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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 December 2006, 17:38 GMT
How the Dutch protect their prostitutes
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

As the murder of prostitutes in Suffolk grips the UK, BBC News looks at some of the safety mechanisms being used in the Netherlands to protect local sex workers there from violence.

Red Umbrella march by prostitutes' rights campaigners in Brussels, November 2005 (photo: ICRSE)
Campaigners for EU "street walkers" use a red umbrella as their symbol

This Sunday, campaigners in North America and Europe will be marking an End Violence Against Sex Workers Day with vigils, demonstrations and posters.

The murders in Suffolk "are another horrifying chapter in a long history of violence towards sex workers", says Petra Timmermans, a Netherlands-based campaigner for the human rights of prostitutes.

For Ms Timmermans, the coordinator of the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE), the vulnerability of prostitutes to violence is inextricably bound up in social attitudes.

Maybe there is really no escape from this rape prison called prostitution?
former woman prostitute, California

Prostitution in the Netherlands involving Dutch or other EU citizens is a legal occupation, and a recent report by the foreign ministry shows that most work in brothels or sex clubs.

They can openly advertise their services in newspapers and on the internet.

However, a small number of legal prostitutes still solicit on the streets, government statistics show.

In response, a number of cities have created official "street walking zones" which feature special car parks for prostitutes and their clients.

Condoms and coffee

These car parks have privacy screens - "a bit like stalls", says Ms Timmermans - between which prostitutes can conduct their business in their clients' cars.

Netherlands: prostitutes treated as self-employed persons; street prostitution in managed zones; brothels legal but subject to licensing
Germany: similar rights for prostitutes to those of the Dutch though prostitution subject to VAT; legal brothels and recognised red light zones
France: prostitution legal - soliciting and procuring are not
Sweden: prostitution legal but buying sex is not, so clients risk prosecution
UK: prostitution not officially illegal but soliciting, procuring and brothel-keeping are

Security cameras monitor the car parks and social services provide advice, medical information and condoms.

"You can talk to a social worker, you can get a shower, a cup of coffee, things like that," says the ICRSW's coordinator.

"I have never heard of anyone ever being hurt, or at least seriously hurt, in a zone."

According to the foreign ministry, "the introduction of these zones has significantly increased the safety of street walkers".

Government figures from 2004 showed that people driven into high-risk prostitution by drug addiction - a phenomenon common among EU prostitutes - made up only about 10% of all prostitutes in the Netherlands.

This is thanks to good drug outreach programmes, Ms Timmermans suggests.

And she adds that the attitude of the country's police - "they are great in general" - is also an important factor.

Preying on the 'worthless'

End Violence Against Sex Workers Day came about in 2003 in response to the Green River serial murders in the US, in which 48 women, most of them street-walking prostitutes, were murdered around Seattle over some 15 years.

ICRSW postcard promoting End Violence Against Sex Workers Day on 17 December
"Violence is not part of the job description" - campaign slogan

The Suffolk murders will be in the minds of Sunday's protesters along with the trial of a Canadian man for the alleged murders of at least 26 sex workers in Vancouver.

Petra Timmermans believes that if our social attitude to prostitutes changed, there would be less risk of such crimes occurring.

"We decide that some people aren't worth our time and violent people know that," she says.

Prostitution is a reality, she argues, and in order to protect those women and men who engage in it, it should be given equal status to other occupations.

"We know, for instance, that there is exploitation in the textile industry but we don't scream 'Stop buying clothing' - we talk about labour rights and working conditions," Ms Timmermans says.

"We need to start talking in that way about prostitution."

Dutch prostitutes do still get hurt, she adds, but the Netherlands has made "many more women's lives safer and gone a long way in challenging many long-held biases that have let killers off the hook".

