HIV/AIDS, sexual hypocrisy and the law
By Hemamal Jayawardena
According to the estimated published by UNAIDS, the number of adults and children living HIV/AIDS is 4800. Out of this 1400 are women. It is also thought that 2000 children were orphaned by HIV/AIDS in 2001 and that approximately 250 persons would have died in 2001. These numbers are low for a country with a 19 million population. Yet, there is no place for complacency.
About 80% of HIV transmissions take place through sexual route. Therefore, as far as prevention is concerned, it is extremely important to address HIV as a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) and to be open about sex and sexuality.
Media shyness to be open about sex
A few years ago, I visited a TV station to get them to air some TV Spot messages on HIV prevention. The manager did not appear to be too keen on accepting this work as the spots were to be shown during daytime. He was worried about its morality and the fact that children could see it. I explained to the manager that there was no government policy against Airing TV spots with HIV prevention messages and condoms. This did not convince the manager. When I said that the TV channel anyway showed films etc with worse sexual scenes than my AIDS prevention clip and that the station showed worse immoralities such as murder, the manager agreed to accept these TV spots and they were aired.
Sex and Culture
One main barrier to sound HIV prevention tactics is the denial that exists in the country of the fact that we are normal sexual human beings. Often we try to hide behind claims of culture and a superiority that protects us from HIV. Sometimes references are made to long traditions of religion and values of strict monogamy that protect our people from HIV/AIDS. Exposing the need to be open about sex and sexuality is seen by some as promoting western values that are alien to us.
These arguments are mostly myths. Our culture in general has been quite open to sex. Our ancient kings having many sexual partners in their herams and the traditional sinhala marriage that existed before the island was occupied by foreign forces has not been one of monogamy at all. It was the norm for the brothers of the husband to sleep with the wife at that time. Sexual literature such as Kama Suthra did not originate from the west.
The so called our culture which essentially denies that we are sexual beings is, if at all the actual western value which came into Sri Lanka with the rest of the Victorian traditions from England while we were under British occupation.
With a rampant crime rate and with over 1000 abortions a day can Sri Lanka anymore claim that we will be protected from HIV because of our moral standards?
Rampant extent of extra-marital sex
Another element of this denial is the is the idea that Sri Lankan men because of the so called culture and the close family ties do not engage in extra marital sex.
An extrapolation of data related to sex workers questions this presumption heavily.
It is estimated that there are about 15,000- 30,000 sex workers in Sri Lanka.
Even if we presume that they works just 100 days per year and that an average of two new male clients patronize each sex worker we have 3 million new extra marital sexual episodes per year. This is a large proportion for a country that has a population of less than 10 million men. However, this calculation has many weaknesses. It can only be used to show that extra marital sex takes place in substantial numbers. It cannot be used for precise calculations of the extent of extra-marital sexual behaviour. 15,000 x 100 x 2= 3000,000 = 3 Million
Is sex-work (prostitution) illegal?
HIV/AIDS is an occupational hazard of sex workers.
Sex work is strictly speaking not illegal in Sri Lanka although soliciting and running brothels is. However, street sex work is practised in Sri Lanka in a clandestine manner as the police generally arrest sex workers under a law which was not meant to arrest sex workers, the Vagrance Ordinance. Brothel based sex workers and sex workers in guesthouses are also arrested using laws that are meant for other purposes. Even the Prevention of Terrorism Act has been used! The men who patronise sex workers are generally not harassed.
Interventions have been quite successfully been carried out in Countries such as Thailand, India and Bangladesh, to name a few countries in the region. In Sri Lanka too, non-governmental organisations such as the Community Front For Prevention of AIDS, the YMCA and Community Development Services have worked with sex workers on HIV/AIDS prevention. Interventions on HIV/AIDS that have quite successfully been implemented in India or Thailand cannot be directly replicated in Sri Lanka, as most of the sex workers in Sri Lanka are not brothel based. Here we have a substantial number of street based sex workers (SBSW), some brothel based sex workers (BBSW), visiting sex workers (VSW) who operate through mobile phone networks, foreign sex workers (FSW) and part time sex workers (PTSW) who are generally employed in more socially acceptable positions who from time to time trade in sex for gain.
Commercial sex work is thought to be practiced in all parts of the Island. In recent years there are reports of increased incidence of sex workers in regions such as Dhammbulla that have developed in to a major commercial hub and Anuradhapura which has become a transient city for soldiers returning home from the North. Prof. Weeramunda in his book, NGOs working with Sex Workers, UNDP Regional Project on HIV and Development, 1996 considers that some sex workers are quite mobile. Pilgrimage centres and festivals attract both sex workers and clients.
HIV/AIDS prevention messages should freely reach sex workers if our aim is to prevent HIV/AIDS in Sri Lanka. Peer based interventions are better than distributing leaflets. However, the sex worker population is a group that is difficult to reach through traditional means lead by the government sector. An effective method is to reach them through NGOs working with them getting peer leaders to change there behaviour so that they adopt safe practices. Recognition of their services rather than being hypocritical that it does not exist is an important step to take. As much I as I make a living by using the top part of my body to write, they use their bottom part of their bodies to make a living. An environment should be created where sex workers are not harassed so that they can come out with dignity and accept the reproductive health services offered to the rest of the population including Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) prevention and care services.
The worthy Supreme Court Judgement
A recent Supreme Court judgement in Maximus Danny v. IP Sirinimal Silva and six others (Supreme Court Application No 488/98, Decided on 12/12/2000 as Reported in LST Review, Vol. 11 Issue 195, January 2001,
Law and Society Trust, 3, Kynsey Terrace, Colombo 8.) of Justice Shirani A Bandaranayake with Justice Dheerarathna and Justice Perera agreeing is an important case related to sexual intimacy and law.
Justice Basnayake, in her judgement states that in terms of the Brothels Ordinance, having sexual intercourse is not an offence and indicates that the offences in the ordinance are related to any person who manages or is a tenant, landlord etc of a premise used as a brothel. The judgement makes reference to Coore v. James Annu (Coore v. James Annu, 22 NLR 206 - 1920), which refers to the predecessor of the Brothels ordinance that states that the Ordinance and the Ordinance that it amends do not penalise illicit sexual intercourse, except where the act takes place under circumstances which are a public scandal, or an outrageous offence to individual rights, or where it takes place with a girl under prescribed age. Similarly, the procurement of women for an act of sexual intercourse is not punishable, except in the case of woman under 20 years. But what the ordinance does specially penalise is the making of a living out of the corruption and degrading others."
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