DAVAO CITY – A pimp prepares her six wards in short dresses for the night's work on a dimly-lit street here, confident that despite conservative scorn, their mayor, who will be president in less than a month, is looking after their welfare.
Around 600 prostitutes in this southern metropolis ruled by President-elect Rodrigo Duterte for over two decades get free sexually-transmitted disease (STD) screening, condoms, and lubricants as long as they register with the city health department and get their pink identification cards.
Just days after Congress affirmed his win, Duterte checked on a group of sex workers to make sure that no one was threatening them and that they were getting regular check-ups, said 40-year-old pimp “Marie,” a retired streetwalker.
“He doesn't want people fooling us. But he also tells us to behave. Even if we have this job, we have to remain clean. It's fair play,” Marie told ABS-CBN News.
Marie, who declined to give her real name, waited for customers under a lamp post beside the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) building in Davao City, which she said was a common pick-up point for prostitutes. At night, the financial hub is simply known as “Bangko Sentral gilid,” she said.
The pink cards are the sex workers' tickets to free health services.
The city's Reproductive Health and Wellness Center has registered 600 women working inside night clubs and 14 others walking the streets as “freelancers.”
The “freelancers” get free tests for STD twice a month. The rest who work in clubs and massage parlors that offer “extra service” pay P105 for the same service.
According to women's group Talikala-Davao, there are as many as 4,000 prostitutes in the city.
“Prostitution is an economic issue. Whether or not we set up a program like this, it will continue,” district nurse Mark Claudio told ABS-CBN News.
“Instead of just letting them be, at least we should help become aware of their health to stop the possible spread of disease,” he said.
The tough-talking 71-year-old mayor regularly hosts Christmas parties for the city's sex workers and other marginalized groups such as the disabled and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT), Marie said.
Duterte raffles off dozens of flat-screen TV sets, cellphones, and electric fans for the party-goers, she said.
However, Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz said state assistance for sex workers would only serve to condone the trade.
While red light districts thrive, prostitution remains taboo in the predominantly Catholic Philippines.
“If you provide benefits, what you are really doing is approving of prostitution,” Cruz told ABS-CBN News.
Government should instead provide the poor with free education and start-up capital to keep young women away from flesh trade syndicates, he added.
Under the Women’s Development Code of Davao City, prostitution is “recognized as a violation of human rights and exploitation of women to have no real choices for survival.”
However, the same charter mandates that prostitutes be given “socio-economic support services for women in the entertainment industry.”
And under this set-up initiated by Duterte, sex workers here feel protected, Marie, the pimp, said.
“He said we deserve help because we are the ones who lost our way,” she said.