Papua New Guinea’s Health Minister Vows to Introduce Legislation Decriminalising Sex Work

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Asia Pacific Regional Correspondent

Sex workers in Papua New Guinea (PNG) are hopeful that following the recent International AIDS Conference (IAC), held in July 2014, Melbourne, Australia, Papua New Guinea’s Health Minister, Honourable. Michael Malaba, will keep his public commitment to introduce legislation that decriminalises sex work and same sex relationships. In an UNAIDS led Community Dialogue Space session, Mr Malaba stated that he recognised that the decriminalisation of sex work was a key reform essential to tackling HIV/AIDS and that he was committed to reforming PNG’s “colonial era laws” which currently criminalise both sex work and same sex relationships.

Mr Malaba also stated that he recognised the stigma associated with sex work and sexual diversity in the highly religious, Christian-majority nation of PNG was a barrier to highly marginalised and at risk communities accessing education, support and treatment for HIV. He said, "We must remove the stigma. We are all equal."

Mr Malaba’s commitment to advocating for sex work and same sex law reform follows PNG Member of Parliament (MP) Malakai Tabar’s call earlier in the year for recognition of the rights of people with diverse sexual orientation and sex workers. Mr Tabar first publicly raised his intention to submit a paper to the government advocating for the recognition of the rights of sex workers and sexually diverse people in April, 2014. In subsequent media forums, Mr Tabar stated that previous proposals to allow same sex marriage and sex work legislative reform had been “shelved between the Government Caucus and the National Executive Council” after outright rejections of both.

Mr Tabar said his specific concern was on the growing number of people affected by legislation which criminalised their work spaces and life choices. In an online interview with the East New Britain Today forum, he asked, “How do we recognise and protect their rights within our society?” Mr Tabar also said that “Many families in PNG now have family members with different sexual orientations” and that he called for PNG to give people legal rights to feel safer in the communities they live in. “They have the right to be accepted into the society and be productive in their participation within the societies they live in.” He also said that issues relating to sex work and same sex relationships had been long ignored due to dominant evangelical Christian beliefs and political expediency, adding that, “It is about time people talked more openly about them and found positive ways to encourage sex workers and sexually diverse people to be active participants in development.”

Despite operating in a highly religious, volatile environment which condemns sex work as immoral, sex worker activists from the peer-led national sex worker network, Friends Frangipani, have long been advocating for changes to current PNG sex work legislation. PNG sex workers have expressed optimism at the increasing number of MPs publicly supporting the decriminalisation of sex work and the repeal of sodomy laws, which male sex workers are routinely charged under.

Prior to Mr Tabar and Mr Malaba expressing their support for sex work law reform, PNG sex workers have worked closely with the country’s Minister for Community Development, Dame Carol Kidu. In using her parliamentary privileges to support PNG sex workers, Ms Kidu has requested the PNG Law Reform Commission to review the laws surrounding sex work and same sex relationships.