Sun. Nov 17th, 2019

Beyond legalities: Caring for the sex workers in a country where sex is taboo and prostitution is illegal

“We know for sure sex work is illegal, we know that it is happening. But, as public health officials we tell them that we are here to provide prevention.”

In this ‘pristine paradise’ bound by traditional values, it is no surprise that prostitution is illegal. But, the legality of it doesn’t stop the women from exchanging sex for money, food or drugs and certainly doesn’t stop the profits of the establishments these women work for.

The Centre for Communicable Disease Unit has been working towards the health of these alleged sex workers in the country.

Although, Anna(name changed), who is the senior official for the outreach program prefers using the term ‘Ladies In The Entertainment Business’(LIEB) as the establishments they visit are the night clubs and “women working there have a tendency to get clients.”

She reveals that most of the night clubs where LIEB work are in Koror. The outreach program for LIEB goes till Airai but most efforts are put in Koror.

The list is acquired from the Division of Revenue and Taxations which includes the name of the establishment, the location and the Palauan front of the business.

“A lot of the Palauan fronts rent out the space and are not aware of the activities that go on inside the establishment,” Anna said.

Before the outreach program got in motion, the mamasangs of each establishment, women who look after the work of LIEB, were invited. The ‘mamasang’, is an English-Japanese slangused to refer to a female leader.

“From the list we got, we reached out to the front, then the local people who led us to the mamasangs,” Anna said.

The mamasangs wield power in the establishment, Anna said, “In the initial days, every time I asked the LIEB a question, they would look at the mamasang. It is like they are not free to express themselves.” There are bouncers who handle the traffic and mamasang who deal with the ladies, Anna claims.

The program was started in 2006 after Secretariat of Pacific Community which is based in Fiji offered funding close to $50,000. It has been challenging for Anna in terms of reaching out to the LIEB, gaining their trust and delivering health services. “We need to build a lot of trust as they are always fearful that we are there to charge them something,” she said.

“We tell the girls we are not here to stop you from doing any business,” Anna said. Talking about legality of sex work and her responsibility, she adds, “We know for sure sex work is illegal, we know that it is happening. But, as public health officials, we tell them that we are here to provide prevention.”

The program has reached out to about 84 LIEB and 5 women were tested on World Aids Day last year. Anna said that out of the 5 women, two were locals and three were non locals. There has been testing done previously as well.

Anna touches upon the problem of human trafficking and claims that some of the ladies tell her they entered Palau on a promise of being a secretary but were instead put into sex trade.

She reiterates that her job circles around the health of the public. During the one-on-one conversations that Anna has with the LIEB, they are informed about other government agencies that can help and the women are not pushed unless they voluntarily want to do so.

“Sex work doesn’t necessarily have to be for only money. Some women have sex for drugs and some have sex for food,” Anna adds and expresses sadness towardsthe reality of sex trade industry.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) has been working with the Taiwanese nurses who come to Palau to help in reaching out to LIEB.

“Most women are from China, Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. The nurses help us communicate with Chinese population,” Anna said. The nurses also help out in making brochures in Chinese. There are brochures available in Chinese, Filipino and Indonesian.

Anna claims that one out of ten LIEB would have both Chlamydia and Gonorrhea but with a sense of relief, she added that there has not been a case of HIV among the LIEB yet.

After the initial meeting with the LIEB, there is a quarterly meeting held. The quarterly meeting checks on the fruits of the initial meet. Anna said, “I am very happy to say that they are now using contraception. A lot of them are now using female condom.”

“We strongly promote the use of female condoms as woman power,” Anna adds while talking about the days when there were only male condoms and the safety was entirely in control of men.

Anna feels that the work that they are doing has empowered the women to say no for unsafe sex. In the conversations Anna has with the LIEB, she is told about the change in the money driven industry where the money mattered over safety previously but now there is no amount that can break the “no condom, no sex” rule that LIEB follow. She adds that the LIEB tell her that the men don’t get any kind of service if a condom is not used.

Anna further revealed that within two years, the outreach program also got in touch with LIEB clientele who they now call, “Men at Risk”. The men were contacted through the LIEB who were in communication with them via mobile phones. The ladies were also encouraged to invite men at risk to be part of the outreach program.

“Some men believe Palau is small and there are no infections here and some don’t want to use condoms because it isn’t pleasurable,” Anna said. She further adds that men are wealthy and are blend of locals and foreigners.

“These men say that they take care of their responsibilities, put their wives to sleep and in the night get out having their own fun,” Anna claims.

According to Anna, some of the men now have a specific girl at specific establishment that they prefer meeting. The total number of men present at the meeting was 32. No further details were given as the information exchanged by the clients is confidential.

“The women have a tight schedule. They get to the establishment by 6 pm, they get ready and by the time it is 7pm, men start coming in.” Anna said. She adds, “The business is on till 2 AM, they clean up in an hour and get home by 3 AM. The day is spent resting.”

Anna also said that in a day, one girl can have the same man the whole time or about two to three men in a day. She also claims that these women are never left alone; they do laundry in groups, and they go shopping in groups as well.

The LIEB keep changing every year, every year there are rounds of new LIEB in the country and the old ones are out. According to Anna, Mamasangs, who are the leaders and decision makers of the establishment, decide who goes out of the establishment.

The LIEB have now come to terms with the outreach program, “They know that we can go to them or they can choose to come. Whichever is good for them,” Anna said.

According to Anna, a lot of women who work in these establishments choose to do so. “We are planning on visiting establishment in Koror that are expecting new employees but that is in April” Anna said.  (Eshan Kalyanikar)