[Stop-traffic] News/Italy: Italy considers legalizing prostitution in order to control it

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Subject: [Stop-traffic] News/Italy: Italy considers legalizing prostitution in order to control it
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Tue Oct 17 2000 - 15:47:50 EDT

Old trade, new tack
Italy considers legalizing prostitution in order to control it
By Jeff Israely
The San Francisco Chronicle, September 25, 2000

Rome -- It was 1 p.m., and an unforgiving sun reflected off the sleek,
glass headquarters of Italy's leading cable television network.

As cars whizzed past, a young prostitute named Mara stood alone in a patch
of shade. The 22-year-old Russian said she arrived in Italy three years ago
and must toil as a sex worker to support her 2-year-old son.

Like other prostitutes along this and countless other stretches of Italian
roads, Mara would benefit if Italy adopted a proposal by Social Affairs
Minister Livia Turco to decriminalize the sale of sex and allow prostitutes
to form cooperatives.

The plan, essentially legalizing the sex trade in private homes, has
sharply divided Italy. It has also split the ranks of the growing number of
prominent female politicians, including Turco, a leading feminist and
progressive member of the center-left ruling coalition. Her views on
prostitution have antagonized her traditional allies, who have lashed out
against her proposal, calling it a betrayal of feminist values.

Turco wants to amend a 1958 law that shut down brothels, which were
previously controlled by the state; she hopes to organize prostitutes into
small- business collectives to break the grip of the organized gangs that
control the trade.

Turco's proposal is now before the Council of Ministers, or Italy's
cabinet, which is expected to make a ruling next month. If it approves, the
bill will then be voted on by Parliament.

Italian law has long been tolerant of those paying prostitutes for sex if
it is practiced privately. It is forbidden in brothels and on the street,
and police can make arrests on charges of profiting from or exploiting the
prostitution of others, which are criminal offenses. Those who bring women
from another country to be prostitutes can be jailed for as long as seven

Indeed, prostitution has become the subject of a raging debate in Italy
because of its striking visibility. The round-the-clock presence of
scantily dressed women waiting for customers along city streets and on
country roads has become common.

About 70 percent of Italy's 25,000 prostitutes are foreign, most of them
from Nigeria, Russia, Albania or other Eastern European nations. Parsec, a
social research center in Rome, estimates that 1,500 to 1,800 of them
arrive as ``sex slaves,'' having been sold, kidnapped or misled into
believing they would get good jobs when they reached Italy.

``It's a very grave situation that is getting worse,'' said Francesco
Carchedi, who headed the Parsec study. ``Compared to their established
Italian counterparts, the typical foreign prostitute works on the streets,
where she is subjected to more violence, danger and uncertainty.''

In the past three months, the Rev. Oreste Benzi, a priest who runs a
shelter for prostitutes in the northeastern coastal city of Rimini, has
traveled nationwide with three Nigerian ex-prostitutes who tell of their
personal tales of misfortune and abuse.

In appearances before Prime Minister Giuliano Amato, police officials,
Turco and even Pope John Paul II, the three women told of false promises of
restaurant jobs, of personal documents destroyed, of dangerous raft rides
to reach the southern coast and of threats from armed gangs if they
wouldn't submit to prostitution.

In May, Italy's major television networks showed one of the Nigerian women,
Anna, crying and kneeling in St. Peter's Square as she received the pope's
blessing. The 26-year-old contracted the AIDS virus after she was forced
into prostitution three years ago.

Responding to such dire circumstances, the government started a free
telephone hotline last month for prostitutes. They were encouraged to call
for housing and health assistance, as well as for help in escaping from
criminal gangs.

A 1997 immigration law guarantees women protection, and in some cases legal
work permits and legitimate jobs, if they are trying to flee from forced
prostitution. Turco, who has made the issue a priority since taking over
the Social Affairs Department in 1996, says more wide-reaching and radical
solutions are needed.

``I can't be satisfied after four years that we're doing a better job to
break this new form of slavery,'' said Turco in an recent open letter last
month to the La Repubblica newspaper. ``It calls for a moral and civil
revolt against this exploitation.''

At least two other European countries -- the Netherlands and Denmark --
have given varying degrees of assent to prostitution. Last year, Dutch
lawmakers expanded their country's permissive approach to the sex trade
industry, officially overturning a 1912 ban on brothels.

Proponents of ending the Dutch brothel ban, like their counterparts in
Italy and throughout much of Europe, cited concerns over illicit immigrants
and underage prostitution rings. In Italy, about 20 percent of foreign
prostitutes are between the ages of 14 and 18, according to the Pesac study.

In Italy, authorities must work within the anti-prostitution policy, which
has led to sporadic sting operations against prostitutes and broader
efforts to crack the criminal gangs.

Last month, police began a wide- reaching sweep in the southern cities of
Lecce, Taranto and Naples and the northern cities of Rimini and Bologna.
Several hundred foreign prostitutes were given citations ordering them
expelled from Italy. Some 200 Nigerians were flown back home.

Last month, police in the hill town of Perugia, in central Italy, began
arresting customers and photographing them as they cut a deal with
prostitutes and then again as the customers drove the hookers back to the
street after having sex. They were then charged with ``deliberately aiding
prostitution,'' which can bring a prison sentence of up to six years and a
fine of nearly $10,000.

Just this month, Rome police announced that they would confiscate the cars
of men going with prostitutes or heavily fine the drivers. As a result,
some men have taken to riding bicycles to their encounters.

But all parties agree that simple roundups of streetwalkers or their
customers will do little to solve the deeper problems.

Legislator Maura Cossutta, a member of Turco's coalition, said the desire
to move prostitution off the streets is window dressing.

``We cannot confront this merely as a problem of public order,'' she said.
``They want to make prostitution invisible because it makes them feel
uncomfortable, rather than finding serious policies to combat it.''

Melanie Orhant
Stop-Traffic Moderator

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