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400 to 500 possible sex workers in Bhutan

Commercial sex is illegal in Bhutan. But there are many who do the business undercover.

The executive director of Lhaksam, Wangda Dorji, said that the definition of sex worker in the country is all mixed and so it does not have a proper definition. He said, as per a presentation by the health ministry, they were told that around 400 to 500 people were identified as proxy or possible sex workers.

He also said that a sex worker has the worst reputation and is down looked by the society, ignored by friends and family. However, if studied in-depth, he said that it is an honest business.

“Sex workers, mostly come from poor family backgrounds and do it for the income but there might be a few who do it for money and to enjoy their sex life,” he said. “Understanding of the people is what is needed most in society. Criminalizing them, putting under detention will make their self-esteem low which will change their mentality completely.”

He also said that there are instances where a woman is used by group of people at the same time and are not paid. “In this kind of situation, where do they go? Nowhere, because there is no law to help them and this is why they go undercover risking their life,” he said.

He said that commercial sex is illegal by law and it would be nice if that were 100 percent success, however, he said that, that is just in law but in reality, sex workers are everywhere.

“Commercial sex worker should be smart and dignified and should know how to take care of their body and when this is illegal there are chances of fueling HIV/AIDS underground,” he said. “I did a presentation on commercial sex workers and made a suggestion to legalize it in the country to some of the parliamentarians and they said that, it will contradict with the country’s code of ethics and that it’s against our culture.”

He said people from other countries would never believe when they hear about Bhutan having no sex workers or LGBTs.

He said that, if they want to keep them as illegal there should be some alternative to make their living or they should see how many of them will come forward to take other jobs. “People living the high profile life and with enough money will never understand the depths of the pain faced by those sex workers who do all these things to make a living and not for pleasure, ” he said.

Meanwhile, police say they have heard of sex workers in the capital but they have little information and cannot reveal the information to criminalize them unless the fact is verified.

“It is not a big business in the country nevertheless we are looking into the matter and collecting and information through sources to seek intervention from relevant agencies,” he said adding that, if they receive any compliant against a person they will investigate do as per PCB 2004. He also said that police are not allowed to intervene if no one lodges a complaint.

Phuentsholing town being a commercial business hub is more vulnerable to commercial sex. “We have heard that people come from nearby areas to work as sex worker in Phuentsholing and we also heard that some of them are employed in beauty parlors,” the Phuntsholing SP said. “We have deployed our own source, however, this being an illegal business, it’s hard to get hold of them.”

The SP said they conduct surprise checks of all parlors, hotels and other vulnerable places. “We even asked hoteliers, entertainment and night club owner and parlor to coordinate with us. We brief every hotelier that without registering, not to entertain any customer those who book room for just three to four hours for the sake of taking rest,” he said.

Dr. Menakshi of RENEW, said that they have come across such talk through hearsay and they did some research in 2015 where they heard that there are commercial sex workers in the country and some even school going students are involved.

RENEW is a service provider, she said, in which they are trying to create awareness program mainly on advocacy of different health issues including reproductive system and HIV/AIDS. “When talking to them back in 2015, the reason was rural urban migration but we never found out the concrete reason behind them doing this,” she said. “I think we need to study more and we directly cannot come to a solution to legalize commercial sex worker in the country though there are people who are doing it under cover.” She said creating awareness programs consistently is important.

A 21 year old woman working in a drayang, said, “Even we hear a lot about sex workers and it is sad that many people think that drayang girls are the sex workers. “It is true that there are few among us who do it it but the majority who don’t do it get blamed,” she said.

Another woman, Tshering, said that no woman or even man will say she or he is a sex worker. “I think they do it because they want to live in Thimphu and without money it is not easy. Even we work in drayang to make our living because we don’t have high educational qualification and we can’t get a good job,” she said. “Dancing in front of public is not our ambition nor do we enjoy when we dance, but we are doing with no other alternative and it’s the same with sex workers.”

The Penal Code of Bhutan (PCB) 2004, section 373 states that, a defendant shall be guilty of the offence of prostitution, if the defendant offers, agrees to engage, or engages in sexual conduct with another person for money or property and 374 states that, the offence of prostitution shall be a misdemeanour.

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