Wansolwara Special Report – By Ellen Stolz, Fenton Lutunatabua and Ravai Vafo‘ou, in Suva.
This feature report was first published in Wansolwara, and was researched, analysed, and written by final year journalism students at the University of South Pacific in Suva. It looks at attempts to control the sex industry in the Pacific. The journalists found the trade has survived harsh economic conditions and continues to prosper despite its illegality in Pacific island countries.
Prostitution is a problem causing major concerns across the Pacific. Various research reports have been published, detailing the seriousness of the issue. Across the region, poverty, unemployment and low wages are driving sex work.
Prostitution is illegal in virtually all Pacific Island countries. But this has not stopped it from growing.
In addition to locals, foreign sex workers from Asia are now visible in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.
Some Pacific Island countries have realised that existing legislation to control the problem is inadequate so they have revamped their laws.
Last year, Fiji introduced stronger anti-prostitution laws while the Solomon Islands broadened its laws. With reports and surveys revealing that family members, including parents, were forcing underage girls to have sex with strangers in exchange for money, governments felt compelled to act.
In February 2005, Papua New Guinea’s then Minister for Community Development Dame Carol Kidu announced that legislation would be introduced to punish those selling their children to the thriving sex industry in the country.
Dame Kidu said there was an increase in child prostitution and men-with-men sex (homosexuality) in Port Moresby nightclubs. She added that some parents were forcing their children into prostitution.
In 2003, Kiribati temporarily banned all Korean fishing boats from entering Kiribati ports after reports in the Korean Herald that 30 to 50 girls, mostly underage, were servicing the Korean fishermen.
A former Solomon Islands police superintendent, David Diosi, told Wansolwara that prostitution in the country had hit an all-time high.
“Organised prostitution started in 2001 in Honiara and now those who hire prostitutes in Honiara pay up to SBD$8000 a night (approximately FJD$2000),” he said.
In 2006, the United Nations Division for the Advancement for Women (DAW) released a report on 14 Pacific Island states.
The report focused on Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu as countries where young girls were subjected to various forms of violence, including high rates of commercial sexual exploitation.
The report said that girls in the South Pacific are “sold” for a number of reasons, including poverty, joblessness and the increase in the number of single foreign and local men who are employed by the logging, mining and fishing industries.
The DAW report revealed that in several Pacific countries the, “fear of HIV is driving men to seek sexual relations with very young clean girls. These girls are in turn drawn into the sex industry by relatives.”
Across the world, including in our region, many attempts have been made to stop or control prostitution. All have failed.
Experts say this is because anti-prostitution laws do not necessarily eliminate demand. And the laws of economics say that where there is demand there is supply.
Addressing the deep-rooted and complicated causes of prostitution —such as corruption, poverty, joblessness and low wages— should also be a priority.
The Fiji Women’s Crisis Center (FWCC) coordinator, Shamima Ali, says that people end up in prostitution due to a whole range of factors, including lack of access to education, generational poverty conditions, lack of access to adequate housing and lack of viable employment opportunities.
“They turn to prostitution because of a lack of options and opportunities throughout their life,” says Ali.
“Prostitution becomes a means of survival.”
Ali’s assertions are supported by the findings of a recent survey in Fiji, Risky Business: Sex work and HIV prevention in Fiji, conducted by Karen McMillan and Heather Worth. The results of the survey reveal that most men and women who are in the sex trade are in it because they can make the money needed to support their families.
“I support my two children; I pay for my rent, I pay for my food,” says Louisa, a 40-year old sex worker.
“I don’t have a man in my life because my two children are my responsibility. When they grow up I may be able to pull myself away from here,” she added.
Twenty-six year old sex worker Lisa says that she needs to do this because, “the wage I get is not enough to pay my bills, rent and things…so I turn to sex-work.” Some of those surveyed said they were in it just to earn money to satisfy their wants.
Authorities are concerned about other activities associated with prostitution—human trafficking, drug abuse, child prostitution and other serious crimes such as murder and rape.
Fiji Police media liaison officer Atunaisa Sokomuri says, “all these other activities are in one way or the other related to prostitution”.
The FWCC’s Ali is also concerned about violence in sex work. “Firstly, we are of the view that prostitution is a form of violence against women as it is a violation of women’s bodies. So ideally it is something that we would like to get rid of.”
The commercialisation of sexual exploitation of children in the Pacific, which has reportedly increased in the past few years, is one of the reasons why countries like Fiji are bringing in tougher laws.
The newly adopted “Fiji Crimes Decree of 2009” is seen by the authorities as a new approach to controlling a growing problem.
Under the new law “selling or buying” minors under the age of 18 years for immoral purposes is now punishable by 12 years imprisonment. Previously, this fetched a two-year jail term, with or without corporal punishment.
Brothel keepers face five years imprisonment, or a fine of F$10,000 (US$5,000), or both. This used to be classed as a mere misdemeanor too.
Fiji Police Spokesman Sokomuri says the new law aims to protect children. But he says more needs to be done to provide rehabilitation for sex workers.
Australia and New Zealand have decriminalised prostitution.
Perhaps having learnt from experience that prostitution cannot be eradicated completely, these countries have opted to contain it by providing those in the industry a safer environment in which to operate.
The deputy director of FWCC, Edwina Kotoisuva, says that when it comes to prostitution, the trade will go to extreme measures to keep operating.
But there is opposition in the region about decriminalising prostitution because of cultural, religious and traditional values.
PNG’s Melanesian Solidarity Group says it will not stand for the decriminalisation of prostitution. It is clear that multi-faceted efforts coupled with strong legislation are needed to contain prostitution in the region.