- Meaningful Inclusion in the Philippines
Sex workers can better control their working conditions if they are meaningfully included in policy conversations about issues that affect them and if sex work is decriminalized, which will allow them to organize, raise funds, and more easily seek legal representation. They are well-positioned to identify their needs and suggest relevant interventions.
For example, some Overseas Filipino Workers engage in various forms of sex work in destination countries, even if this isn’t their primary work. The workers face health risks, and can also be jailed and deported if caught. The Philippine government can improve the legal support, protective information, and health services it offers to migrant Filipino workers to account for this reality. [End Page 6]
Discussions on HIV/AIDS also require input from sex workers, who argue that the definition of non-discrimination should be expanded to include occupation as an unacceptable basis for unfair treatment. The dominant paradigm of eradicating prostitution to prevent the spread of HIV undermines the goal of reducing stigma— because it reinforces notions of sex workers as primary transmitters, even when data shows that they are just one of many at-risk populations. Male and transgendered sex workers, who are largely invisible in legal and policy discourse, can also speak to their own vulnerabilities.
The human rights critique of the current administration’s violent war on drugs must include the impact on street-based sex workers in the Philippines, whose work has become more unsafe because they or their clients can get tagged as drug suspects and summarily executed.
The anti-trafficking sector—comprised of government agencies, civil society organizations, some women’s rights groups, and faith organizations—and advocates of the Anti-Prostitution Law tend to conflate voluntary prostitution and sex trafficking. They focus on discouraging demand and facilitating women’s exit from prostitution and “reintegration into society” through “rehabilitation and economic empowerment.” Anti-prostitution nonprofit organizations are widely represented in these discussions. Women who identify as sex trafficking survivors are also becoming increasingly involved. It is necessary, however, to consult sex workers and sex worker-led organizations before making general claims about their lack of agency and “best interest.”
Sex workers who have been affected by state interventions—such as the closure of establishments that employ them, raid and rescue operations, and rehabilitation—need a space to speak freely about the impact these actions have had on their lives.
While there is a popular assertion that violence is inherent to sex work, sex workers’ vulnerabilities are more the result of their criminal status and inability to fully enjoy basic human rights, such as health care or justice. Many sex workers also report being shamed when they do try to access health services or report abuse. For instance, they are made to feel like they deserve STIs or to be raped. A decision to act upon sex workers’ feedback ought to drive an aggressive retraining of law enforcement and other service providers to engage with sex workers in a respectful, rights-based manner.
SHARMILA PARMANAND is a Gates scholar and a Ph.D. student in multi-disciplinary gender studies at the University of Cambridge.