Your comments:

Here in Mexico the situation terrible. Prostitution is illegal, but it is practised everywhere for men and women. The authorities like to protect them for money not for the government, but for themselves. And if you want to have their services is probably that cops will try to take as much money as you can give for buying someone.
Enrique, Mexico City

Prostitution is a crime in Nigeria but it is widely practised and patronised by all and sundry. Many of the street walkers are every day exposed to the risk of being killed for ritual purposes etc, but many families' livelihood depends on it. I wish the Dutch approach would be adopted in Nigeria. Prostitutes or not, they are human beings, our family members, brothers, sisters, mothers, etc. Society needs them and we need them alive! Let's stop the hypocrisy. We should not expect our personal norms to be normative for society. Let's respect their choice.
Martin Manasseh Esq, Abuja, Nigeria

I have lived 22 years in the centre of Amsterdam with the red light area just fifteen minutes away from my homes and I have never felt unsafe walking in the area. It's a vibrant, lively, busy area, with a lot of police presence and a few police stations as well. When I visit England, I cannot imagine having a safe feeling walking through a red light area there.
amanda, amsterdam netherlands

I spent some time in Botswana this summer and I really believe that sex work should be organized. This is for the many safety nets and health checks that may become available. I mention Botswana because there, like everywhere else I guess, HIV is of the utmost importance. Unfortunately many women there are so desperate for cash that they will sell their bodies for 60p with a condom and 100p without. This clearly contributes to the spread of HIV in a nation with approx 33% infection rate. We need to protect these women, wives and mothers from HIV as a global community.
Courtney Baker, Orillia, Canada

If prostitution is illegal, then it should be enforced as a crime and the girls helped in rehabilitation as part of the sentence. As very few would consciously seek such a profession, there is usually a reason for going into it. If there is no will to enforce its illegality, then it should be legalised and heavily controlled. In Russia it is not illegal or legal, in fact, no one really knows what it is, it's a grey area. But the greyness allows for corruption, abuse, and even slavery. I think if it is legalised and regulated, and the punishments for things such as forced sexual slavery should be increased to just short of savage. Legalisation would offer protection to the girls (and men) which the state does not, here or anywhere.
Misha, St Petersburg, Russia

Due to the Dutch system, I have never seen in my district a murdered prostitute and very seldom a beaten-up prostitute in my 30-year career as a police surgeon and forensic pathologist.
Dr OS van Hees, MD, PhD, The Hague, The Netherlands

I am from a country where just talking about prostitution is a sin. There is prostitution in the Arab world and it has been there for ages but everyone is trying to neglect it. Prostitution and violence are in Egypt as well as drug addiction and child abuse, but everyone doesn't want to face the reality or criticise the situation. We have also street mothers - a homeless woman who has been raped and left with her child. In general human rights are not protected in Egypt, imagine if somebody tried to argue about a prostitute's right.

No one talks about this problem and it was never an issue in the parliament or even on TV. I respect and am very impressed from how the West sees the problems and facts of life and try to handle it and deal with it in an intelligent way. Yes prostitution is a fact and something we cannot prevent and they have the right to have a normal safe life since they have chosen that by themselves. I hope that hypocrites and contradicted people in my country will wake up and try to face their problems as the West is doing.
Nahla, Egypt

In South Africa, prostitution is illegal, but the laws governing solicitation of this nature are never or hardly ever enforced. If enforced, the alleged offender has to pay a minor admission of guilt fine (spotters fine) or they can appeal against the fine through due legal process. In our "designated" areas where prostitution is common, there is a 24-hour police protection and presence, to ensure the safety of these girls amongst other things and to try and combat of other crimes associated with the sex trade. In addition some Women Rights Groups have opened "safe houses" where some of these girls can take their clients for business at a really minimal fee. Condoms etc are also being distributed by the government 100% free of charge and have been made easily accessible (any and all public places, places of work and clinics) for everyone due to our high HIV/Aids rates. Also, people with a low type of income, associated with these type of prostitutes, they do have access to free healthcare etc, should they contract some type of disease associated with their trade.

