Legalize prostitution, UN urges PH

The Philippines and other Asian countries should decriminalize sex-related jobs in order to provide sex workers access to basic rights and to control the spread of sexually transmitted infections especially HIV, a new United Nations report said.

"The legal recognition of sex work as an occupation enables sex workers to claim benefits, to form or join unions and to access work-related banking, insurance, transport and pension schemes," the report dubbed "Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific" showed.

It added that "in decriminalized contexts, the sex industry can be subject to the same general laws regarding workplace health and safety and anti-discrimination protections as other industries."

Decriminalization, the report said, involves the repeal of laws criminalizing sex work, being clients to sex workers or enganging in activities associated with sex work.

It should also repeal laws that require mandatory testing or treatment for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or other STIs, as well as laws that allow detention of sex workers for rehabilitation or correction.

The report stressed that Filipino sex workers remain highly vulnerable to STIs including HIV as well as sexual and physical abuse due to stigma.

This, even as it noted that the Philippines has introduced laws aimed at preventing HIV and protecting the rights of infected patients.

These laws offer "limited protections" to sex workers, the report said, amid "the continued enforcement of criminal laws against sex workers and difficulties in accessing the justice system to enforce these rights."

Sex work as well as businesses engaged in sex are illegal under Philippine laws, with penalties up to 30 days imprisonment for first offense and up to six months imprisonment for repeat offenders.

Related story: Afghan woman 'beheaded for refusing prostitution'

The UN also noted that broad definitions open to abuse and misinterpretation some provisions of laws on sex work.

Article 201 of the Revised Penal Code, which covers immoral doctrines, obscene publications and exhibitions and indecent shows "may be used by police to lay charges as a result of raiding entertainment establishments," the report said.

"Establishment-based sex workers are at risk of arrest as a result of police raids conducted under the antitrafficking law," it added.

Most of these workers are also not given health insurance, with the UN saying that "employers take advantage of a loophole in relevant employment laws by claiming that sex workers are not regular employees..."

Sex workers operating independently, however, are still "more vulnerable to arrest and police abuses," the report said.

"Street-based sex workers are commonly charged with vagrancy offences," it noted.

Laws also remain inadequate in addressing issues of discrimination against sex workers, especially for those infected with HIV or other STIs.

The AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998, for instance, provides "no specific provisions to protect sex workers from discrimination," the report said.

Sex workers who are sexually assaulted are also unlikely to "successfully bring a charge of rape against an offender" despite the Anti-Rape Law, the UN added.

"Police confiscation of condoms for use as evidence remains a controversial issue," the report noted.

Although noting that the government has backed efforts to promote condom use among sex workers over the last decade, UN said the presence of condoms in establishments raided by police is still used as evidence in criminal complaints.

UN stressed, however, that "significant progress has been achieved through sex workers educating their peers about their rights, organizing legal representation and securing changes to law enforcement practices..."

"At the local level, this approach has shifted the power balance in favour of the vulnerable, and has been associated with positive HIV prevention outcomes such as increased condom use rates and reduced stigma," the report said.

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