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A civil society network is proposing the repeal of the 1996 Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act as part of a movement to legalise sex work and grant sex workers protection under the labour laws.

SWING's banners calling for the repeal of the 1996 Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act were placed in front of the press conference room.

The campaign was launched at a press conference last Wednesday (20 September) as part of a campaign to propose three gender justice laws by activists and civil society groups called the “Three Miracle Laws.”

Two other bills were also launched during the same press conference: a bill proposing amendments to the sections on marriage and family in the Civil and Commercial Code to allow marriage registration regardless of gender, and a gender recognition bill which would allow trans and non-binary people to change the gender marker on their official documents.

The proposed bill repealing the 1996 Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act states that the 1996 Act is a law that has been in use for a long time but has not been amended to fit with the changes in society. Since it criminalises sex work, the law leads to the stigmatization of and discrimination against sex workers, depriving them of protection under the labour laws, exposing them to extortion by state officials and preventing them from calling for their own rights when these are violated or exploited. The Act is therefore unconstitutional in that it violates a person’s right to bodily autonomy and free choice of employment.

The bill also states that enforcing the law to prevent sex work has not reduced the number of sex workers. Instead, it became an obstacle in the lives of those in the profession, and the 1996 Act should be repealed so that sex workers who willingly enter the profession may be protected like other professions.

Surang Chanyaem

Sex worker rights activist Surang Chanyaem, Director of the Service Workers In Group Foundation (SWING), said during the press conference that the 1996 Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act must be repealed because it renders illegal the chosen occupation of over 200,000 people and oppresses them. Meanwhile, sex workers are stigmatized and discriminated against, preventing them from speaking out for themselves. At the same time, Surang said, those who benefit from the criminalization of sex work have tried to stop the movement.

Surang said that questions have been raised against her and other advocates for their campaign to repeal the 1996 Act. They have been accused of wanting to encourage people to go into sex work, break up families, and promote human trafficking. Meanwhile, she said, sex workers are being arbitrarily arrested and had to spend most of their income on fines, and although some know they did nothing wrong, it has been difficult for them to talk about it.

SWING conducted a survey on law enforcement and criminal prosecution of sex workers between 25 – 31 May 2023 in Bangkok and Pattaya. They found that, among the 63 sex workers participating in the survey, 33 had been fined or arrested in the past year for charges such as loitering, carrying condoms at night, prostitution, pestering others in public, not carrying an ID, underage prostitution, and soliciting customers for prostitution. Some were also subjected to random drug tests.

Surang said that two other bills legalising sex works are being drafted, one by Ministry of Social Development and Human Security and another by political parties, both of which agreed that the 1996 Anti-Prostitution Act should be repealed and are drafting a new legislation to legalise sex work. While Surang said that she also believes the 1996 Act should be repealed, since it has been in use for over 27 years and because the law itself says that it was drafted because sex work is a result of economic issues and sex workers lack intelligence and education, she said that, as long as the Act remains, discrimination and dehumanization would exist, so the Act should be repealed and no other law should replace it. If sex workers commit a crime, then they should be prosecuted under existing criminal law like everyone else, so that they would be seen as equals. She also said that sex work should be seen as work, and so sex workers should be protected under existing labour protection law.

“I still feel that there is a long way to go, because there is an issue of attitude and morality that oppresses us,” Surang said. “I don’t know whose measure we’re using when we talk about morals, and obviously there is no way of measuring that is equal for each person, especially for those who disagree with us.”

Asked about obstacles on the road to decriminalization of sex work, Surang said they had been told that criminal laws cannot be repealed. However, she explained that there are still other laws in place to cover any criminal wrongdoings, such as child protection laws or anti-trafficking laws, and that the network is not intending to repeal the 1996 Act to make sex work completely unrestricted, but consenting adults who are not victims of human trafficking and who choose to be in sex work should not have to be restricted by a criminal law.

Surang said that SWING and its partners are ready to collect signatures and submit their bill, noting that they planned to go to parliament earlier but waited until a House Speaker was appointed due to concern about lack of support. Nevertheless, she said that, with activists working on the Marriage Equality Bill and the Gender Recognition Bill in the same campaign, they are ready to go ahead.

If it takes a long time to repeal the 1996 Act, Surang said the activists are planning to propose a ministerial regulation to grant sex workers protection under labour rights laws, and they have a network of legal advocates and academics ready to draft it. She noted that there is no need to repeal the 1996 Act before proposing a ministerial regulation, and although she said she knows there is going to be a lot of obstacles, she is prepared to answer any question coming her way.

Members of civil society groups joined the Three Miracle Laws press conference. Some are holding signs calling for the repeal of the 1996 anti-prostitution act. One sign says "sex work is work."

When asked by an audience member if the rest of the network is worried that their bills would be rejected because they include sex worker rights in their campaign, gender equality activist Chumaporn Taengkliang explained that the three bills must collect signatures separately and will be considered separately by parliament, but she believes that campaigning together would mean more exposure for every bill.

“As someone who works for marriage equality, getting to work with the courage of sex workers is a high honour,” she said. 

For Surang, joining the Three Miracle Laws campaign is the first time she felt that she is not fighting alone. In her years of advocating for sex worker rights, she said she felt that the issues facing sex workers were isolated from other social issues due to discrimination and social bias against people in the profession. This made is impossible for sex workers to speak for themselves and their own rights, while other obstacles prevented their movement from progressing.

“I started to change my mind and see that there is justice in this society. We are not alone, and today we’ve been invited to join our friends’ conversation. It makes me more confident that we are not alone,” Surang said.

“We are people just like others, so what we are working for now is that we don’t need anything more than anyone else. We want what everyone else has. We want to do our job without having a law hanging over us, like other professions. It controls us not in a positive way, but in a negative way, so this law should be removed, and there is no need for any new law to control us.”

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