- When former Namibian Health Minister Libertina Amathila made an emotional plea five years ago for prostitution to be legalised, her cabinet colleagues, parliament and the churches shot her views down, saying they were unacceptable. Now, the plea is being considered, not the least as a way to control the rapid spread of AIDS in Namibia.
Minister Amathila thus argued that legalising the trade would empower sex workers to negotiate safer sex and help slow the spread of HIV, because they could then be tested, treated, counselled and educated about sexually transmitted diseases.
Richard Kamwi, Ms Amathila's successor, said the Namibian government would not revisit the matter, but the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) has insisted a rethink is necessary in a country with an adult HIV prevalence rate of over 21 percent.
Diane Hubbard, heading the LAC campaign to decriminalise sex work, told the UN media 'IRIN' that women who sold their bodies on the streets were vulnerable to abuse by their clients because they did not receive any protection from the authorities. "The illegality of these women's work is also a basis for harassment by clients and the police," she observed.
Besides reducing the levels of violence and abuse associated with prostitution, "legalising sex work is a matter of human rights", and would help set the stage for an effective HIV/AIDS campaign targeting both sex workers and their clients - it was the only sensible and compassionate choice, Ms Hubbard maintained.
"We are not solving anything by criminalising prostitution," she stressed. "The only solution lies in legalising sex work, so that prostitutes can have alternatives to sex work. Decriminalising sex work also does not have to mean the approval of sex work by Namibian society."
Ms Hubbard's recommendations are based on interviews by LAC with 148 sex workers in five Namibian towns - Windhoek, Grootfontein, Keetmanshoop, Walvis Bay and Swakopmund. She said she was "disheartened" to see young girls, some aged younger than 16, turning to sex work. "It is a horrifying fact stemming from poverty."
Namibia has an unemployment rate of over 30 percent. According to the 2004 UN Human Development Report, about 35 percent of Namibians live below the poverty line of US$ 1 per day. This widespread poverty is the main reason behind the widespread practice of prostitution in the country.
Prostitution is not illegal in Namibia, but generating an income from it is outlawed by the Combating of Immoral Practices Act. Namibian politicians and other leaders are known for a conservative set of values, condemning "immoral" practices such as prostitution. On the other hand, sexist values are equally widespread, leading to the condemnation of women prostituting themselves but not of the men buying their sexual services.
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