Owed some protection
Governments are benefiting from the labour of sex workers, who increase their countries' gross domestic product and contribute directly to state coffers through taxes and fees paid by establishments that sell or support commercial sex. In return for their contributions to the state, governments owe sex workers better protection of their rights, access to sustained rehabilitation assistance, and improved services to enhance work options for girls and women.
A 1998 International Labour Organisation study declared the sex industry to be 'assuming massive proportions' in Southeast Asia. Governments were estimated to earn billions of US dollars (2-14 per cent of GDP in some cases) from direct sex work and associated businesses, while an estimated 350,000 to 1.3 million women worked in the sector in four countries alone - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.
Today, commercial sex in Asia continues to thrive, employing millions more than in 1998: recent estimates are 10 million sex workers in mainland China; 20,000 in Hong Kong; 500,000 in the Philippines; 500,000 to 2 million in Thailand; 200,000 to 300,000 in Indonesia; and 142,000 in Malaysia. Liberalisation in mainland China and Vietnam, the feminisation of poverty, and more open borders created by globalisation are only a few of the factors powering the sector's growth. Notwithstanding publicised raids and clampdowns, not a single government is working systematically to curtail the sex trade. Revenues are simply too good and governments are simply too addicted.
Growth in the sex trade comes at a price, including human trafficking, child prostitution, violence and disease. Practically all the countries of East Asia serve as source, transit or destination points for trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. In the Greater Mekong sub-region, Unicef estimates that up to a third of sex workers are children and adolescents, aged 12 to 17, while the ILO put the number of child prostitutes in Java in 2004 at 21,000.
Violence against sex workers is common. In 2008, a dramatic case occurred in low-crime Hong Kong, where a 16-year-old sex worker was found decapitated, flayed and chopped into pieces. Throughout Asia, sexually transmitted disease (including, but not limited to, HIV/Aids) is a problem, reaching epidemic proportions in marginalised populations. Besides HIV/Aids, other health concerns are inadequately addressed, including illegal abortions, attempted suicides, drug addiction, hepatitis B virus infections and mental illness.
If governments do not and will not curtail the sex business - indeed, they may have done exactly the opposite in the past by promoting certain types of tourism or 'entertainment' clustered around foreign military bases - what, then, is their duty towards citizens and migrant workers, who pay the price for risks inherent in sex work?
Governments must define and protect sex worker rights better. Adults who freely choose sex work as a profession must be granted equal protection under the law, including non-violent and non-exploitative treatment from law enforcement authorities; safety at the workplace, including, for example, condom use as a formal policy in sex work establishments; and non-discriminatory access to public health and other services that the state offers to other workers.
The sex industry must be decriminalised. In the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, mainland China and Cambodia, prostitution is illegal yet ubiquitous in brothels, bars, spas, massage parlours, health centres, music lounges, hotels, night clubs and malls. Governments must stop hiding under the veil of hypocrisy that declares prostitution a crime but simultaneously permits, facilitates and tolerates its widespread practice. Criminalising sex work pushes the business underground, jeopardising the health of sex workers and feeding corruption through bribery, protection rackets and other exploitative practices.
Governments must also allocate some revenues gained from sex work to fund sustainable rehabilitation programmes. It is difficult to identify the exact number of girls and women who would leave the sex sector if given a viable option. But enough studies show that many sex workers would like to leave prostitution if they could. Sadly, their options are few. They are stigmatised and have meagre marketable skills. So-called official 'rehabilitation programmes' are often poorly funded or punitive. They fail to de-stigmatise former sex workers or give them sustained training and support to help them transition successfully to adequately paid work outside the sex sector.
Finally, governments must redefine the value of girls and women by enhancing services - especially education - that will broaden the work options for the female population.
In Asia, persistent beliefs underpin the mass market for commercial sex: that women and girls are inherently inferior to men; daughters may be used to pay for their brothers' and fathers' debts; men have physiological needs that prostitution can meet while still allowing men to uphold monogamy and family; sex is primarily for the enjoyment of men; girls and women should support their families; and sex with virgins can increase male virility and business prowess.
These beliefs will not change soon, but government policy can help nudge practice and beliefs slowly away from traditional patriarchy and the devaluation of women. Educating girls and women will augment their self-esteem and strengthen their competitive skills.
A future may come in Asia when girls and women still generate substantive revenue for the state, but sex work will no longer be the all-too-common option that it is today.
Astrid S. Tuminez is assistant dean of executive education and director of research at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore