A legal prostitute Miko poses for a photo inside a brothel converted into a museum in Taipei on June 26, 2009. AFP
TAIPEI: Sex workers in Taiwan have cautiously welcomed a government plan to legalise prostitution, but an alliance of women's groups is vigorously opposed, arguing legalized prostitution will breed crime and violence.
The proposal calls for a "red-light" area in Taipei, along the lines of Amsterdam's famed canalside sex-for-sale district.
Legal and zoning measures are expected to be completed within the next six months.
Prostitutes and their supporters have been campaigning for years for this. Sex-trade workers want protection from their customers and they want protection from the police. Thus, the government plan is something like a ray of hope to them. There is the prospect that prostitution will be moved into specially established zones and many of the workers don't like that.
"I hope the government will allow us to stay where we are and give us legal protection," said one prostitute who wanted to be identified as Hsiao-feng. "I don't want to move to a new place to start again."
Hsiao-feng earns a living in Taipei's Wanhua district, believed to be home to thousands of sex workers plying their trade openly, though prostitution was outlawed in the city in 1997.
"Who wants to have red-light districts near homes?" she asks. "The government would have to put us in the mountains but then we can't make a living because nobody wants to travel that far."
Paid sex is still big business in Taipei, but observers say the 1997 ordinance has driven it underground. There are tea houses that actually are brothels, massage parlors, and clubs. Some hookers operate from skin-care salons.
There are also women known as "liu ying" or "floating orioles" - a metaphor for flirtatious and seductive women - who pick up patrons on the streets.
There is no official record on the scale of Taiwan's sex industry but the advocacy group Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters (COSWAS) estimates that it involves 400,000 people and is worth NT$60 billion ($1.8 billion) a year.
"Right now we are helpless when customers don't pay, or even rob or hurt us," Hsiao-feng told AFP.
"We have to watch out for the police and their informants because we can end up in prison if caught."
Prostitutes face three days in detention or a fine of up to NT$30,000 if arrested, while their clients go unpunished.
"The government should protect sex workers' human rights and stop treating them like criminals," says COSWAS chief Chung Chun-chu. "It should allow a blanket decriminalisation to regulate the sex trade."
The public is divided. Legalized prostitution has the support of 42.3 percent of the people, 38.8 percent oppose it. The rest are undecided, according to a poll by the China Times.
Arielle Su, an elementary school teacher in Taipei, said legalizing the sex trade cuts both ways.
"I think it can help prevent sex crimes as some people have needs and they would prey on the general public if they are unsatisfied," she said. "But as a mother and a teacher I am also concerned that it would corrupt morals."
A dozen local women's groups have formed an alliance against legalizing prostitution, warning that it would encourage crime and injustice against women.
"We oppose making prostitution a legal industry because it fosters sexual violence and exploitation of women," said Chi Hui-jung, head of the Garden of Hope Foundation.
Chi pointed out that the Dutch authorities were reducing the size of Amsterdam's red-light district due to concern over criminal activities such as human smuggling and money laundering.
"The government should offer welfare programs and job incentives to women so they won't go into prostitution out of economic desperation," Chi said.
Hsiao-feng, a 45-year-old divorcee, says it is difficult for street walkers like her, with little education or job skills, to find regular work.
"I don't like what I do for a living but I have to raise my children and pay the bills. I don't regret becoming a sex worker. I just hope the government will protect my safety so I am not always at the mercy of others," she said.
(HK Edition 07/10/2009 page2)