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FeaturesLegal Recognition for Sex Workers in Sri Lanka?

Legal Recognition for Sex Workers in Sri Lanka?

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By Hasini Weerasinghe.

The demand for sex workers is overlooked; laws would protect sex workers from violence and harassment

 Despite the reluctance to openly discuss this subject, is evident that sex workers are abundant in contemporary Sri Lanka. Although they are condemned in terms of cultural and religious aspects, their existence cannot be denied. No rational person would take up sex work over the choice of other work. No girl’s ambition is to become a prostitute as she grows. No parent or teacher dreams of a child to sell their bodies. Even in countries where prostitution is legal, there are no institutes to specialise in sex work. Then why is this popular? How come it is trending? It was recently revealed that there are about 50 000 Lankan women engaged in prostitution.   Sex workers have become a part of the community and should be given correct attention.

This is quite a sensitive topic and is hard to approach, as the widespread notion is that prostitutes corrupt society and bring negative values to the social structure. While poverty tops the list, coercion and desperation may be other reasons for women to be inclined towards sex work. In many instances the need to provide for children would drive divorced or widowed women opting for sex work. That reasoning goes to the thousands of child-burdened war-widows especially in the North and North-East, who have suddenly become bread winners without education or employable skills. Drugs, human trafficking and failed adolescent experimentation could be other possible rationales.
Sex work/ Prostitution is not legalised in Sri Lanka. We are often filled with news about brothels being raided and prostitutes being arrested.  Organisations such as Centre for Sex Worker’s Rights (CSWR) and women’s rights activists have been demanding legal rights in order to create a recognised position for them in society.

““We are labelled as bad women in society. When we are destitute we cannot kill or steal for money like men do. What we can do is sell our bodies. We do it for our children, we do it for ourselves”

Should sex workers be given legal recognition or should they continue to be as they are? What are the real reasons behind the demanding of legal rights for sex work? Are there other ways to deal with the destitute situation of women in Sri Lanka?

The co-president of the Centre for Sex Worker’s Rights (CSWR) expressed her views on this as follows.

“We are labelled as bad women in society. When we are destitute we cannot kill or steal for money like men do. What we can do is sell our bodies. We do it for our children, we do it for ourselves.”

“There are many reasons why girls/women have taken up sex work. I have taken this as an occupation because of my husband. My husband passed away many years ago, and I was helpless. I have two sons to nurture and I have to do something to ensure their well being. Their education, health and comfort are the priorities in my mind. I did not know anything about being a prostitute when I started, I was scared, but now I am very happy. There are many families along the coastal belt, across Wellawatta and Dehiwala of which parents cannot afford proper education for their children. Their pretty daughters always tend to resolve to sex work. That is one of the main methods of income for such families”.


When the Daily Mirror inquired whether every female engaged in the sex trade was contet, she assured that they were.

“People have their interests. The availability of a prostitute is a way of satisfying a human desire. If my son wants to have sex, he cannot go to the girl next door. However, he can go to a prostitute to fulfill what he wants easily, where both parties are happy to be with each other. Many little children are raped and abused because men have desires. Establishing prostitution will help reduce social crimes and will create a safe environment for our daughters to go in public.”

Asked about why they demand that sex work should be legalised, she said, “We are labelled as ‘bad women’ in society. No one really understands the situation we have been compelled to be in. When we are destitute we cannot kill or steal for money like men do. What we can do is sell our bodies. We do it for our children, we do it for ourselves. Policemen always look down upon us, arrest us and disgrace us. I have gone to countries like Singapore and Thailand where sex workers are licensed. They treat us with much respect and consider us as ordinary humans. What we asked for was social respect, proper recognition and the right to do our job as we like. We are always cornered, condemned and humiliated in social networks and the media. The demanding of legal rights was the last option we have, then we will not be tainted and regarded as inhuman.”

