Out of sight, out of mind: women working in shadows

Prostitution remains in a legal vacuum in Spain By cracking down on kerb crawling, politicians are avoiding the real issue

A prostitute waits for clients in Catalonia.
A prostitute waits for clients in Catalonia.JOAN SÁNCHEZ

Prostitution in Spain is legal, but not regulated. Pimping is illegal, an activity that increasingly involves international gangs controlling women and moving them around Spain, and Europe. The police have made some progress in breaking up these gangs, but admit that they lack the resources to tackle the problem properly. In some regions, notably Catalonia, municipal authorities have taken steps to prevent prostitutes from working on the street, fining them and their clients for public order offenses.

La Jonquera, the border town between Catalonia and France, has become a huge center for prostitution, attracting men from France, along with the gangs who traffic prostitutes. The town has tried banning prostitutes from working the streets: the result has been the creation of Europe’s largest brothel, with 101 rooms. To circumvent legislation on pimping, it is registered as a hotel, and the women who work there are charged around 70 euros a night for a room and board. Catalonia’s regional government has now approved legislation allowing local police to fine prostitutes and their customers up to 30,000 euros, and place them on a database.

Organizations that work with prostitutes say that simply removing prostitution from the streets of Catalonia’s towns and cities will do nothing to solve the bigger problem of organized crime’s role in trafficking women, and will simply drive prostitution underground, making it hard to help women who want to escape from the sex industry.

Prostitution has long been tolerated in Spain; even under the military regime of General Franco. The port areas of cities such as Barcelona and Valencia, or the back streets off Madrid’s Gran Vía, were well-known pick up areas. The women who worked in these spots were mainly Spanish, and while they may have supported a work-shy husband or a boyfriend’s drug habit, they were not controlled by gangs. But over the last two decades, international organizations have taken advantage of Spain’s traditionally tolerant approach to ship hundreds of thousands of women here from South America, Eastern Europe, and Africa, taking their passports, threatening them, and forcing them to work in brothels alongside main roads, or putting them on the streets. Reliable figures are hard to come by, but it is estimated that between 200,000 and 400,000 women now work as prostitutes in Spain, most of them controlled by mafias.

La Jonquera, on the border with France, hosts Europe’s largest brothel

In short, Spain’s legislation has failed to take into account the rapid changes wrought by globalization over the last two decades that have created unprecedented migration, along with rising poverty in much of the developing world, forcing vulnerable women to leave their homes to look for work in Europe.

In 2008, Congress rejected a move to regulate or ban prostitution on the grounds that it was near impossible to distinguish between people-trafficking and prostitution. A parliamentary commission said that both “phenomena were linked and could not be separated.” Congress therefore decided to step up measures against the trafficking of women for the purposes of prostituting them, imposing tougher sentences on gangs and offering greater support to women who were being exploited. “At least it allowed us to work more closely,” says Rocío Nieto, who heads an NGO that aims to help women escape prostitution.

Meanwhile, women continue to sell themselves on the streets. In response to growing public anger about areas of towns and cities becoming open-air brothels, some municipal authorities have cracked down by imposing fines, something that Nieto sees as avoiding the real issue: “What we need to do is attack at the root of the problem, which is to introduce proper legislation to deal with people who traffic and exploit women,” he insists.

Nieto says that the majority of women working as prostitutes do not do so voluntarily, but are controlled by mafias. She says that simply imposing fines on women, or the gangs that control them, is a waste of time. The police largely agree: “These women, and the people who pimp them, do not pay the fines: they have no bank accounts; they have no fixed abode,” says a senior police officer with long experience of trying to tackle the traffickers.

Prostitution has long been tolerated; even under the

“We are simply avoiding the real problem, and using the law to remove these women from view,” says María Luisa Balaguer, a Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Málaga. She adds that a lot of the fines being imposed are probably not even legal. “They are probably anti-Constitutional in that they prevent somebody from exercising their right to freedom of movement by being on the side of the road.”

Balaguer says that Spain’s political parties can no longer avoid the issue and must take action. At the same time, she argues that reaching consensus would be very difficult as the law stands. “There is no question of legalization. It would be against Article 15 of the Constitution regarding the principle of the moral and physical well-being of the individual. You cannot contract sex with somebody without breaching that principle,” she argues.

Spain’s town halls accept that their efforts are no more than sticking plasters, “ruses and half-measures,” says Julio Andrade, of the right wing Popular Party administration of Málaga, who says that the country needs legislation issued by Congress. Until that happens, he says, street prostitution will “hit both shopkeepers and residents.” In reality, Málaga’s solution has been to tolerate street prostitution by removing it from the city center to an industrial estate near to the airport that is also home to a number of brothels. Dozens of other towns and cities have taken similar measures: out of sight, out of mind.

La Jonquera tried to stop street prostitution in 2008 by imposing a ban, but within a year, and after a young Nigerian woman was run over and killed after she fled onto a main road from a police patrol, the town decided that the measure was neither “efficient” nor “effective.” The town’s mayor, Sònia Martínez of the Catalan nationalist bloc CiU, says that the majority of clients looking for prostitutes in La Jonquera are French, who don’t pay the fines because of the lack of administrative procedures, “while the girls have no money to do so.” She says that the town hall decided to impose the ban because “residents were tired of the media coverage of these kinds of problems. The town hall wanted to do something about the public relations problem, as well as to protect the women.” But as Cristina Garizábal of Hetaira, an NGO that helps what it prefers to call “sex workers”, points out: “How can you fine somebody for offering sexual services that are not against the law?”

