How the Dutch protect their prostitutes

15 12 2006

 

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.

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 (ICRSW), the vulnerability of prostitutes to violence is inextricably bound up in social attitudes.

We decide that some people aren’t worth our time and violent people know that

Petra Timmermans
campaigner for prostitutes’ rights

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.

PROSTITUTION IN EU STATES

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 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.

17 dec postcard

“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 social attitudes 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 fact of life, 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”.

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