“Whatever affect sex work has on society has happened by now, as it already exists. Us pretending that it doesn’t is what brings harm to society”  – Mrs. Kumudini Samuel”

Political activist Wickramabahu Karunaratne emphasised that justice be given to the existing sex workers in Sri Lanka.
“What is poignant about this is the exploitation of these poor women by arresting them when men are left alone although they clearly violate the vagrancy ordinance in other ways. This is what I speak against” – Wickramabahu Karunaratne

“There is no proper law prohibiting sex work in Sri Lanka. What exists is the Brothel Law and the Vagrancy Ordinance (Punishment of persons behaving riotously or disorderly in public streets). The brothel law was formed long time back and does not actively function. It is the Vagrancy Law that is used by law-executing bodies to apprehend sex workers. A majority of women in our country have chosen sex work because of their children. They have no way of leaving their children at home and devote themselves to work 8 hours a day. So they take 2 or 3 hours a day to work as prostitutes. The mode of operation is to loiter in public places. These are the instances where they are subjected to harassment by the police, suppressed and considered as slaves. What is poignant about this is the exploitation of these poor women by arresting them while men are left alone although they clearly violate the Vagrancy Ordinance in other ways. This is what I speak against. I do not specifically request legalisation of prostitution and do not promote it as a profession. However, a set of conditions should be brought in, which has a legal structure to protect their being, paying attention to the miserable, insecure circumstances these women face”.

“Should sex workers be given legal recognition or should it continue to be as it is? What are the real reasons behind the demanding of legal rights for sex work? Are there other ways to deal with the destitute situation of women in Sri Lanka? “

Mrs. Kumudini Samuel, Coordinator of the Women and Media Collective (WMC) and editor of Women’s Rights Watch about this issue expressed similar views to Wickramabahu Karunaratne, while suggesting how society should change its perspectives.
“Whatever affect sex work has on society has happened by now, as it already exists. Us pretending that it doesn’t is what brings harm to society” – Mrs. Kumudini Samuel

What we need to realise and accept for a fact is that prostitution happens abundantly in Sri Lanka. If it is going to be criminalised, it is definitely going to happen underground. The factor that we overlook is the demand for sex workers. Although society is ready to blame it on the woman, people fail to see their impoverishment. So I believe laws should be brought in to safeguard the woman and ensure their protection in this already existing business. Therefore legal intervention should focus on protecting  women from sexual violence and harassment.
When Mrs. Samuel was questioned about what effect lawfully permitting sex work would have on society, she said that it wouldn’t have a strong influence.
“Whatever effect sex work has on society has happened by now, as it already exists. Pretending that it doesn’t is what brings harm to society. We have internalised Victorian mindsets since the time of the English rule although other countries have overcome them. We need to question ourselves and stop acting as if people are not sexually active.

The way to deal with sexual crime is to openly discuss about it and probably include sex education in school curricula. We need to change the attitude of people and their perception about sexuality, by taking a frank approach and not by resorting to a moralistic outlook.

Speaking of legal implications, Mrs. Samuel firmly stated that the Vagrancy Ordinance should be done away with, as it is often misused. She also said that the Brothel Law should be regulated in a way that both men and women will be protected.

Dr. Prathibha Mahanamahewa (attorney at law) and human rights activist spoke of the problems ‘entertainment workers’ come across, sympathising with the circumstances they are confronted with.

““Five star hotels are never examined in search of sex workers, however, the woman who helplessly stands on the street is taken into custody” – Dr. Prathibha Mahanamahewa”

“Five star hotels are never examined in search of sex workers, however, the woman who helplessly stands on the street is taken into custody” – Dr. Prathibha Mahanamahewa

“First I would like to revise the term used to define these particular people. I would call them entertainment workers instead of sex workers. Earlier they were referred to as prostitutes, then sex slaves or sex workers, however, in a modern context; the terminology that I prefer to use with respect to their occupation is entertainment workers. I believe they should be given rights as any other worker, as there is no law that exists in Sri Lanka which criminalizes this. However, police arrest women and subject them to humiliation at their own will, which I think should necessarily be spoken against. Five star hotels are never examined in search of sex workers, however, the woman who helplessly stands on the street is taken into custody. I have surveyed the causes for entertainment workers to emerge in our country and as it is obvious, most of them step into the business due to poverty. Most street entertainers have no birth certificate or ID and there are also women who have returned from serving in Middle-East countries who are not issued Grama Niladhari certificates. The government has to take responsibility of these women and give them their rights by recognising their predicament.”

“Sri Lankan society is very conservative, specially the older generations. Although sex-related activities are happening often, we do not openly discuss them. I think social awareness and campaigning must be conducted alongside legalising and ensuring the rights of sex workers.”
The taboo subject of sex workers is without doubt a social issue in Sri Lanka. This decade-old reality has now begun to rear up. Do they actually corrupt society? Or is it because society is corrupt that they exist?

Daily Mirror

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