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Gender - Women | Society

Namibia urged to decriminalise sex workers

Misanet / The Namibian, 9 November - The Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) yesterday called for the decriminalisation of prostitution in Namibia. The co-ordinator of LAC's Gender Research and Advocacy Project, Dianne Hubbard, said it is the only sensible and compassionate choice, while sex workers seek better alternatives. It would also help fighting AIDS.

"Decriminalising sex work does not have to mean the approval of sex work by Namibian society," she said. Her remarks were made to members of the National Council's Standing Committee on Gender and Youth, at a public hearing in Windhoek, the captial of Namibia.

A member of the committee, Willem Apollus, welcomed the recommendation of LAC. "I agree to a certain extent that we try out decriminalising sex work apart from legalising it," he said. "Sex workers are also human beings and not just numbers," he added.

Ms Hubbard held decriminalisation would reduce HIV transmission in areas sex workers operate, since it would set the stage for more effective HIV-AIDS campaigns targeting sex workers and clients. She said decriminalisation is more consistent with respect for human rights of sex workers.

It would also reduce the general level of violence in sex work, because it would mean sex workers can report abuse and coercion without fear of being arrested, Ms Hubbard added.

Her organisation's recommendations are based on an LAC study carried out in 2001. The survey on sex workers covered five Namibian towns - Windhoek, Grootfontein, Keetmanshoop, Walvis Bay and Swakopmund - and 148 sex workers were interviewed.

Mr Apollus expressed dissatisfaction over the absence of sex workers from the public hearing. "We really need their contributions to give us a road map," he said.

Ms Hubbard said it would be very difficult for sex workers to appear in public before a committee because of the stigma they carry. She suggested that members of the committee meet with her after the open session and she would tell them how they might approach and meet with those workers without scaring them off.

Tabling of a report on the public hearing in the National Assembly for discussion can be expected not later than March next year, Mr Apollus said.

Ms Hubbard said almost a quarter of the people her group interviewed said paid sex takes place in the veld - for privacy and also to give clients free rein to behave as they please without interference. Interviewees were asked how long they had been operating as sex workers. The average period, according to Hubbard, is between two and 10 years.

"Reasons for going into sex work vary," she said. "But the most important considerations are financial - such as having to support children or other family members, or being unable to find any other way to earn enough money to survive."

She said entry into sex work was often precipitated by a lack of family or financial stability, combined with some catastrophic event, such as the death of a parent or losing some other job. "The vast majority of sex workers (67 percent) would like to see the laws of Namibia changed to legalise sex work," she said. "Some sex workers also thought that legalisation would reduce the harassment which they experience," Ms Hubbard reported.

Rachel Cloete, representing Women's Action for Development, a woman's help group, also proposed decriminalising sex work. She said the concept should be opened for debate in order to gauge public opinion.

Ms Cloete expressed shock over teachers who impregnate young schoolgirls in exchange for material or financial favours. "The seeds of prostitution are planted right within our schools," she told the committee. "Whether in financial terms or in kind, this is nothing less than prostitution," Ms Cloete said.

Mr Apollus, a former teacher with 20 years' teaching experience, feels that in some cases schoolgirls are to be blamed, since they lure teachers into temptation. "Teachers should not lead young learners into temptation," Ms Cloete said in response. She said teachers should set an example.

Professor Monish Gunawarda, Dean of the HIV-AIDS faculty at the International University of Management in Windhoek, also pressed for sex work to be legalised. "Sex business is a very big trade and if kept underground, will become unmanageable," he said. Professor Gunawarda has worked in 25 countries.

He noted that Namibia need not panic, since prostitution does not yet have a huge impact in the country, but he advised the committee to start managing it while it is still in the early stages.

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