Monday August 13, 2001. 4:50 PM

Changes in Asia's sex industry threaten HIV explosion: WHO

HANOI (AFP) — Asia's sex industry is moving out of traditional red-light districts into the suburbs and shopping malls, threatening an explosion of HIV infection unless governments adopt a more tolerant attitude, the World Health Organization warned Monday.

More and more middle class Asian women are working in the industry on a part-time basis, the agency said in a report presented to a four-day conference here.

They do not regard themselves as prostitutes and therefore often do not take the necessary precautions against transmission of the AIDS virus.

If Asian governments do not move swiftly to decriminalize prostitution, they risk driving such informal sex workers underground, rendering them impervious to health education initiatives, the report warned.

"An increasing number of middle class women are now selling sex, mostly on a part-time basis, to supplement their salaries or provide an extra income while they are in school," the WHO's Beijing coordinator Zhao Pengfei told conference delegates.

"These sex workers believe they are not selling sex and, therefore, there may not be a perception of high risk as they don't identify themselves as sex workers and their clients don't either," he said.

His comments were echoed by the WHO's West Pacific adviser on sexually transmitted diseases, Gilles Poumerol.

"We have concern for Asia because there is evidence that sexual behaviour is changing … and people are more exposed to risky behaviour," Poumerol told reporters on the sidelines of the conference.

"There is no doubt that there is an increasing development of sex work. There is evidence that prostitution is changing, becoming more indirect, more mobile, more part-time," he said.

Philippine delegate Carmina Aquino said new technology was a "big factor" in the changes under way with the proliferation of mobile telephones allowing more and more sex workers to work outside traditional networks.

Zhao said it was not just increased supply which was transforming Asia's sex industry but also increased demand as rural emigration took more and more Asian men away from the constraints of their home environment into the consumer culture of the big cities.

"Urbanisation contributes to the growth of the market in Asia," he said. "Men wish to buy the commodities they associate with existing urban, modern lifestyles, just like buying computers or cellphones.

"Women are regarded as one of those commodities, who can be discarded after use like inanimate objects."

The profitability of the industry made it virtually impossible for governments to control, Zhao said.

In countries like Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines or India, the sex industry accounted for anything from two to 14 percent of Gross Domestic Product. In Thailand it was reckoned three times more profitable than the drugs trade.

Even in wealthy Japan, the sex industry accounted for as much as three percent of GDP. "And it's a market which is still rapidly expanding," he said.

Given the changes that were under way it was imperative that Asian governments move swiftly to decriminalize prostitution, Poumerol said.

In many Asian countries, police were still penalizing women who took the proper precautions against AIDS and carried condoms, by targetting them for arrest.

Poumerol insisted the WHO was not condoning prostitution and supported efforts for its eventual eradication.

"But this is a long term strategy and with HIV you can't wait," he said noting that the disease was already killing 1,500 Asians every day.

"The only way to stop this epidemic is to accept the imperfections of society at this stage."

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Created: August 26, 2001
Last modified: August 26, 2001
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