China: the plight of sex workers highlighted

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Sex workers in China face widespread stigma along with legal and societal discrimination according to several recent media reports.

Sex workers are particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses. The number of people involved in sex work in China has been on the rise. As a result of this the problems and dangers sex workers face are becoming an increasingly pressing societal problem.

China’s One Child Policy and the preference among parents for male babies have led to a gender imbalance. It is argued that this imbalance has contributed both to a rise in the number of sex workers and an increase in the number of men who seek their services. In China, one recent survey estimated that between 6.4 and 20 per cent of adult men said they have paid for sex at least once. Public health officials have estimated that there are between 3 and 10 million sex workers in China.

The incidence of STDs including HIV and AIDS has been increasing rapidly, and sex workers are a particularly vulnerable group. In addition to health risks, they are also stigmatised as 'diseased'.

Intermittent “crackdowns” on the sex industry have led to an increase in human rights abuses according to sex workers and activists..

Rutgers University Professors James Finckenauer and Min Liu explain in a recent study on prostitution in China that the government has launched numerous anti-prostitution campaigns at several points since 1949. The most recent campaign was in 2010.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report notes that China’s Ministry of Public Security says the fines charged on those involved in sex work “help supplement the operational costs of local law enforcement.” Even though the Ministry warns local authorities against fining sex workers instead of arresting them, HRW discloses that “the practice [of arresting sex workers] is [still] widespread.”

There is not substantial support for decriminalisation of sex work amongst the public, NGOs, or the government. This is in spite of a huge amount of local and international evidence that points to decriminalisation comprising global best practise.

You can read more about the work of - and challenges for - sex workers in China here.