Philippines
  • October 25, 2012
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Ana Luisa Calix was only 15 years old when she was raped. A friend, who she trusted, sold her to a rapist. Thus began her rapid descent into prostitution in Davao, the largest city in Mindanao.

Trapped in a world where girls of her age are easily and readily exploited, she had nobody to turn to except her equally disturbed mother who had been abandoned by her Latin American husband.

With her dark chocolate skin, Luisa says she had no trouble finding customers.

That was the easy part. The hard part for her was dealing with the facts that that she was an underage rape victim and a prostitute all at once.

“There was a time when people looked at a rape victim as someone who asked for it. No one wants to help because you wanted it to happen to yourself," she says.

It wasn’t until she was 22  that she finally left the sex trade, thanks to help from a local support group. She has since become a leading face of advocacy for prostitutes helping other young girls in Davao City.

"While we are making progress in our advocacy to end prostitution, the very factors that force women and girls into the trade remain," says Calix.

There are no exact figures for the number of prostitutes in Davao but Talikala, an NGO which offers support to women and children caught up in the sex trade, estimated there were around 2,000 freelance sex workers in the city last year.

Nationwide there are thought to be more than 800,000 prostitutes, with as many as half underage, out of a population of 95 million people.

In a bid to come up with pragmatic solutions to tackling HIV/AIDS in the region, the UN-backed Global Commission on HIV and the Law last week published a report calling for Asia-Pacific countries to decriminalize sex work.

“Where sex work has been decriminalized, there is a greater chance for safer sex practices through occupational health and safety standards across the industry. Furthermore, there is no evidence that decriminalization has increased sex work,” it said.

While the recommendation has not been universally acclaimed, it has gained traction with some senior politicians in Davao.

Mayor Sara Z. Duterte-Carpio voiced support for it this week. “I don’t have any problems with that, so they will stop hiding,” she said.

However, she added that such a move was unlikely to make an impact on the Philippines' quickening HIV infection rate, as this is mostly being fueled by men who have sex with men.

The latest figures show about 10 new cases of the virus recorded every day across the country. In June, 295 new HIV cases were confirmed, 66 percent more than the same month last year.

Jeanette Laurel-Ampog, executive director of Talikala, said no amount of legislation can eliminate the risk of sexually transmitted diseases among women in prostitution.

She said legalizing prostitution "will only legalize the abuses and exploitation within the system of prostitution," adding such a move would benefit the sex industry and the people behind it.

Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo of Manila, head of the social action secretariat of the bishops’ conference, described the arguments outlined in the Global Commission report as “morally unacceptable.”

"Give women real rights and decent jobs and not prostitution," he said.

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