Why legalising prostitution is not the answer in Namibia

Sex workers on the prowl. Prostitution is on the rise in Namibia. Photo/FILE 

Recent remarks by a Namibian legislator that the country should legalise prostitution might have set the cat among pigeons, judging from the raised eyebrows it received.

However, the ‘dagger’ could have not inflicted deeper pain than when applied to the country’s fight against HIV/Aids.

Mr Kazenambo Kazenambo, the outspoken minister for Youth and Sports left fellow legislators reeling when he proposed that the country should consider legalising prostitution as a means of curbing the high unemployment rate.

He made the suggestion during a debate on the national strategic framework on HIV/Aids bill, which was tabled in Parliament.

"Prostitution, or sex work, is practised in Namibia. That is a reality and it should be legalised," he said, adding; "I am appealing to the powers that be that from an economic viewpoint, let us legalise prostitution as it generates jobs and income."

The remark was met with strong condemnation from many sectors of the 72-member House, with some questioning the moral grounds for making such a proposal. Civil society followed suit by widely condemning the minister’s statement.

Decaying morals

The Council of Churches in Namibia (CCN) Secretary-General Maria Kapere was quoted in the local media saying that prostitution and homosexuality were in contravention of the Bible. “The Namibian church will never condone prostitution and homosexuality,” she asserted.

Local NGO Women Action for Development's (WAD) Veronica de Klerk said Mr Kazenambo’s call “comes as the greatest contradiction at a time President Hifikepunye Pohamba is calling upon the entire nation to pray for divine intervention to save Namibia from decaying moral values”.

When former Namibian Health minister Libertina Amathila made an emotional plea five years ago for prostitution to be legalised, her Cabinet colleagues, Parliament and the churches similarly shot her views down, saying they were unacceptable.

Now, the plea has been revived to control the high unemployment rates in the country.

The minister’s comment, viewed literally, could fool one or two, considering that about 35 per cent of Namibians live below the poverty line of $1 per day, as per the recent UN Human Development Report. This widespread poverty is believed to be the main reason behind prostitution in the country, states the report.

In addition, the country’s minister of Labour and Social Welfare Immanuel Ngatjizeko said unemployment rate stood at 51.2 per cent. The figure includes people who are looking for full-time jobs and those who have given up trying to find work.

Food on the table

A more critical insight into what the minister has asked for however reveals a different picture altogether- one that unilaterally compromises the fight against HIV/Aids. As opposition Democratic Turnhalle Alliance leader Katuutire Kaura who is also a legislator pointed out, prostitution is not the only available option to the unemployed to put food on their tables.

Contributing to the parliamentary debate, Mr Kaura said that on the popular BI Street in the capital Windhoek, young girls were selling their bodies for sex.

"On the other side of the same road, you find ladies selling grass they have cut, wood and the seeds they collected of camel thorn trees. Is that not a decent way of earning an income? “He posed.

The prevalence of HIV in Namibia is among the highest in the world. Namibia’s Ministry of Health and Social Services report has it that 200,000 of the country's total population of 2.2 million are living with the virus. Since 1996, HIV has been the leading cause of death in the country.

Classic sex

Namibia is the second most sparsely populated country in the world, making ARV‘s distribution a resource draining process. Insufficient numbers of skilled technical personnel and limited managerial capacity at all levels have exacerbated the challenges of decentralisation, and access to services - including ARV’s. Namibia’s tag as a country with one of the highest levels of income disparity in the world does not help such efforts either.

Are all these worth worsening, in spite of government’s efforts to curb the pandemic all in the name of providing a livelihood to a relative few sex workers at the peril of an entire nation?

Two forms of prostitution exist in Namibia, both of which are criminalised through the Combating of Immoral Practices (Act 21 of 1980): Exchange sex work and classic sex work.

Since prostitution is illegal, sex workers are forced underground and become more vulnerable to HIV-infections.

Women in Namibia account for more than half of new HIV infections. Though prostitutes are not included as a group entity in national HIV surveys, it is estimated that HIV-prevalence levels among them are much higher than the national average. Very little has been written about sex work in Namibia, and therefore no figures on prostitution are available.

As it stands, Mr Kazenambo was asked by the Deputy Speaker to turn his plea into a motion to be tabled in Parliament. In light of the worsening fight against HIV/Aids in Namibia, one would wish the minister pulls the plug on such plans and instead contribute to making Namibia Aids-free.

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