Sex workers and clients in the Philippines' Angeles City. (Photo by Vincent Go)
Carla Soledad says she is not happy being a prostitute. Two years ago, the high school graduate was invited by a neighbor to work in a restaurant. She thought it was her way out of poverty in her village in Davao Oriental province.
She, however, ended up working in a bar where women offered sex to clients. Carla, 23, says by the time she realized she was prostituting herself, there was no easy way out. Leaving was too complicated.
"I was there already," Carla says. "I could have simply walked out, but I was scared that I will never find another job. I am a high school graduate and I have a family to feed."
Her first client was a plump, mild-mannered man in his 50s. He gave her 350 pesos (US$8) for sex.
"It was my first time to do it for money, and I was scared and confused. At the same time, something in me was telling me to do it anyway. I was already there and I badly needed money," she says. "I didn't like it. I hated it."
At the convention of HIV-AIDS experts in Melbourne this week, women like Carla were placed in the spotlight after some sectors pushed for the legalization of prostitution as a prescription to stop the spread of HIV.
"How can it be the remedy?" says Carla.
Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, told the Melbourne conference that governments must decriminalize prostitution to allow sex workers to insist on the use of condoms.
Studies presented at the conference showed the correlation between the criminalization of prostitution and the continued spread of HIV infection.
Carla says her first client insisted on using a condom, but there were those who also insisted on not using it, with some men offering more money.
Carla believes that using a condom will protect her from sexual infections.
"Condoms are supposed to protect us, we know that already. But I don't know about legalizing prostitution as a way to protect us because we are not supposed to be here in the first place," she says.
If prostitution is legalized, will the government give sex workers the benefits and services being enjoyed by those who are employed in other industries?
"Will it give us more than the guarantee that our clients will use condoms?" Carla asks. "Whether legal or not, prostitution is immoral and it demoralizes women. No one likes it here. I do not like it," she says.
Jeanette Ampog, executive director of women's advocacy group Talikala, says the study that shows that women can demand condom use from their client once prostitution is legalized "lacks understanding and analysis of the profile of women in prostitution".
"It takes more than legalization to develop and enhance the self-confidence and power of the women in the sex industry," Ampog says.
She says curbing the rise of HIV infection and AIDS is an urgent task but "we should not forget that prostitution is an issue beyond HIV infection".
Carla, meanwhile, says she regrets not walking out the day when she had her first client.
"I am not sure how the world looks at us, but the recommendation [to legalize prostitution] is a blow to the women who have been forced into this trade," she says.
"Legal or illegal, women in prostitution will always be disadvantaged in an industry that is by nature abusive of women," Carla says.
Carla says the thought of the government legalizing prostitution to force people to use condom "is a flimsy excuse of how governments fail to curb HIV".
Representative Luz Ilagan of the women's party Gabriela says prostitution is not the cause of HIV and AIDS.
"Legalizing prostitution is not the solution to decreasing the infection," she says. "By legalizing prostitution, governments will only legalize exploitation of women, exploitation of children, sexual abuse, sex trafficking, pimping, and all other businesses associated with prostitution.
"It is an issue of being poor, being a woman or child with no access to basic services. It is an issue of treating women and children as commodities," she says.
"Are we sending the message to the future generation that selling your body for sex is one viable job?" Ilagan says.
For Carla, the answer for future generations lies with viable work opportunities.
"Ultimately, what we need is to get out and get away from this condition. Legalizing prostitution is not the answer," she says.