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Last Updated: Friday, 12 September, 2003, 12:21 GMT 13:21 UK
New danger for Italy's foreign prostitutes
By Tamsin Smith
BBC, Rome

Street prostitute
Prostitution in Italy could be pushed back behind closed doors
For the last 50 years, prostitution on Italy's streets has been legal.

From the big city suburbs, to the coastal motorways to the Tuscan countryside, Italy's 80,000 prostitutes are more visible than anywhere else in Europe, lining the roadsides even in daylight.

Italian Interior Ministry and police figures estimate that 45% of Italian men visit prostitutes at least once a year.

They beat me and raped me until I agreed to work on the streets - they said if I didn't do it they would kill my family
Helena, 17
This week saw the start of a debate on a new law designed to make street prostitution a criminal offence.

Forcing prostitution behind closed doors, into rented apartments where it will still be tolerated may improve the appearance of Italy's streets, but will it force the prostitutes - the majority of whom are immigrants - further into the arms of the criminal underworld?

Threats

"On 4 October 2002 a man brought me from Romania to Italy," says Helena, a slight 17-year-old, with an empty expression and bruises on her arms and chest which she tries to cover as she talks to me.

"He told me I had a job as a cleaner but he shut me in a house and took my passport.

"Then he and others beat me and raped me until I agreed to work on the streets. They said if I didn't do it they would kill my family."

"We had one tiny room for five people, three girls in one big bed and two on the floor, it was hot - it was awful. Every night we had to go out to work on the streets."

If girls are kept captive and shut up in houses there is no possibility to meet people and it is much more difficult to escape from prostitution
Sister Erma
head of safehouse
Last week, the police rescued Helena and five other girls from the flat they had been kept in by their traffickers for over a year. Now the girls live in a safehouse in a northern suburb of Rome.

The house is decorated with cheerful prints and posters to give the girls a sense of security after their recent experiences.

Sister Erma, who runs the house, worries that the new prostitution law currently being debated would reduce the chance of girls like Helena being rescued as they would be forced indoors, off the street.

"When girls are on the streets they can meet volunteer organisations and the police, but if they are kept captive and shut up in houses there is no possibility to meet people and it is much more difficult to escape from prostitution," she says.

Law-and-order issue

Every night Helena and the other girls were taken by their traffickers to work on Christopher Columbus Street, a busy tree-lined avenue in Rome where the traffic thunders past day and night.

The sensation for people is that those streets are controlled by the criminality and not by the state - we have to show the government is in control
Lucio Malan
ruling party senator
At eight o'clock in the evening, it is barely dusk and already girls are standing by the roadside.

"It is not something that Italian citizens like - also because it is not something you see in other countries," says Lucio Malan, a senator in the governing Forza Italia party.

He explains why the new law on prostitution is an important law-and-order issue for many voters.

"The sensation for people is that those streets are controlled by criminals and not by the state. It is not a good sensation - we have to show the government is in control."

But it is not just the desire for law and order driving the debate on the new law - something else has changed here in public opinion.

Cosmetic change?

Ten years ago most of the prostitutes on the streets were of Italian nationality. Today over 80% are immigrants - mostly from Eastern Europe and North Africa.

I want to work and to have a normal life, like other girls
Helena
Alessandro dal Lago, a sociologist from the University of Genoa, believes the new law is more about immigration than prostitution.

"When people in Italy talk about a law against illegal prostitution they mean a law against illegal foreign prostitution," he says.

"The law will remove foreign prostitutes from the streets not Italian ones. And this is a law typical for a Catholic country - resolving the appearance of the problem not the core of the problem.

"No Italian Government wants to spend money helping these women - it costs too much."

Back at the safehouse, Helena says she has been granted legal status to stay in Italy, which means she can find a proper job and accommodation.

Under the proposed new prostitution laws which could have given her a criminal record she may have been less lucky.

"I can stay here now, I want to make my life here," she says. "I want to work and to have a normal life, like other girls."




SEE ALSO:
Europe's human trafficking hub
23 May 03  |  Europe
'Child prostitutes' trafficked into UK
16 May 03  |  Nottinghamshire


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