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The issue of sex work emerging as a recognizable profession in Sri Lanka is trending. This is evidenced by the materials appearing in the media and the recent post in Groundviews titled Is Sex Work, work? Recent statement by Dr.Nimalka Fernando in the Ceylon Today advocating legalizing prostitution by alleging health officials’ revelation that nearly 50,000 Lankans are engaged in prostitution is alarming. If these are proven facts, this turns out to be billions worth business in the shadows. Certainly, in the emerging predatory capitalist economy in Sri Lanka, certain businesses may covertly be eying to legalize prostitution to make use of the emerging market opportunity.

The difference between prostitution and sex work is a thin line and both are done as service to customers in return for a fee in cash or kind. Human frailty renders some to stray into this black hole, more circumstantially than volitionally. However frailty apart, socio-economic and political conditions are also drivers that coerce a large magnitude of the population to the fringe and drive some to take up this profession for their survival.

No sane person in society however poor they are given the choice of choosing manual labour over sex workwould gleefully accept to be a sex worker. Similarly, no parents or teachers would encourage their children/pupils to choose the profession of a sex worker however much the market presents them as glamorous and smart. As innately, human conscience says what is not good for one is not good for the other. Human aspirations always aim higher and therefore none has the temerity to take on a profession that negates ones identity and self worth. Then how come this is trending?

Human frailty being natural, any society would have prostitution like cancerous radicals that run amok in the human body. These emerge due to the poor health of the society and what we see today is a sickly Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Muslim social fabric tainted by a predatory socio-economic and political order with no due diligence to recognize its due responsibility to its citizens as worthy beings. The spiritual failure of the individuals and the society compounded by a decrepit socio-economic political ambience drives many to choose vocations which they abhor. Sex work is one such vocation.

Considering the circumstances on a humanitarian platform, it is justifiable to advocate protection to the 50,000 citizens who are indulging in sex work as a profession. But this does not solve the problem, as rising polarization in society, atomization of family, loss of social and cultural values to materialism and hedonism, war and social conflict and emerging predatory capitalism in Sri Lanka can potentially exacerbate this and increase the numbers exponentially.

What is needed here is a holistic understanding of the problem. Linear analysis of this issue has many loopholes, as nowhere in the world where prostitution is legalized has protected the sex workers from occupational hazards. There is no foolproof system. This is substantiated by a recent news item appearing in Ceylon Today (20/11/2013) with the caption “Germany Government having second thoughts on legalized prostitution”.  Only a very few, especially some western countries have legalized and regularized this and in spite of their robust legal systems and monitoring, the system is failing and that is why Germany is on a rethink about this. Similarly, there are countries which have legalized but without any regulations to govern. Here, the state of the sex workers is miserable where law enforcement officers and pimps get the lion’s share from the earnings of sex workers.

Sex work and prostitution is segmental; There is full time and part-time prostitution and there are street and indoor prostitution. Indoor prostitution varies qualitatively and most often in poor unhygienic conditions up to five star hotels levels.

A sex worker if recognized by law may get legal status to practice the profession, health insurance, EPF & ETF if employed by a business organization. Would these guarantee them the required protection? What is their economic viability in a competitive and age-dynamic market segment and loss of glamour, what is their life cycle, what would be the duration of their active practice and how many customers can they serve per day and would it amount to a living wage? These are unanswered questions the advocates of their rights have not given thoughts to. These raise questions about the sustainability of commercial sex work vis-à-vis the sustainability of the society from the demerits of these radicals. Hypothetically, in a liberal society, the interests of the sex workers need to be protected if considered a legal profession. Then what of the social and environmental cost to the society that result from permitting such a profession to practice. Who bears the responsibility for this? This issue needs to be looked from the perspective of social cost/benefit factors whilst balancing individual’s right to existence without social cost and resultant damage.

