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Last week, there was an interesting article in this newspaper that weighed favourably the merits of legalizing prostitution. That media, rights groups and civil society in general are viewing those complex issues in an increasingly pragmatic way — finally having overcome the dominant yet arcane moralistic posture — is a sign of maturity. That is a pleasant contrast to the recent past.
Though it may sound shocking now and so was even then , the newspaper concerned refused to apologize and the then press council stood by the newspaper, agreeing that lesbianism was immoral and anti- social, hence needed to be cured. For decades, the public discourse in those intimate yet intricate matters was dominated by moralists, bigots and religious leaders.
And when complex social issues are viewed through the binary views of religious and moralistic teaching, it causes more harm than good. To further confound the problem, newly independent countries in our part of the world inherited a hefty load of arcane Victorian laws, which even by the time of independence were largely dormant. The political will and courage in our independent leadership were in short supply to rid our countries of those straight jacketed laws of the by-gone era.
For instance, criminalizing prostitution under vagrancy and brothel ordinance is one such; criminalizing homosexuality is another. Those arcane laws have caused more harm than good. Take for instance laws that criminalize prostitution. They leave hapless women who work the streets at the mercy of often corrupt police, who take ransom and sexual favours. Thus a law that was meant to protect women has the opposite effect. Second, the underworld-organized criminal gangs and local thugs tend to control the space in most affairs made illegal by the law.
In Colombo, most brothels are run by organized groups and thugs. On most instances, there is a nexus between the police and those brothel owners, who pay monthly protection money to the police top brass in order to avoid raids. When the underworld and thugs rule the roost, women who work there have little protection.