Decriminalise Sex Work To Save Prostitutes From Trafficking
Sex work, in many parts of the world, is seen as a morally repulsive and repugnant profession, specifically in conservative societies.
Many countries have imposed a blanket ban on prostitution, while some have legalised it completely. They officially recognise prostitution as a valid profession, and even have regulatory mechanisms overseeing its workings. Sex workers are required to undergo routine medical check-ups, comply with health protocols, and in some countries, even get licenses.
Pakistan is among countries where prostitution is an illegal activity. But despite it being prohibited and opposed by many sections of society, there is also no dearth of people seeking services offered by people affiliated with the profession.
As per the United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), an estimated 200,000 sex workers are currently present in Pakistan. These numbers show that banning something does not make it disappear; instead, people start looking for that in what are described as “black markets”.
What decision makers often ignore is the fact that, not everyone who enters this line of work does so willingly; many of them are often forced into adopting sex work against their will.
Too often, sex traffickers and third-party exploiters shield themselves behind the shadows of sex work. They often subject them to different forms of violence. Thus, criminalising sex workers – already victims of exploitation – leave them helpless in the face of repression, stripping them of legal opportunities to seek redress and protection.
By criminalising prostitution, countries also inadvertently close all legal channels for sex workers to report harassment, violence, and seek justice.
State recognition, thus, not only provides them an avenue for legal redress but also helps ensure that human traffickers and traders are separated from this unregulated domain. It also helps them become better protected against day-to-day harassment faced by law-enforcers.
However, there is one country that seems to have tackled this social issue in a fairly balanced way – somewhere between imposing outright ban on prostitution and legalising it completely. The Swedish government, in 1999, introduced the Sex Purchase Act. The act criminalised the purchase of sex while allowing its sale – thus taking away the criminal burden from sex workers to buyers.
After the introduction of the act, the country has seen significant reduction in prostitution and sex trafficking. Many Nordic countries have replicated Sweden’s neo-abolitionist strategy towards sex work since then.
Apart from being forced into prostitution, many sex workers step into flesh trade out of serious financial compulsions. It is for this reason that they easily get trapped by traffickers and third-party brokers. These people promise them of better fortunes, pushing them deeper into the abyss.
With the onset of COVID-19 pandemic, this already ignored section of the society is facing severe economic crisis. Had they been recognised as legitimate service-providers, they would not have had to continue risking their lives during this public health crisis.
As long as they are not taken into the legal fold, they remain ineligible for public benefits announced by the state.
By adopting a more inclusive policy towards sex workers, governments can gradually try to pull them out of prostitution. The state can provide them access to better legal aid, financial capital, and skills program.
All in all, we can either continue to follow a prohibitionist approach to tackle this complex problem, or adopt a more logically thought-out and realistic approach to curtail its scale.