Europe, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

Not Just Berlusconi’s Party Girls

Sabina Zaccaro

ROME, Feb 17 2011 (IPS) - While a handful of young sex workers have been under the spotlight in the weeks following a high-profile sex scandal involving Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, tens of thousands remain invisible victims of human trafficking.

A sex worker near the central station in Rome. Credit: Pier Paolo Cito/Save the Children

A sex worker near the central station in Rome. Credit: Pier Paolo Cito/Save the Children

On Tuesday, a judge in Milan ruled that Prime Minister Berlusconi must face trial in an underage prostitution case. Prosecutors have been investigating the prime minister on charges that he paid a Moroccan girl, Karima El Mahroug, for sexual intercourse last year, before she turned 18.

The investigation involves 14 women in total. Many of them are young migrants who lived in apartments on the outskirts of Milan that were allegedly paid for by Berlusconi.

These girls are the visible faces of an otherwise invisible form of slavery: prostitution. At least 50,000 victims of trafficking received protection and assistance between 2000 and 2008, according to a 2010 report on trafficking by Save the Children Italy. In all 4,466 were unaccompanied minor migrants coming from Romania, Egypt, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.

The majority of victims of sexual trafficking are undocumented migrants from countries spanning the globe, aged 15 to 18 years old.

“When we started our work in the nineties, they came mostly from Eastern Europe, Albania, Romania, Moldavia,” Carla Corso, founder of the Committee for Civil Rights of Prostitutes told IPS. The group offers protection and provides shelters to victims of slavery and sexual exploitation in northeast Italy.

“Today they still come from Romania but also from Nigeria and Colombia; there is also a growing group of young Chinese on our streets at night, but it is very difficult to get in touch with them as the Chinese community is quite inaccessible.”

Romanian women are difficult to approach as well. “Since Romania has joined the European Union, the number of Romanian girls sexually exploited included in protection programmes has fallen drastically,” Emiliana Baldoni, researcher and author told IPS.

“Social assistants find it harder to get in touch with victims and accompany them out of the exploitation system; this is something rights associations are considering carefully,” she said.

Some victims, though, have found the courage to denounce their exploiters.

“Women who collaborate with the police can access social protection programmes and obtain a one-year residence permit; it is the starting point for a new life,” Corso told IPS.

Trafficking has become more subtle in recent years, said Baldoni.

“Coercion strategies are always more subtle and sophisticated. Extreme forms of intimidation, abduction, physical violence, and rape are less frequent than in the past. Victims are subjugated mainly through deceptive behaviour, blackmail, and affective and psychological manipulation often not recognised by the victim,” she explained.

In 2008, Berlusconi’s government sharpened the law against prostitution with penalties and jail for both prostitutes and their clients on the streets. Women’s rights groups say that the new laws only make the condition of invisible slaves worse, allowing traffickers to move them from the streets to private apartments without police interference.

“This government approved repressive and violent laws to combat street prostitution,” Corso told IPS. “But it’s okay if prostitutes frequent the corridors of power. This remains a double-moral country: under daylight, you have to be irreprehensible; at night, you can do anything you want and say it is ‘private’.”

“Party girls are victims as well as prostitutes on the streets – victims of a system that forces them to pass through the beds of powerful men if they want to get success. The only difference is they sell their bodies to buy Prada bags, while their (street) colleagues do that for food.”

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