Special Report: A Life in Pain

Mar. 17, 2006

Davao By Night (Photo By Barry Ohaylan)

City Halls policy on prostituted women, which criminalizes them on the one hand and legalizes them — through the citys collection of fees — on the other, has been decried for its tendency to victimize these women twice over.

By Jetty Ayop-Ohaylan

DAVAO CITY At around seven in the evening, the club opens. At eight, Michelle puts on her makeup and slips into the dress code — skimpy underwear with lace trimmings and a pair of sandals with three-inch heels. At nine, as male costumers start coming in, the show begins. The lights become a kaleidoscope of red, orange, blue and green.

On stage, Michelle dances almost nude. She has to dance to three songs and, just like any of other dancers in the club, her performance would become more daring as she removed a piece of what she wears each time a new song begins.

She would end the night either being tabled by customers or taken out to God knows where. Michelle is a taxi dancer, the citys classification of women like her who are likewise engaged in prostitution.

Officially, prostitution here and elsewhere in the country is illegal. But once a year, these prostituted women (PWs) go through a necessary routine that, for all practical purposes, makes what they do legal in some sense. They are required to get and pay for so-called occupational permits, which are also required of GROs (guest relations officer) and massage attendants, who are also engaged in prostitution.

The amount 100 pesos per permit per year may not be much but the idea that they are forced to pay irritates Michelle. Its unfair, she says.

Data obtained from the City Information Technology Center shows that from January to November last year, a total of 865 occupational permits were issued to GROs, taxi dancers and massage attendants. Recent estimates by Talikala, a nongovernment organization helping PWs, indicate that are about 3,000 registered PWs in Davao City. Talikala said at least 87 night establishments engage their women employees in prostitution. These include night clubs, massage parlors, motels, and videoke bars.

On a more fundamental level, the collection of these fees, according to city officials, indicates not just its exploitative nature but City Halls ambivalence in dealing with prostitution. Why would the city criminalize PWs at the same time that they legalize them through the collection of such fees? Moreover, why does the city look at prostitution as a criminal issue and not as a social concern?

The government is confused in trying to deal with the issue of prostitution, said Councilor Angela Librado-Trinidad, chairperson of the councils Committee on Women, Children and Family Relations. In one way, it regards prostitution as illegal but in another way it exacts charges from people who are victimized by prostitution.

Talikala has been at loggerheads with the citys Business Bureau over the collection of fees for occupational permits. The government pretends that prostitution does not exist but they issue permits to these women and to these business establishments, said Jeanet Laurel, a coordinator of Talikala.

But according to Jhopee Avancea-Agustin, officer-in-charge of the Business Bureau, they issue permits only to GROs, taxi dancers, and massage attendants but not to prostituted women. Agustin pointed out to davaotoday.com that its the womans prerogative if she engages in prostitution.

At the very least, Talikala wants City Hall to ensure that it thoroughly examines the businesses that apply for these permits to make sure that they do not become prostitution fronts. Should the government issue official permits to these business establishments, a thorough and prior inspection should be conducted and a regular inspections must be conducted, Laurel said.

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