Tue, Sep 23, 2008 - Page 2 News List

FEATURE: Debate on legalizing sex trade continues

UNFAIR SYSTEM Industry workers and social groups said Taiwan is probably the only country in the world that punishes prostitutes, while letting their patrons go scot-free

By Sofia Wu  /  CNA

Day and night they wander the streets, waiting to be picked up by passers-by. The younger ones trade on their beauty and allure, but more eye-catching are those who look older than 60, wearing heavy make-up and quietly enticing patrons.

With the economic downturn, the number of streetwalkers has increased. As the country bans prostitution, they are vulnerable to arbitrary arrest by police or exploitation by unscrupulous pimps and patrons.

The legal system only punishes prostitutes, not their clients, and mainly targets women who walk the streets looking for customers rather than women who work in bars or clubs.

Prostitutes working at cabarets, private clubs or other entertainment facilities are generally well protected by gangs and even some political figures.

UNSYMPATHETIC

The streetwalkers, on the other hand, are on their own, easy prey for police desperate to meet arrest quotas and left to battle an unsympathetic legal framework rarely seen anywhere else in the world, said Chen Mei-hua (陳美華), an assistant professor at Tunghai University’s Department of Sociology in Taichung County.

Once they are arrested, they can be slapped with a fine of up to NT$30,000 or detained for three days.

“Either way, it’s like adding frost to their economic hardships,” she said.

That could change as President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration may consider decriminalizing prostitution, and it is asking the public to chime in.

In line with Ma’s campaign promise to promote “deliberative democracy,” the Research, Evaluation and Development Commission has commissioned Lin Kuo-ming (林國明), an associate professor at National Taiwan University’s Department of Sociology, to organize a “consensus conference” in November on whether prostitutes should be exempt from punishment.

Even among prostitutes and welfare group representatives, there is no consensus on the issue. Some support the idea, others want patrons to be punished rather than prostitutes, and there are those who hope prostitution will be fully legalized.

But they all agree that change is necessary.

A-lan, a former prostitute now in her 50s, complained that in recent years, police have become more active in harrying streetwalkers.

“Some streetwalkers were jailed for two weeks and some develop obsessive-compulsive disorders because of the frequent police crackdowns,” she said.

Sometimes, A-lan said, police “visit” them 10 times a day.

“Even without evidence, they want to arrest us to help polish their work records. We might be arrested even when we’re eating at a street noodle booth. We may be unwelcome in society, but our basic human rights should still be respected,” she said.

“A normal office worker uses a pen to work. We use a part of our body to work. Why should we be stigmatized?” she said.

A-lan said she keenly hopes that prostitution can be legalized and a special zone designated to house brothels. By so doing, all prostitutes could join forces to protect each other.

“Without a systematic or institutionalized protective mechanism, we have no way to seek justice if we are beaten, robbed or raped,” A-lan said, adding that she hoped a legal system would be crafted to regulate prostitution.

“With legislation, patrons will behave better and will not dare to bully us,” she said.

Sandy Yeh (葉毓蘭), head of the Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation, said she was very sympathetic toward underprivileged streetwalkers and fully supported the proposal to decriminalize prostitution.

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