Tuesday, March 11, 2003

More than a million labor in sex trade

MADRID — The prosperity and social modernization of the European Union has given women access to opportunities they were previously denied, but it's not an open door to all. Many of the women excluded are undocumented immigrants who are marginalized, mistreated and sexually exploited.

There were a million prostituted women in Europe in 1997, according to the Transnational AIDS/STD Prevention among Migrant Prostitutes in Europe Project (TAMPEP). That figure has not been updated, but experts agree that the total grows dramatically each year.

TAMPEP also detailed the proportion of immigrant women among prostitutes in several European countries (in descending order): 90 percent in Italy, 85 percent in Austria, 68 percent in the Netherlands, 62 percent in northern Germany, 50 percent in Spain, 45 percent in Belgium, 32 percent in southern Germany and 25 percent in Norway and Sweden.

Each year, some 100,000 women from Eastern Europe, mostly under 18, end up as prostitutes in the countries of the EU, according to the Brussels-based intergovernmental International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The Ukrainian Ministry of Interior acknowledges that over the last decade some 400,000 women under age 30 left that country, many likely duped into the sex trade by false promises of decent jobs in Western Europe.

According to a Spanish association of sex clubs, AECA, there are some 400,000 women working in the sex trade in Spain, a nation of 40 million people.

There are approximately 1,600 such clubs in Spain. In general, they have a full-service bar in the entry area. There, the clients meet the women, who live on the premises. After a few drinks, the customer chooses one of the women to go to a private room for sex.

But prostitution takes place in "brothels, sex clubs, bars, discotheques, cabarets, massage parlors, hotels and on the street," says sociologist and educator Laura Maria Agustin.

"It must be made clear that the women are not whores: they are the display windows and public relations of our businesses," says Serafin Munoz, one of the most powerful people in Spain's sex industry and president of the sex club association in the southeastern province of Almeria.

The Ombudsman Office reports that in the 203 clubs of Almeria there are more than 3,000 women working as prostitutes.

In the northeastern autonomous community of Catalonia, the only local government in Spain that regulates brothels, each room used in the sex industry must have furniture, a shower, bidet, soundproofing and ventilation.

But the Catalonian government overlooked regulating the working conditions in the brothels, where the lives of the women who offer sex services can be as harrowing as those of inmates in prisons where basic human rights are not respected.

In the outskirts of Ocana, a city in the central province of Toledo, some 100 km from Madrid, a brothel — with signs outside identifying it as a "hotel" — is surrounded by electrical wire, has barred windows and attack dogs on the grounds to prevent the women from escaping.

Most of the sex workers in the "clubs", "hot-bed" hotels, and similar businesses around Spain are immigrants, coming from Eastern Europe, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil. They are generally brought by criminal organizations, traffickers who offer false promises of jobs at restaurants or as domestic employees.

When the women reach Spain, the traffickers take away their identification documents and in most cases rape the women before forcing them into prostitution. The same pattern is repeated across Europe.

In 2002, a specialized police brigade in Spain dismantled 16 networks that trafficked and sexually exploited women.

Police sources told IPS that most of that investigation originated from denunciations by women who were able to get a message past their captors, or who escaped and sought help.

But the mafia in the human trafficking business has power, money and good lawyers, who help the traffickers elude legal penalties, said the sources. The prostitution that provokes most controversy is the "traditional" manifestation of the trade — on the streets, in parks and other public spaces — even though the number of women involved is far less than in the sex clubs.

In the eastern Spanish province of Valencia, one of the favorite destinations of foreign tourists, particularly the wealthy, the local government announced a ban on street prostitution.

Meanwhile, along the central avenue Montera, in Madrid, street prostitution has existed as long as anyone can remember, say the residents, who hang signs and banners from their balconies to protest the activity.

In a stretch of less than 100 m along Montera, some 60 prostitutes can be counted, seeking clients, who they take to nearby hotels, says the president of the Montera Neighbors Association, Cesar Torquemada.

"You have to make a living somehow, sister," one of the sex workers on Montera, who gave her name as Maria, age 44, told IPS when asked why she was working on the street.

Why not work in a sex club? "Because they want young ones there," said Maria.

Rafael Simancas, the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party's candidate for the presidency of the local government of Madrid, promised during a visit to the Montera area that if he wins the elections in May he will work to eliminate street prostitution.

"We cannot consent to the presence of prostitutes in public spaces. These common spaces are being used for an activity that is generating problems for coexistence, business and the quality of life," he said.

It seems unlikely that the women who work as prostitutes out of necessity or by force, who often live in horrifying conditions, have much reason to celebrate March 8, International Women's Day.

Copyright © 2003 Inter Press Service

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Created: April 13, 2003
Last modified: April 13, 2003
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