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TAIWAN: Debate Far from Over On Decriminalisation of Sex Trade

Dennis Engbarth

TAIPEI, Nov 22 2010 (IPS) - The Taiwanese government’s plans to partially decriminalise the sex trade has revived deep divisions within society, including between advocacy groups who stress the need for equal treatment and ‘autonomy’ for sex workers and those worried about the impact of such a move on human trafficking and child prostitution.

After years of debate, Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT) or Chinese Nationalist Party government has been presented with a deadline to at least partially resolve the thorny issue of decriminalising the sex trade, which in Taiwan encompasses over 80,000 sex workers and hundreds of thousands of ancillary jobs, activists say.

The deadline was set by a Nov. 6 declaration by Taiwan’s Constitutional Court, which found unconstitutional an article in the Social Order Maintenance Act that punishes sellers of sexual favours but not their purchasers. It said the act violated the principle that “all citizens shall be equal before the law” and required it to be expunged or revised by Nov. 6, 2011.

On Oct. 13, Interior Minister Jiang Yi-huah announced that two public hearings and two closed seminars among government agencies and scholars had reached a consensus to “eliminate punishment” for consensual sexual transactions among adults, but also concurred that “it would not be suitable to commercialise or turn it into an industry”.

Moreover, Jiang said that the majority of opinions were against restricting the sex trade to “exclusive zones” but preferred allowing local governments to regulate it in areas that “would not affect juvenile or child development”.

The government could consider permitting sex workers to operate “in cooperatives of three to five persons”, adding that the majority opinion believed that the forming of “corporations” or “enterprises” around sex work would be “inappropriate”, Jiang said.

Jiang said the Ministry of Interior would carry out a survey on its proposals and would hold another seminar among government agencies and academics to hammer out a consensus package to be presented to a Cabinet-level human rights advisory commission later this year.

The Cabinet is expected to send draft changes to the law criminalising sex work for approval by the legislature in early 2011.

But although the ruling KMT has a two-thirds majority in Taiwan’s national legislature, passage is far from assured due to sharp divisions among lawmakers and women’s rights, welfare and activist groups on the issue.

The Alliance Against Exploitation of Women, composed of 14 women’s and children’s rights groups, decried the interior ministry’s plans in an Oct. 22 statement.

Calling the decriminalisation plans “legitimising” the sex trade, it warned against the adoption of a regulatory model similar to the ‘one room, one phoenix’ pattern or one- person brothels in Hong Kong.

The alliance said the interior ministry’s preliminary consensus failed to address the Constitutional Court’s call for government agencies to “use vocational training, employment guidance and other educational measures to enhance the work skills and economic situation of sexual workers so that they do not need to resort to sexual work in order to survive”.

Without a clear consensus, “the government should not rush to decide on a final policy by the end of this year,” said a spokeswoman for the alliance.

Decriminalisation would make it harder to enforce laws on juvenile prostitution or human trafficking, Ingrid Liao Pi- jing, East Asia board representative of End Child Prostitution Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT International), told IPS.

“How will law enforcement agencies be able to determine whether such transactions are truly consensual or whether the sex workers are underage?” she asked.

Under legislative questioning on Nov. 2, Premier Wu Den- yih assured that the government had no intention to “develop sex trade as a normal trade”. But while he wished to see “a world without prostitution”, he said, “the government must pragmatically face social reality.”

While those opposed to decriminalisation find it too radical, those campaigning for the rights of sex workers find the interior ministry’s proposals too tame.

Taiwanese society should look into regulating the sex trade instead of trying to suppress it, said Chung Chun-chu, secretary-general of the Collective Of Sex Workers And Supporters (COSWAS). “We hope that sexual transactions can be entirely decriminalised and become a normal occupation, but the first phrase should focus on how to give power back to the sex workers,” said Chung.

Because sex workers cannot get clients legally, “the vast majority have no choice but to depend on bosses or procurers to gain clients and protection from police,” explained Chung. “Only 10 percent operate individually as either the highest-class courtesans or the poorest streetwalkers,” added Chung.

Chung said that if sex workers could legally form small cooperative studios, they would be more able to both protect themselves from “bad” clients and “reverse this power relationship and hire their own managers, drivers and security guards.”

Awakening Foundation Chairwoman Yang Wan-ying told IPS that “the changes to the Social Order Maintenance Act will only concern consensual sexual transactions.”

“Prohibitions and heavy criminal penalties for non- consensual sex or juvenile or child prostitution and the prevention and prohibition of human trafficking are still on the books and should be firmly enforced,” Yang said.

Both advocates and opponents of the decriminalisation of the sex trade agree that much more consensus building is required.

“The MOI (Ministry of Interior) has basically formulated its policies behind closed doors,” related Chung. “Many people have concrete worries and imagined issues and two public hearings and closed-door seminars do not constitute sufficient social dialogue”.

While supporting decriminalisation in principle, opposition Democratic Progressive Party legislator Yeh Yi- chin said: “We need to have a thorough and open public discussion on this issue and the alternatives.”

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