Two months after a new anti-prostitution law took effect in Fiji, taxi driver Shiu Kumar says he sees fewer sex workers along Victoria Parade, the centre of Suva’s nightlife. But while this has had a negative effect on his nighttime fares, he is nevertheless happy about the law.
"This is a good law," he says, adding that over the years he has been disturbed by the sight of more and more young women taking to the streets.
It is not a view shared by everyone, though. Critics of the decree say that at best it is a stopgap measure and at worst it could increase the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, and of violence against sex workers.
"Prostitution is a social redistribution mechanism and to try and forcefully stop it can lead to some dire consequences," says Dr Sunil Kumar, a senior lecturer in economics at the University of the South Pacific in Suva.
Kumar is not wholly convinced by the 2009 Crimes Decree that government officials say is aimed at modernising Fiji’s criminal justice system to make it compliant with the Rome Statute on sexual enslavement, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In announcing changes in laws on sex work, Attorney General and Justice Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum had said in January: "As the laws stand now, it is only the prostitute that gets charged but the person procuring those services does not (so) the males get away while the females get locked up."
"This (decree) brings about gender equality in our criminal justice system," he had added.
For sure, the new decree now targets people who hire sex workers and all those who benefit financially from the trade, such as brothel operators and pimps. Even those living with sex workers are now liable under the new law, which took effect on Feb. 1.
Section 230 of the law’s prostitution offences says that a person living on sex-work earnings or persistently soliciting faces a jail term of up to six months. Previously, this offence was a mere misdemeanor, with imprisonment and the possibility of corporal punishment (for males) for subsequent offenders.
"Selling or buying" minors under the age of 18 years for immoral purposes is now punishable by 12 years’ imprisonment. Previously, these fetched a two-year jail term, with or without corporal punishment.
Brothel keepers face five years of imprisonment as well, or a fine of $F10,000, or both. This used to be a misdemeanor too.
Although statistics are hard to come by, a recent survey by the Fiji police yielded a tally of 116 sex workers in Suva and in surrounding areas. But this figure leaves out the foreigners in the local sex industry.
Police records show that between 2003 and 2008, only 11 cases of prostitution were brought to court. The low figure reflects how difficult it is to prove prostitution -- especially when it comes to foreign nationals, police say.
In February, the Fiji police conducted raids and arrested nine Chinese nationals with invalid travel documents. Among those caught were seven women who were engaged in sex work, officials say.
Fiji police spokesman Inspector Atunaisa Sokomuri says that it is usually harder to arrest and charge foreign nationals as they have "fixed clients" and usually operate from inside nightclubs, bars, and private premises. "It is well- organised," he said. "It is a racket."
Those caught often produce valid papers for being in the country, Sokomuri added.
But Peni Moore, spokeswoman for Women’s Action for Change, says that the law has only criminalised prostitution and forced it to go underground. This means sex workers would be even less willing to seek medical care, adding to the health risks they face.
Increased policing, harassment and exploitation of street-based sex workers are other possible unwanted side effects of criminalising the sex trade, Moore adds. Although the new law may help "ease the problem", the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre (FWCC) says that sex work is more than just a police matter and needs a "more sustainable" approach. Those who go into sex work often do so because of poverty and lack of access to education, adequate housing and job opportunities, activists say.
"Prostitution becomes a means of survival," says FWCC coordinator Shamima Ali. "To be able to curb prostitution, we need sound economic policies which offer better opportunities for women."
Poverty is the major cause of prostitution, Ali asserts, and prostitution will exist as long as poverty exists.
Economics lecturer Dr Kumar puts it this way: "While prostitution is looked down on by society, there are some positive outcomes from it that cannot be denied." He cites the example of single mothers who do not earn enough from regular work, or those who do not receive state social support. Some of them turn to sex work to feed and educate their children, he says.
Perhaps people are being too judgmental, Moore points out. "They do not consider the fact that some people are willing to work in the sex industry (and) they would like to receive the same conditions of employment other people do. They do not always want to be rehabilitated or saved."
Moore says her group supports what sex workers in Fiji want - safe working conditions and the decriminalisation of the industry.
Adds Dr Kumar adds that while the new law is not an entirely negative development because it will act as a deterrent and protect minors, more needs to be done to address the root causes of prostitution, such as poverty and unemployment.
Shailendra Singh heads the University of the South Pacific’s journalism programme in Suva