KASAMA Vol. 11 No. 3 / July-August-September 1997 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network
Debate: Is Prostitution Work or a Human Rights Violation?
Graphic: by Sandra Torrijos, Clipart Vol.1 No.1, Isis International, Manila
Keeping The Buyer Invisible
Coalition Against Trafficking in Women - Asia Pacific
In a statement issued after a two-day consultation in Bangkok in February 1997, the Asian Women's Human Rights Council urged the "acceptance and recognition of prostitution as work" for women. This position based itself on the reality that millions of women in the world, and in particular in the Asian region, survive or otherwise make a living through prostitution. It then drew the conclusion that an approach is called for that respects women in prostitution and expresses solidarity with them by accepting the existence of prostitution.
In April, a Ministerial Conference was convened by the European Union that drafted guidelines for measures to combat trafficking in women. The elements of coercion, violence, threats, deceit or forms of pressure brought to bear on the women were identified as constituting trafficking. The measures formulated included prevention, investigation, prosecution and remedies and appropriate assistance to trafficked women.
Both documents reflect the will towards a more humane approach towards women victims of trafficking and prostitution. Both seek to reduce the most extreme forms of violence. However, in both documents, prostitution itself, as male sexual behaviour and a gender-based system that makes sexual commodities of women (and children) and for which trafficking is merely one procurement method, is not in any way examined, much less, criticized.
This silence on prostitution itself is clearly to be seen in the European document's rubric on prevention. It calls for information campaigns in the countries of origin of the women, training of police and health professionals, aid programs for the improvement of women's status, and research on the mechanisms of trafficking and the needs of the women. There is no research, no information program, no advocacy directed at the male buyers, at no point is male sexual behaviour noted, examined, questioned, addressed, and yet, it is precisely what gives rise to the huge market for bought sex and that is causing untold havoc and suffering in the lives of millions of women and children all over the world.
The Bangkok statement considers that prostitution is "sex work" whose terms and conditions must be made safe and humane. It does not question why this "work" exists in the first place and why women and girls must perform it. It does not recognise that the attraction of prostitution sex for men often lies precisely in the violence and inhumanity that are made possible there. It trivialises or negates women's and girl's testimonies of the often devastating psychological and physical consequences to them of repeated invasions of the body and the dehumanizing sexual practices to which they must submit for the recreation and enjoyment of men.
This willful blindness must be questioned. In the name of the "natural", "inevitable", or the "practical", many are still prepared to tolerate extreme forms of gender inequality, discrimination and inhumanity against women. Trafficking of women and prostitution call for urgent attention and responses because of the global and industrial proportions that this cruel phenomenon is taking. A truly pro-woman approach to prostitution and trafficking must do many things at once: depenalize and eliminate all forms of discrimination against women in prostitution, ensure women the enjoyment of their human rights, make pertinent services and options available to women. But it must also address the patriarchal premises and practices that underpin all systems of sexual exploitation of women for the benefit of men. Prostitution is the clearest form of that exploitation.
Recognize the Work, Dignity and Human Rights of Women in Prostitution
The AWHRC Statement
Asia Pacific Women's Meeting Declaration
The Asia Pacific Women's Consultation on Prostitution held in Bangkok concluded last week with the forging of a commitment to support the recognition of prostitution as work and the promotion and protection of the human rights and dignity of women in prostitution.
In a statement, human rights activists, sex workers, lawyers and academics who participated in the two-day meeting held on 17-18 February 1997, defined all labor performed by women in the sex industry as work and recognized women in prostitution as workers.
"Much of women's work in the domestic and reproductive spheres has been invisible and devalued," the statement read. "As such, there is an urgent need to recognize the reproductive labor of women as work in various sites, including women's work in prostitution."
"The acceptance and recognition of prostitution as work is to recognize and validate the reality of women who are working in prostitution."
To this end, the statement also advocated for the "decriminalization of prostitutes as workers and of prostitution as a site of work".
The statement rejected the view that sex work is per se exploitation. "Sex work is not the problem; abuse, violence and criminality are the social problems," the statement read.
Fifty participants coming from 20 countries in Asia and the Pacific also criticized governments for "failing to recognize the rights of all women to work under safe and humane conditions," including those in the sex industry. "We hold governments accountable for ignoring the abuses and exploitative conditions under which women must work in the sex industry," the statement read.
The statement also pointed out that "stigmatisation of women working in prostitution has kept their legitimate concerns, including situations of abuse, in the shadows, away from the attention of mainstream human rights organizations, feminist groups and society in general".
The participants further declared that society's stigmatisation of women in prostitution as immoral or evil women pits "good" women against "bad," deterring all women from recognizing their common vulnerability and the manner in which they are actually or potentially labelled as "whores". Participants therefore committed to work to erase the "stigmatisation of women engaged in prostitution and to have their full dignity, integrity and rights recognized as workers and citizens in civil society."