But in spite of the above, crime in these areas is rife, these ladies still get beaten up, raped and murdered and our HIV/Aids infection rate continues to be amongst the highest in the world. Some even refuse to use the safe houses because. Therefore, in my view, by legalising it and setting up controlled brothels with the right healthcare infrastructure might not work. It's not working in South Africa.
Rian, Pretoria, South Africa

The issue of prostitution in Liberia is a crime, it has reduced sex workers to a point were they are constantly molested, beaten at night and disgraced at daylight. On Carey St is were you usually see this brutality against sex workers, they are seen by the general society as an outcast. And the government do nothing about this prevailing issue in Liberia. The human right organizations in Liberia do not advocate on these voiceless sex workers.
Madison Cammue, Monrovia, Liberia

With what I saw and actually touched here in Iran, I could say the situation is far more terrible in my country probably than any other country in the world! Lots & lots of prostitutes, especially in the capital, Tehran, and a total ban to all the activities around the subject and one logical result, absolute lack of human rights for these poor women... they could easily be hurt or even murdered without anybody finding out... God bless them!
Dr Shahab, Tehran, Iran

Some time ago my girlfriend was a sex worker. As her drug habit caused so much uncertainty, she took risks. She was kidnapped, tied and driven to an unknown location in fear, threatened with a straight razor and barely managed to talk her way out by pleading for more drugs at a friends, where the people inside prevailed upon the stranger to exit. No police report was given, as blaming the victim only adds stress and anguish. I looked for the sucker for years.
pedro, Fair Oaks , Republic of California

I used to live and work in Munich. Between my office and the underground station was an industrial estate through which I and my colleagues (men and women) walked. On the industrial estate were several brothels. The girls worked in a warm safe environment, not on the streets. Women walking down the streets were left alone because they were not sex workers (the sex workers were all indoors). It worked, and the UK should consider doing the same thing. Prostitution is a valid occupation and it's about time we got used to it.
david, Bedford, UK

The Netherlands are so much more progressive, intelligent and practical about the issue of prostitution than my own country that it's embarrassing. I worked for five and a half years for the New York City Department of Health in their Bureau of Sexually Transmitted Disease, and many of the sex-worker patients I counselled had some truly horrible tales to tell: rape, beatings. Most of the sex-worker patients I counselled (and they were all women) had drug addiction problems, and quickly ran out of ways to earn money to feed their habits, until selling their bodies became the last method they had of economic survival. Until the elected officials in my country have the backbone to admit the simple truth - that prostitution IS a fact of life, and that, rather than ignore it through criminalization, it should be legalized in select areas where workers can be monitored and medically cared for - sex workers here will be harassed, jailed, beaten and murdered.
Lawrence Sojka, Maryland, USA

Here in Spain where I live - a respectable area - there are four brothels in the area, the police check the clubs to ensure the girls who are working there do so of their own free will, and are not abused. Maybe the UK should take a look at the Spanish system? It works and works well. The local news paper has three to four pages of sex worker adverts every week. It would be easier to stop the sun shining than to stop prostitution, and mankind is trying that too, but that's another story.
Chris Miley, Malaga Spain

I live in the red light area of Ipswich and regularly overhear early morning exchanges between local prostitutes, their dealers and the odd client. Allowing these women a safe place to work legally would enable them to then openly seek aid regarding other issues that affect their lives. It would also ease tension from those of us in the local area and might have prevented this series of events from occurring.
Matt S, Ipswich

Very similar arrangements are in place in Germany and it is rare to have any trouble. The most famous red light district - the Reeperbahn - has a police station right in the middle of it, in an historic building, and the police are out on foot too and there is hardly any crime there.
Roy Brookes, Hamburg, Germany

Great article. As a retired psychologist who spent time treating prostitutes and witnessed, vicariously, what trauma they had experienced, I am for a system of licensing and treatment, including counselling, for prostitutes here in the USA. It is a profession which is not likely to go away in the foreseeable, and these workers should be subject to the same rights as any other employee. RJS
Robert Severson, Kalamazoo, USA

In the red light district here in Antwerp, there is a shopping mall-style prostitute complex with a police station in the middle of it!!
Richard, Antwerp, Belgium

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