BAGUIO CITY, Philippines â€“ Sex workers in the country are reaching the half a million mark, a non-government organization said.
"Tex", a Baguio-based rights advocate and a member of the Philippine Sex Workers Collective, said that as the number of sex workers grows so does the number of cases of abuse and violence against them.
"The reason why so much abuse happens is that they are not recognized by law and the government...," Tex said.
An NGO called "Women Hookers Organizing For Their Rights and Empowerment (WHORE) is treading the thorny path toward government recognition of this history-old job called prostitution. The project would start with a photography contest in the city that according to "Tex" will lend a human face to "hookers" or "whores", who also have human rights and need government protection.
Tex said "as long as poverty is there, you expect more people to engage in prostitution."
He said there are about 500,000 sex workers in the country, 3,000 of whom are in Baguio City, one of the country's top tourist draws.
Among others, Filipino sex workers face health issues, made worse by fear of being denied access to health services.
WHORE, which has began "talking" to and organizing sex workers in Baguio, Tex said, has taken note of various anecdotes, illustrating the stigma that sex workers face as they have yet to secure recognition from the government.
"In the most extreme (cases), we hear of sex workers complaining of rape to authorities, but rarely get serious results on the ground that they are not believed to have been raped because they are prostitutes. As if sex workers have no rights," Tex said.
In Baguio, more than 300 sex workers, mostly street hookers including males, are "talking" with WHORE.
When finally given legal recognition, the advocacy group, a member of the Asia Pacific Sex Workers Union and the Sex Workers ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) group, said sex workers "can become members of unions fighting for their rights and welfare."
In Thailand, sex workers are recognized by the government and are able to raise their concerns to the government.
â€œBut we are not going for decriminalizing sex workers while criminalizing clients like the Swedish model,â€ Tex said. â€œIt didnâ€™t even work there.â€
WHOREâ€™s advocacy is facing daunting challenges, however.
For one, the Catholic church here headed by Catholic Vicar Carlito Cenzon of the Baguio Vicariate is opposing the legalization of sex workers.
â€œNo wayâ€, Cenzon said.
Even the supposedly liberal womenâ€™s group Gabriela is against legalizing prostitution.
"Legalizing [prostitution] is not an option, but instead [the government must] remove them (prostitutes) from poverty,â€ said Cordillera women Igorot leader Mila Singson, regional coordinator of the Gabriela Womenâ€™s partylist.
Although Singson said her group has rescued a number of women who became sex slaves, she believes that "women involved in prostitution should be criminalized."
The UN report â€œSex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacificâ€ said that â€œlegal recognition of sex work as an occupation enables sex workers to claim benefits, to form or join unions and to access work-related banking, insurance, transport and pension schemes."
"In decriminalized context,â€ it says, â€œthe sex industry can be subject to the same general laws regarding workplace health and safety and anti-discrimination protections as other industries."â€¨â€¨ Decriminalization, according to the UN involves the repeal of laws criminalizing sex work, being clients to sex workers or engaging in activities associated with sex work.â€¨â€¨ It should also repeal laws that require mandatory testing or treatment for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or other STIs, as well as laws that allow detention of sex workers for rehabilitation or correction.
UN is recognizing that Filipino sex workers remain highly vulnerable to STIs including HIV as well as sexual and physical abuse due to stigma although the country has introduced laws aimed at preventing HIV and protecting the rights of infected patients.
But the UN said, â€these laws offer 'limited protections' to sex workers amid the continued enforcement of criminal laws against sex workers and difficulties in accessing the justice system to enforce these rights."
Sex work as well as businesses engaged in sex are illegal under Philippine laws, with penalties up to 30 days imprisonment for first offense and up to six months imprisonment for subsequent offenses.