Photo by AP, via

Two weeks ago we found ourselves sitting in a room full of three wheeler drivers working in the Colombo Fort area on what seemed like an all or nothing mission. Of all taboo topics we work with, sex work is perhaps one of the most difficult to approach. The level of judgement and the lack of understanding on the topic is unprecedented.

So how do you coax three wheeler drivers to talk about sex work in a country where it is criminalized but exists unrestrainedly in the shadows?

We started with “is there a sex industry in Sri Lanka?” to which we got a series of protests. The meeting had barely begun and we had already got shut down. We then tried a very eloquent “REALLY?!” to which we got one sheepish “well… not legally”.

The door had opened a crack and we didn’t hesitate to begin prying it open. An hour later we had been guided from everything to the demographic of sex workers in Colombo to the demographic of their clients, from specific locations to times of day, from prices ranges of sex workers to commissions received by three wheeler operators. They had intimate knowledge and shared their stories with dazzling clarity and simplicity but ultimately were of the view that sex work is corrupt and should not exist.

Why three wheeler drivers? Because research shows that three wheelers and their drivers provide an important link in the commercial sex trade, maintaining connections between commercial sex workers, their clients and the locations in which sexual exchanges take place.

Sex work finds its place in the underbelly of most societies, more so in conservative cultures like that of Sri Lanka. While it occurs and everyone knows it does, we choose not to open or deal with that can of worms.

With upcoming plans for the scaling up of the tourism and leisure industry and an influx of tourists, the demand for sex work is more than likely to increase.  Discussion around sex work has been increasing in the media, amongst policy makers and civil society activists in Sri Lanka.  The most recent is the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) statement that it would protest against every attempt to legalize sex work in response to Dr. Nimalka Fernando’s recent announcement regarding the long-standing demand to legalize prostitution and provide security for sex workers.

According to a statement issued by the National Organizer of the JHU, Nishantha Warnasinghe,

“We are totally against legalizing prostitution or sex workers.  We lead our lives based on a Buddhist culture. No prostitute does her job willingly. No prostitute publicly demands her rights. Only a minority of persons serving non-governmental organizations (NGO) promote western liberalism and individual freedom, and speak up for them.”

The Sri Lanka Women’s Conference held an emergency meeting on Wednesday 6 November on the matter of sex work and was unanimously against legalizing sex work, perturbed that the matter had even arisen. Legalizing sex trade is seen as an insult to women in the country… does this mean that women involved in sex work be it through coercion, desperation or choice are not women? How do we claim to speak up for women if we do not include all women?

Perceptions of sex workers in Sri Lanka remain unevolved and sodden in stigma and shame. Within the country a ‘prostitute’ is considered a person who corrupts society.  Those who engage in it are socially condemned.

This clashes rather confusingly with the idea that all female sex workers are coerced and trapped into being slaves. So whilst they are tricked and trapped into becoming sex workers once that line is crossed there is no coming back.

Legally causing seduction, prostitution or unlawful carnal intercourse are offences under Section 11 of the Vagrants Ordinance No 4 of 1841.

Additionally, charges can be made against those who use women for prostitution under Penal Code (Amendment) Act (No. 22 of 1995) – Section 7.

According to the Sri Lanka Progress Report 2012 by UNAIDS in collaboration with the National STD/AIDS Control Programme which is under the Ministry of Health,

“In 2010, a mapping exercise was conducted to map the female sex workers and men who have sex with men. Four districts were covered in this process and population sizes were extrapolated to the whole country. The estimated FSW and MSM were 41,000 (35,000 – 47,000) and 31,000 (24,000-37,000) respectively.”

These numbers are made up of the most vulnerable sex workers i.e. street based sex workers. These numbers do not include those that work in bars, hotels, brothels and casinos so one can only assume the actual numbers must be far greater.

Simply put criminalisation is not working very well.

Basically, it forces people to operate in a clandestine manner in the illegal economy. It subjects the workers to greater risk, they do not feel comfortable contacting the authorities when they have been abused or exploited, and it increases the chances of exploiters getting involved with them because the workers are already vulnerable and may feel that they need extra protection.

