Prostitution, despite being one of the world’s oldest professions, remains controversial across the globe. While most nations, including Bhutan, prohibit the sale of sexual services, recent times have seen many countries, particularly in Europe, fully or partially legalising it. It is time to reevaluate the country’s current policy of criminalisation in the context of constitutional rights.

Bhutan is currently grappling with a severe economic crisis, marked by inflation, unemployment, and limited opportunities. Despite facing stigma, criminalisation, and a lack of social support, some women choose to engage in sex work, often driven by economic hardships and the allure of quick earnings. Instead of branding them as criminals outright, it is crucial to holistically understand the push and pull factors influencing this vulnerable population’s choice of profession.

Studies and global experiences consistently reveal that criminalisation increases rape prevalence, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, exploitation, and violence against sex workers. Bhutan is no exception. A Kuensel Report from last year noted, “Many sex workers have been subjected to violence, abuse, blackmail, and harassment because commercial sex work is criminalised in the country, preventing sex workers from reporting to authorities.” A study by Save the Children on Bhutanese sex workers revealed that the police often mock and degrade sex workers when caught, sharing their photos internally and demanding sex workers comply with their demands under the threat of releasing compromising video recordings. These alarming findings underscore that criminalisation renders sex workers more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

In contrast, studies and experiences from various societies demonstrate that decriminalisation and proper regulation of sex work can mitigate these harms. Regular health checks would reduce STI transmission, while employment and consumer rights would provide recourse against non-payment and abuse. The sex workers could contribute to tax revenue and report abuse without fear of prosecution. For example, in Canada, sex workers can advertise their services, negotiate with clients in person, and work together for mutual support. In Germany, prostitution is legal and regulated, requiring sex workers to register, pay taxes, and receive additional state benefits. In Australia, prostitution is largely decriminalised or regulated, with variations between states. Most Nordic nations allow sex workers to work freely.

It is perplexing that in Bhutan, while sex work is criminalised, the government has chosen to liberalise the sale and accessibility of alcohol and tobacco, despite clear links between alcohol and domestic violence, substance abuse, and non-communicable diseases, defying the scientific evidence against liberalisation. Furthermore, regulations barring underage entry into bars appear unenforced, which is more important than prostitution. These rampant practices can destroy the future of our young population and expose them to unhealthy habits and consequences, including prostitution and drug abuse.

The  United Nations and the World Health Organization consistently advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work, aligning with the right to life and lawful vocation, fundamental rights guaranteed by our Constitution. If the government protects citizens’ freedom of choice regarding alcohol and smoking, why should sex workers be criminalised if they engage in their profession with full consent?

Bhutan should rethink its approach to sex work. Making it a crime makes sex workers more vulnerable. Legalising it carefully within tight rules would protect sex workers’ rights. This includes their economic rights, health, safety, employment, and the rights of sex workers. Bhutan can take a more caring, rights-based approach, which is in line with the spirit of the Constitution and Gross National Happiness.


Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.