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Europe mulls standard way to deal with prostitution

Deutsche Welle International, Germany:
The Council of Europe is looking for ways to standardize laws on prostitution on the continent. But not everyone is in favor of legalizing the oldest profession in the world.
BERLIN, 29 September, 2006 -- Prostitution is colloquially called "the oldest profession in the world," but its legalities are still debated. Throughout Europe, especially in eastern European counties, it is a contested issue. In Ukraine and Albania, people are not permitted to sell their bodies, and the men and women who do are tracked down and punished.
Sweden approaches prostitution very differently: only the customers of prostitutes are punished. France, Belgium, England and other nations have completely done away with laws regulating prostitution. Prostitutes live in the shadows of society in those nations; procuration, however, is against the law.
In Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and in some regions of Spain and Greece, prostitution has been legalized and regulated during the past few years. In these countries, prostitutes of both sexes are now called "sex workers." More

No uniformity
In other words, there is no uniform policy on the legalities of prostitution across the European continent -- on voluntary prostitution, that is. The incongruous policies on voluntary prostitution, however, dramatically impede efforts in fighting forced prostitution and human trafficking in Europe.

The Council of Europe, a 46-member organization that's distinct from the European Union, recently held a meeting to discuss ways to standardize laws on prostitution across the continent. The findings will soon be presented to member states, which may decide on formulating a uniform, European-wide policy on the trade.

"I think what is very important is that the 46 member-states of the Council of Europe can eventually reach a place in which they draft a uniform policy on prostitution in Europe and foster a shared tolerance toward sex workers," said Rosemarie Zapfl-Helbling, who led the meeting.

Not everyone invited
But Malka Marcovich, who heads the European branch of the NGO "Coalition against the trafficking of women," said she would like to see prostitution banned. Marcovich requested a place on the panel of the meeting, but was turned down. Representatives from the French government were not even invited, she added.

"The minister for the equal treatment of women in France made an official announcement at a United Nations meeting in 2000, equating prostitution with violence against women," Marcovich said. "But what was meant was not only the actual violence that customers may inflict on prostitutes. Violence can also be defined as having sex when you don't feel like it -- even if, in certain cases, women are being paid for it."

Marcovich added that "societies must ask themselves whether it is really only a personal matter when a person decides to become a prostitute, or whether that society wants to permit a form of sexuality that is based on wide divisions in equality between the sexes."

Equal opportunities
Yet the Council of Europe's Commission for the Equality Between Men and Women is apparently aiming to help prostitutes who have chosen to be sex workers gain equal opportunities in society. The commission invited a British woman named Chris to sit on the panel.

Chris has been selling her body via the Internet for the past decade. She also wants sex workers to enjoy the same rights Europe-wide as any other worker.

"I do not anticipate that more recognition for the sex industry and sex workers will be created through laws -- that is, from the top down," she said. "That will not happen overnight."

"But a lot of things have changed in society," she added. "People used to say it was a crazy idea when women were fighting for the right to vote. Homosexuality is also now more widely accepted than it used to be. As far as prostitution goes, society is currently in a process of becoming more tolerant toward it."

Considering the drawbacks
Still, there are two signs to the coin in legalizing prostitution. On the one hand, some prostitutes say that legalization permits them to be officially self-employed and recognized, as is the case in the Netherlands.

But there are drawbacks to that, said Sophie Jekeler, who runs an NGO in Belgium that helps prostitutes, including those who are trying to leave the sex trade.

"When prostitution was legalized in Holland, many Dutch prostitutes started coming over the border to Belgium to work," Jekeler said, adding that many women become prostitutes because they need the money. "Here they can remain anonymous and do not have to officially register themselves as prostitutes. These women do not want their families and friends finding out how they earn their money."