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Sex-Workers urge better rights worldwide

HONG KONG (Reuters) - The world's oldest profession should be decriminalized and treated like any other business, international activists at a Hong Kong conference on prostitution said Sunday.

Prostitutes are abused by policemen who demand free sex and then arrest them for soliciting and they are victimized by politicians who launch crackdowns to woo voters, speakers at the conference said.

Activists also demanded better health support for prostitutes to prevent the spread of diseases including HIV/AIDS, especially in less developed parts of the world. "The criminalization and stigmatization of prostitutes is fundamentally linked to the disrespect of women," said Carol Leigh, an American activist and former prostitute who was the first to use the term "sex worker" in the late 1970s. Lobbyists from around the globe, including the United States, Australia, mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, urged for proper decriminalization of the trade worldwide. In many places, even if prostitution is not officially banned, there are laws that virtually criminalize it.

"In Hong Kong, prostitution is legal, but soliciting for prostitution is illegal, renting out a flat for prostitution purposes is illegal," said Hong Kong activist Elaine Lam.

A policeman posing as a client in a raid could easily trump up the charge that the prostitute was soliciting, Lam said.

"Sex workers are bullied by policemen, beaten and slapped," she added. "Policemen also seek free services from them and then destroy the evidence before arresting the women."

Taiwanese academic Josephine Ho told of similar problems in Taiwan. "Sex workers are totally powerless in the face of crimes. When their properties and bodies are exploited...seeking police protection means asking for more unbearable troubles," Ho said.

Police in Hong Kong and Taiwan were not immediately available to comment.


Even in places where prostitution is legalized and controlled by licensing, the restrictions often mean most of the industry remains underground, the activists said.

"Councils in New South Wales have effectively prohibited the industry or over-regulated it to such an extent that only larger well funded brothels can afford the costs of application and court processes required for approval," Australian campaigner Janelle Fawkes said.

Taiwan's Ho said politicians also targeted prostitution to boost their own popularity. "Politicians use sex workers as a convenient scapegoat to achieve their political aims," she said.

Hong Kong legislator Cyd Ho agreed. "Ahead of elections, candidates attach even greater importance to the combat against prostitution in order to woo voters," she said.

Activists called on governments and the public to treat prostitution as just another kind of business.

The also demanded better healthcare for sex workers.

"Normally they do not like the idea of asking for medical checks or medical treatment openly, fearing co-workers might know they are sick and this would affect their business," said Zhang Ning, a doctor serving remote brothels in eastern China.

"Back home these women do not use condoms with their husbands to save a few bucks. They don't even know where to get treatment," Zhang added.