Nelia Sancho, women's rights activist and coordinator of the Asian Women's Human Rights Council who participated in the meeting, said the stigma largely attached to women in prostitution only mirrors the low status and opinion society confers on all women in general. "Sex workers receive some of the most extreme forms of degradation, abuse and violence that all women are vulnerable to," said Sancho, "by virtue of social, political and economic structures that generally devalue, or render invisible women's work, individuality and contributions."
Sancho said prostitution must be situated within the realities of the intensification of powerlessness especially among women and girls and the widening poverty and marginalization of people and communities, brought about by the growth of a global market economy. As big corporations manipulate the world's economies for bigger and bigger profits for themselves, Sancho said, the lives and human rights of more and more people living in the fringes of society as well as poor communities, are sacrificed. In this situation, more and more women are incorporated into work in the sex industry, largely in situations of abuse, violence and criminality aggravated by the non-recognition of the work and dignity of women in prostitution.
The Asia Pacific Women's statement called on governments to apply and enforce existing labor, occupation and safety laws to the sex industry, and if necessary, create new regulations to protect the women in consultation with the women themselves.
By Aida F. Santos
Women's Education, Development, Productivity and Research Organization, Inc. (WEDPRO)
Aida Santos comments on the AWHRC Press Statement entitled "Asia Pacific Women's Meeting Declare: Recognize the Work, Dignity and Human Rights of Women in Prostitution"
It is indeed important that we "recognize and validate the reality of women who are working in prostitution," as the statement forwards, but this recognition should be in the context of a genuine understanding of the human rights violations embedded by the nature of prostitution that are constantly, if not daily, faced by the women in this sector. When the statement signed by the participants of the meeting claims that, "[S]ex work is not the problem, abuse, violence and criminality are the social problems," there is an assumption that the so-called "sex work" and the social problems are different sets of concerns. The social problems are part and parcel of the industry and to separate the two glosses over the nature and character - and ideology - of prostitution.
It is also most unfortunate that the use of the phrase "sex work" has been without any critique that comes from a recognition of the inherent human rights violations. Prostitution is exploitative, in the sense that the significant number of women in our long years of closely working with them in the communities, have repeatedly told us their stories, which clearly point to the fact that while some of them were not beaten or dragged at gunpoint to enter prostitution, their circumstances in which they entered into this women-hating trade had almost always been at the edge of their marginal existence, where their nubile bodies and their vulnerable socio-economic situation - and abused childhood background in a number of cases - were important factors that made such an entry possible and/or necessary.
I fully agree that governments must be taken to task for their failure to protect women's rights while in prostitution, to guarantee "safe and humane condition." In fact governments must be held accountable for the continuing expansion of prostitution in the Philippines, serving as its biggest pimp through the promotion of a tourism program that allows the commodification of women, girls and even boys, of developing industrial enclaves which not only render people landless but create a favorable situation for prostitution and trafficking activities to become profitable business ventures, of allowing military and cargo ships to dock and use women in their "rest and recreation." Other forms of state promoted activities, in collusion with Big Business and local entrepreneurs, are all there for us to look at and critically analyze from a women-centered, gender-based perspective.
The use of women's bodies for profit and male consumption, with all the attendant risks of sexually transmitted diseases and even deaths, constitute human rights violations. Women in prostitution constantly live in fear and anxiety, always at the mercy of their pimps and establishment owners and not least, of their clients. To accept that "sex work" - a palatable way to describe prostitution and other forms of sexual slavery of women and girls - is indeed work, is to accept that women can be commodified, that our being is defined for male consumption and pleasure, that women's commodification is a reality that we must all accept. It further assumes that all women can be accessible according to patriarchy's purchasing capacity, that all of us can be tagged and named for a price.
It is important to point out the fact that the statement is completely silent on the role of the clients/customers in prostitution, the buyers of women's bodies, who play one of the key roles in the perpetuation of sexual abuses against women and girls. The statement is as well silent on the role that prostitution establishment owners and protectors play in the whole equation. This is a baffling silence on the part of the meeting. I agree that we must all work towards decreasing and eliminating the stigmatization on women in prostitution. However, this work, admittedly difficult and strategic, cannot be premised on legitimatizing prostitution. To do so is to accept ultimately male control over such core feminist issues as sexuality and reproductive rights. To do so is precisely to negate what is stated in the AWHRC's press statement that we have to work against, the "low status and opinion society confers on all women in general."
Legitimizing prostitution is tantamount to accepting our low, subordinate status in society particularly concerning our reproductive and sexual rights and to live decent, humane, productive, dignified and healthy lives. Your statement has recognized "poverty and marginalization of people and communities" in the context of global market economy, and this is why it is important for us to adopt a human rights perspective in our analysis of and work in prostitution and similar areas of concern.
The articles on pages 14-16 are reprinted from Network, the newsletter of the Philippine Network Against Trafficking in Women, May 1997 and Coalition, CATW-AP, July/Sept 1997.
Graphic: by Sandra Torrijos, Clipart Vol.1 No.1, Isis International, Manila