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Knesset reviews prostitution legislation, failure to aid sex-workers

5 Nov 2021 20:11:38
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The Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality reviewed the effects of the criminalization of hiring sex workers, which came into effect in July 2020.

The 24th Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality this week held its first discussion on prostitution, attended by various representatives of ministries and welfare and women’s organizations.

The committee discussed the effects of legislation that criminalized the hiring of sex workers and led to an increase in fines given to consumers. It also touched on plans to aid those working in prostitution, which apparently have not been effectively implemented.

The criminalization of hiring sex workers came into effect in July 2020, some 19 months after the Knesset approved the original bill. Roughly 14,000 people across the country were engaging in sex work before COVID-19 hit, some 3,000 of whom were minors, according to the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry. More than three-fourths (76%) would leave sex work if they could. The average lifespan of a prostitute in Israel is 46 years.

Efrat Rubinstein, the head of Israel’s Stripper’s Union, challenged on decision-making processes behind the legislation, saying that “no welfare or aid organization representative has the right to represent Israeli sex workers, and they are being given the right to speak and make choices for women who have not asked to be represented by them.”

Rubinstein also demanded that Israel’s strip clubs be reopened, saying that their closure has created unsafe working environments for strippers and that programs have only offered them employment for minimum wage. This, she said, has created an impossible situation where strippers must choose between unsafe working conditions or poverty.

“There is a deep failure in the efficacy of steps that have been taken [to help] us that must be examined,” said Rubinstein. “The minimum wage jobs that we have been offered as an alternative [to stripping] are not any safer for women when they put us in financial duress.”

THE CORONAVIRUS pandemic and the new legislation have created an impossible financial reality for women, according to Naama Rivlin, the director of Saleet, a treatment and aid center for women in prostitution. “We have seen a sharp increase in outreach to our hotline and many of the women need aid just to get through the month. The law has created a situation where women are not recognized by the National Insurance Institute and are not eligible for aid.”

Some NIS 39 million was allocated to the Welfare Ministry in 2021 for programs dealing with prostitution, according to the Justice Ministry, which said that this amount will be added to the budget base, meaning the funding will likely be renewed in coming years.

“Funds have been allocated, but there has been no use of the budgets,” said MK Yasmin Sax Fridman. “I would like to hear answers from government offices. None of the plans that were supposed to be implemented have been completed. Some 76% of women are interested in getting out [of prostitution] and it cannot be that we will not give them an aid package and save a life.”

A representative from Elem – Youth in Distress, an organization that works with at-risk youth, commented on the difficult situation of transgender sex workers who “cannot get help or treatment when it comes to prostitution.” Miri Moskovitz, the Welfare Ministry’s director of treatment for prostitutes, said that an additional center will be founded for transgender sex workers as well as a center that will deal with aiding male sex workers.

When asked by committee chairwoman Aida Touma-Sliman if the knowledge of organizations in the field was being implemented in actions taken by the ministry, Moskovitz said that “there is a lot more to be done, and we have invited all of the organizations and nonprofit organizations to round table discussions on a variety of topics.”

In 2019, The Knesset approved a NIS 90 million program aimed at rehabilitating former sex workers and reintegrating them into the labor market. The program was to include the establishment of emergency housing for former sex workers, temporary housing and rehabilitation hostels for minor sex workers and a special rehabilitation program for mothers, as well as the expansion of existing services.

The committee concluded by saying that they would continue to work in three areas: monitoring the development of needs on the ground, enforcement and special communities. “We must hear all of the voices and needs,” Touma-Sliman said.

Samuel Thorpe, Hagay Hacohen and Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report.

Cover photo MK Aida Touma-Sliman

Text by EVE YOUNG   

First published by The Jerusalem Post OCTOBER 30, 2021 12:40