Sex workers in Kazakhstan want to make the world’s oldest profession a legal trade.
In mid-May, the yvision.kz website posted an open letter signed by 597 self-declared sex workers that called for the legalization of prostitution and its regulation by the state.
In their open letter—addressed to President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration, as well as international organizations, including the UN and OSCE—the sex workers argued that legalization would better protect them from potential harassment and harm done by customers and pimps. Legalization would also pave the way for better health services for both prostitutes and customers and thus, presumably, check the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
The letter also outlined economic arguments for legalization. For one, state regulation would better protect Kazakhstani prostitutes from competition on the part of migrant sex workers from other FSU states, in particular Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine, it contended. In addition, the letter emphasized that the taxation of the commercial sex trade could contribute a tidy sum to Kazakhstani government coffers at a time when state revenue streams in other areas, most notably in the energy sector, are declining.
The positions staked out in the Kazakhstani open letter are similar to those advocated by the global rights watchdog Amnesty International’ (AI), which in 2015 came out in support of the decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work not involving coercion exploitation or abuse.
The concept of regulating the flesh trade is a tough sell for legislators. Many are opposing legalization on moral grounds, and at least one nationalist MP has characterized prostitution as a “Western” value that is undermining young people’s understanding of Kazakh culture.
Outside of parliament, the debate on legalization has focused mostly on economic questions. The idea has gained modest support from one women’s advocacy organization, the Feminist League of Kazakhstan, but the group’s representatives have nonetheless expressed skepticism that legalization would generate a bonanza of revenue for the state. The group contends that the number of prostitutes in Kazakhstan is comparatively low, thus, if taxed, the amount collected by the government would not be able to plug many budgetary gaps.
Data on the number of sex workers in Kazakhstan is hard to come by. Estimates in recent years have not been made public: the Ministry of Interior does compile such statistics, but the information is classified and for internal use only. In 2011, officials said there were 4,000 prostitutes working in the country. Unofficial sources, however, said the actual number could be double the government estimate.
Some critics worry that legalization would present the wrong image of Kazakhstan to the outside world, and turn the country into an undesired sex-tourism destination.
It is not a crime to sell sex for money in Kazakhstan. However, there are administrative and criminal penalties for activities related to prostitution, such as soliciting or offering sexual services in public areas, operating a bordello, or engaging in the trafficking of persons for the purpose of sexual exploitation.
While authorities have condemned prostitution, they have not been able to back their words with deeds. Several years ago, an Interior Ministry-sponsored measure to ban prostitution and impose criminal penalties on those who buy sexual services failed to gain traction.
The effort to secure legalization now seems stuck, but it does not appear the issue will go away anytime soon.
In a recent public opinion survey conducted by the Gazeta.kz news website, 61 percent of the almost 15,000 respondents favored legalization. Given the unscientific nature of the poll, it is hard to determine whether it is an accurate gauge of public sentiment. It is likewise difficult to say with certainty that a majority of sex workers in Kazakhstan are in favor of legalization. What does seem certain, though, is that a vocal portion of sex workers in the country will continue to agitate for the state to address the matter.