Social workers from the Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters (COSWAS) gathered yesterday to recount the story of the Hua-hsi Street prostitutes who were banned from selling sex 8 years ago.
In August 1997, former Taipei mayor Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) put a ban on licensing prostitutes, saying that prostitution was often linked to violence and gangsters.
After granting a two-year grace-period for these "sex workers" until 2001, Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) confirmed that legalized prostitution in Taipei was to be abolished.
The sex workers were forced to stop plying their trade at the time, causing grave unemployment problems as they were faced with the decision of turning to illegal underground prostitution or seeking a new career path altogether, Chung Chun-chu (鍾君竺), executive director of COSWAS, said.
Chung said the government had originally promised the sex workers career counseling to ease the transition process. However, such counseling plans were not even discussed until after prostitution was abolished, placing the sex workers in a difficult position with no jobs, no skills and no money, she said.
"They had no ability to do anything else and nowhere to go back to," she added.
A documentary made by Tsai Yen-shan (蔡晏珊), a volunteer at COSWAS, depicting former sex worker Pai Lan's (白蘭) life after the abolishment, was shown yesterday at the conference.
Raised in a family of six children, Pai had to work from a very young age, having only graduated from elementary school.
At the age of thirteen, her father was badly hurt in a truck accident and the family was laden with burdensome medical bills. The family borrowed money from a restaurant owner, "selling" Pai Lan in the contract. Pai Lan sold sex until the abolishment of prostitution, and was then forced to start a new job in order to survive. She decided to try her luck with a betel nut stand.
Having no management training or sales training, Pai Lan's betel nut stand shut down after ten months.
"She quickly discovered that knowing how to `wrap' betel nuts isn't enough to actually run a stand," Chung said.
Pai Lan also tried working in factories and at other betel nut stands but the owners could not accept the fact that she was slow and unskilled.
"If the government had provided counseling and taught her new skills, then this wouldn't have happened," Chung said.
Chung said there was no reason for the government to take away Pai Lan's job.
"There was nothing else she was good at, and with no skills, there were no other job opportunities for her," she said.
Chung said that COSWAS has continuously helped these unemployed sex workers retain their rights, and hopes that the government can legalize the sex industry once more.
"The government and society should not hold a negative attitude toward prostitution," she said.