While moves are afoot to decriminalise same sex relations, there are many other archaic laws in this country that too should be repealed. These include the Vagrancy Ordinance and the Brothels Ordinance, both of which are often used to harass, intimidate and manipulate persons arrested under these laws and are tools in the hands of the police to easily frame anyone they may dislike.
A recent report prepared by the Sex Workers and Allies South Asia - Sri Lanka Chapter on the “Status of Sex Workers in Sri Lanka 2022-23” gives an insight into how such archaic laws are used today in a manner that violates the fundamental rights of citizens.
The report based on a survey of sex workers found that nearly 50% of those who were arrested, especially under the Vagrancy Ordinance, were forced, intimidated or manipulated into pleading guilty by either the Police or by their lawyer with 85% of those arrested saying they were forced to plead guilty.
As a result of this practice a significant number of sex workers have criminal records which has an impact on future employment, including working overseas as migrant labour.
The report also found that 60% of the sex workers interviewed were the sole earning members of their family and 73% were the highest earning or primary earning member of their family. They supported children, spouses and elderly parents. The findings also show that sex workers struggle to access government social safety programmes. Around 77% of those surveyed have never applied for the government Samurdhi benefit. This is primarily due to a combination of lack of necessary documentation and social discrimination of sex workers.
These findings show that another marginalised group in the country are targeted by the police in particular as they are easy bait and often in front of unsympathetic judicial officers, they become victims of a system that is heavily tiled against anyone outside the mainstream.
As has been the case with those in same sex relations, sex workers too often suffer discrimination, not only due to the general attitude towards them, but also due to laws that remain in the country’s statute books which serve no purpose other than harassment of a citizens, and often those who have neither the means nor the support to fight against the discriminatory system.
The lack of training for police officers to sensitise them when dealing with vulnerable persons is one main reason why the existence of such laws are a bad idea. As the report on sex weeks recommended, broad based awareness programs within the Sri Lanka Police force, beginning the police training colleges and extending across to the active police force at local and national levels is needed if the Police are to carry out their duties in a people friendly manner instead of the manner in which they do so at present. Better training for the police could go some way to break down social stigma and humanise sex workers, who have no protection from the state and often face violence, neglect and discrimination.
The report emphasised the need to acknowledge and accept sex work as legitimate work. “That is the first step towards ensuring that sex workers enjoy equity, justice, and a personal and work life that is free from discrimination and violence,” it said.
Most developed countries have legalised sex work by now and put in place social security measures as well as different programs to ensure their security and safety.
Sri Lanka is some way from legalising sex work but at least for now, discriminatory laws that are often abused must be repealed.