Understandably, what is needed here is the reinstatement of human dignity by repatriating the sex workers back into their families and respective society and put society and economy in right order to create dignified status to all citizens. To achieve these, the causal factors that contribute to this anomaly in society must necessarily be addressed. The approach taken by some that advocating the legalization of prostitution just because the tourism sector is booming is not the right answer. It is a fundamental that the economy should sustain the society and not the other way about. Citizens cannot be slaughtered at the altar of an economy.  Today, investment decisions in Sri Lanka do not necessarily consider the social and environmental cost of investment. This is dangerous, where the economy is given priority at the cost of society and the environment, definitely the result would be the horrendous undermining and decimation of society and the environment in times to come.

As a holistic approach to bridge this crack in society and to prevent prostitution from spawning, we need to understand the inherent systemic failures in our society which cause prostitution and sex work to trend as seen now.  Some of the contributory factors are:

  • Poverty is attributed as a driver to sex work. If there is one female sex worker in business due to poverty, this is counterbalanced by at least three to four customers per day of which some are unmarried due to poverty and solicit sex workers service due to incapacity to maintain a spouse.
  • Incest, molestations and failed adolescent sexual experimentation and resultant stigma have driven some to prostitution.
  • Unfulfilling education system that isn’t  synchronous with human growth delays employment and resultant marriage, thus leading to premarital sexual experimentation at times driving to service or solicit sex.
  • Adolescent vulnerabilities in families due to mother and or father being abroad leading to ungoverned life or become victims of circumstances.
  • Drugs and human trafficking
  • Lack of stewardship by family and elders in the formative period of youth to lead and guide them on a value based life.

The above are some of the micro level factors which drive one to be a sex worker. In the macro level, the socio-economic factors set the ambience and act as the drivers of this. Following are some of the socio-economic anomalies that influence marginalization of the vulnerable in society to sex trade.

  • Education: Median age of a Sri Lankan graduate according to the Institute of Policy Studies is 24+ years, that their secure and stable employment to sustain a family life will be when around 29 years, this therefore delays marriage. Similarly, the rest of the youth population, whose education and employment security etc also contributes to delayed marriage. These are the prime of their youth, lack of sexual fulfillment in life due to delayed marriage potentially drives to service or solicit sex informally.
  • Employment: Since mid 1970, successive governments in Sri Lanka have failed at creating tangible jobs inshore. Instead they found an easy way to elude this responsibility with the openings in the Middle Eastern job markets, selling our hard produced human resources for a cheap price that does not accrue the developmental benefits for national developments. A large number migrating for overseas jobs though had economic benefits also had social cost by dismembering the family and damaging the social and cultural fabric of society. Growing sex trade is partly a byproduct of this phenomenon.
  • War: Three decades of war in the country dismembered communities, broke social and cultural barriers, uprooted people, dented family structures, decimated social and moral values of the victims, migrations induced behaviour and life style change, living as IDPs destroyed the peoples fundamental strains of dignified living. These atomize the society and drives individuals and families to survive by any means sans dignity and decency as these two are not affordable to these peregrinatory people. These are also contributory factors to the problems under discussion and this warrants a holistic and an inclusive post war management.
  • Economy: Emerging predatory capitalism by takeovers, mergers and grand investment projects without any consideration of the social and environmental cost of such economic expansion would place the lives of the citizens in the hands of the few to dictate the way in which citizens should move. These are debilitating to society and can potentially drive more and more people below the socio-economic strata that that they are now, towards poverty and at times to promiscuity to survive as social animals. The GDP and Per Capita Income would show a greener picture but the reality will be otherwise.

In reality, Sri Lankan sex workers are triple victims. Their blooming youth was destroyed in their incipience in their close circles; Social failure to recognize their problems and remedy appropriately and timely & unsustainable educational, social and economic planning has contributed to what they are now.

50,000 sex workers in Sri Lanka is a challenge to the Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Islamic social and cultural value system. The four major religions in this country should rise to the occasion and work in tandem with the state and the society. They should protect the social and cultural values from erosion and help sex workers to transit to dignified life with decent alternative means of earning. A concerted action by the society and sustainable socio-economic planning by the state could auger better life to all citizens to live with dignity and respect. No citizens of mother Lanka need to sell their flesh just because of poverty or any other reason, if the rest of the country, men and women acted with due diligence.