According to the ‘National Policy on HIV and AIDS in the World of Work in Sri Lanka 2010’ report by the Ministry and Labour and Labour Relations

“Despite sex work being illegal in Sri Lanka, a large clientele of men from all social strata patronize the sex trade and very often, negotiating powers of female sex workers for safer sex have failed due to male dominance.”

One of the most compelling arguments for legalizing and regulating sex work remains in the control of HIV and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). However owing to the legal implications of being identified a sex worker, it is reported that a large number of sex workers dislike keeping condoms with them so as to avoid being arrested by the police.

‘Key Populations’ is a terms that has evolved over time to refer to those people determined to be most at risk from HIV.

This includes sex workers both male and female. Both the’ National HIV Policy’ and the ‘National Policy on HIV and AIDS in the World of Work in Sri Lanka’ accept the existence and the need to work with this group.

“Female sex workers, men who have sex with men… are identified as the most at risk populations in the country. Unprotected sex among women and men have accounted for 82.8% of the transmission, while 11.2% was due to unprotected sex between men.” states National Policy on HIV and AIDS in the World of Work in Sri Lanka.

The National HIV Policy 3.10 states that “Preventative, educational and clinical services will be provided to those believed to be at high risk, including sex workers, men having sex with men…”

These programs will be far from effective as long as sex work is illegal. Most sex workers would not come forward openly to receive any form of education or clinical services for fear of being arrested and fined amounts they cannot afford.

Therefore purely from a public health perspective, legalizing and then regulating sex work would mean more robust HIV and STI prevention plans, less exploitation and as the JHU rightly pointed out less sex workers who are unhappy and trapped in their jobs.

The law is one side of this debate, culture and religion which shapes a large part of public perception in Sri Lanka is a much more difficult hurdle to deal with.  While religions and cultures condemn sex work, its existence cannot be denied.

The ‘National Policy on HIV and AIDS in the World of Work in Sri Lanka’ states that

 “changing attitudes through dissemination of accurate information, in order to reduce stigma and discrimination will be adopted.”

This responsibility lies largely in the media and its ability to shape public perception.

Editors who append photos to articles on the sex industry use archetypes: women leaning into car windows, sitting on bar stools, standing amidst traffic — legs, stockings and high heels highlighted. Editors do this not because they are too lazy to find other pictures but to show, before you read a word, what the articles are really about: women whose uniform is the outward sign of an inner stain.

Skewed and sensationalized reporting creates and perpetuates the idea that sex work is dirty, degrading and corrupt. This causes exploitation, STIs, violence and human trafficking to soar. Reframing sex work as actual work would greatly decrease the dangers and risk of exploitation and help regulate what is currently a hidden but very established industry.

Finally the question is not if we personally are completely comfortable with the idea of sex work but that there are actual lives on the line and our ideological purity matters very little in relation to the physical safety of them as human beings.

At the end of the day what led them to sex work or why they continue it can be coercion, poverty or choice but without knowing sex workers and their circumstances we cannot really create policies for or against them.

Stigma keeps this massive industry underground, and also subjects sex workers to unpunished physical violence from clients, employers, and police.  As quoted before “No prostitute publicly demands her rights” according to National Organizer of the JHU, Nishantha Warnasinghe.

“I was kept naked in a room, was forced to have sex for three months by so many men I could not tell you who they were or describe them if I wanted to.  All I know is I collected the few coins some of them would throw at me and one day escaped” said one sex worker we spoke with, who by now is well over 50 years of age.  Was she raped? Can a sex worker be raped?

This is one of many stories from the other side of the tracks.  Considering her current illegal status if she were to demand her rights not as a sex worker, not even as a woman but as a human being… Where could she go?

Shilpa Samaratunge has a degree in journalism from the University of Queensland, and works with the Grassrooted Trust.

[Editors note: The author is also part-time with the Centre for Policy Alternatives, the institutional anchor of Groundviews].