Between 200,000 and 400,000 women work as

Garizábal takes a pragmatic view of prostitution, pointing out that not all women who work in the sex industry do so against their will. Hetaira has campaigned on behalf of prostitutes to get towns and cities to allow them to work in clearly delineated red light areas, as happened in Málaga.

But Málaga’s move — one being increasingly copied by other towns and cities — raises concerns among some groups that work with prostitutes; again, related to the international gangs who traffic women. “This growing trend toward penalization, the criminalization of prostitution, means that more and more women will disappear from view, and we won’t be able to get access to them, making them yet more vulnerable,” says Helga Flamtermsky of the Mujer-Frontera project, which reports on the experiences of women who have been trafficked. She believes that tackling trafficking would see a drastic drop in the numbers of women working in prostitution.

Garizábal says that fining women who work as prostitutes on the street is only making an already difficult situation worse. “It simply pushes women into the hands of the owners of the clubs, who then exploit them: there is no legislation providing these women with any labor rights,” she points out. Viviana Waisman, the head of international gender equality campaign organization Women’s Link Worldwide, argues that the public order offenses being handed down by local courts in Spain violate several international treaties to prevent people trafficking. “Punishing women who are working as prostitutes runs the risk of putting them into a yet more vulnerable situation, which contravenes all the international instruments to protect the victims of trafficking. This has to be the framework within which we examine the problem, and not by punishing the offense or through migration control,” she says.

Purificación Causapié, the Socialist Party’s equality spokeswoman, is also against penalizing women who work as prostitutes. “These ordnances are about public order and vandalism. We have to combat the trafficking of people by mafias, and help women out of these situations through assistance,” she says. At the same time, she understands the dilemma that town halls face, but insists that the only way to eradicate the problem is by fighting trafficking and exploitation. “Penalizing women stigmatizes them, forces them into hiding, and makes it difficult to maintain contact with them,” she says, adding that it makes more sense to fine clients, as Seville City Hall now does.

In 2008, Congress rejected a move to regulate or ban the oldest profession

The Catalan government denies taking a punitive approach against prostitutes. “We have done everything to avoid identifying women with prostitution. It takes two: it’s about supply and demand,” says Xavier Gibert, a senior official in the regional government’s interior department. “I find it hard to believe that fining these people, bearing in mind the already dreadful conditions that we see by the road, is going to further stigmatize them,” he says, adding that the decision to stamp out curb crawling is just the first step in a long process.

“This is a problem that requires wider debate throughout society; it’s not just for politicians to decide,” says Gibert, while insisting that in the meantime, it is necessary to fight against the “human and socially demeaning spectacle of supply and demand on our roads.” This is why his administration is going to record the names and details of prostitutes and their clients. “This is a very common administrative procedure,” he says.

Paloma Llaneza, a lawyer specializing in data protection, disagrees. “The very existence of such a file is a source of problems. If a private company or individual breaks the law on data protection, the fine can be up to 600,000 euros. But if that information is lost from a public archive, the administration concerned cannot be fined.”

Jordi Bacaria, a Barcelona-based lawyer specializing in intellectual property rights, adds: “It is essential that once a fine has been paid, the data relating to it be removed.”

We are avoiding the real problem, using the law to remove women from view”

In deciding which path to take regarding the control of prostitution, Spain can look to the experience of different models in the rest of Europe. In Sweden, Norway, and Finland, prostitution is illegal. But only the client is punished, usually by hefty fines, although prison is also an option for the courts, but one rarely applied. Sweden introduced the abolitionist model in 1999. It enjoys widespread public support, and has managed to reduce prostitution, or at least the visible signs of it.

Balaguer says that Spain should follow Sweden’s model. “We could have put together a nationwide plan to abolish prostitution and to help women find other work, but the money was spent on other things, and now there is no money for anything,” he says.

In some eastern European countries, prostitution remains illegal, and women engaged in it are subject to fines. In Hungary, for example, prostitutes are more heavily fined than clients, and face prison sentences or fines if they offer their services in “protected areas.” Clients are only likely to be fined if they are caught with a minor, and then face a much lower fine than the prostitute will face.

In Germany and the Netherlands, prostitution is legal, and women engaged in the activity are treated like self-employed workers, as well as having to register with the authorities. The Netherlands introduced legislation in 2000 aimed at regulating prostitution. Brothel owners require a license and must pay taxes, while women enjoy access to the welfare state. But critics say that this approach has not prevented exploitation. “Some women have arrived here thinking that they were going to work as waitresses, and then been forced into prostitution, forced to engage in unsafe sex, and to work long hours,” says sociologist Kareen Vryck.

“Spain is being hypocritical about this. There are few votes to be won by trying to tackle prostitution, and people are only concerned about the prostitutes who work the streets. We are a long way from any serious proposals to deal with the problem. It isn’t even a matter of which side of the political fence you are on. Quite simply, nobody wants to address the issue,” says Garizábal.

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS