NGO Says Teenage Prostitution Worsening in Israel

Elem - Youth in Distress identifies about 620 young people as young as 12 who have been involved in prostitution this year, compared with 126 last year, though part of rise can be attributed to organization's stepped up efforts to find victims.

More and more teenagers are working as prostitutes around the country, according to the nonprofit organization Elem - Youth in Distress.

Elem has recorded a five-fold increase this year in the number of young people working as prostitutes, though it says that some of the rise can be attributed to the group's stepped-up efforts to find victims of prostitution. Elem will present the data today at the Knesset's Subcommittee on the Trafficking in Women.

Prostitutes Tel Aviv - Nir Kafri
Nir Kafri

This year Elem has identified about 620 young people as young as 12 who have been involved in prostitution, compared with 126 last year. The organization believes the scope of the problem is much wider, involving thousands of young people whom the social welfare agencies don't even know about.

Elem says Israel lacks a central government agency responsible for identifying and treating these young people, about 75 percent of whom are girls. Another 20 percent are boys and the remaining 5 percent are transgender.

"Most young people who fall into prostitution have experienced great distress, physical, sexual or emotional abuse, a major rejection or serious neglect," said Reli Katzav of Elem. "Unfortunately, we encounter many cases in which prostitution begins at 12," she said, adding that the state only provides treatment to girls working as prostitutes but not boys or transgender youth.

"Our clients, who come from all strata of society, are breaking the law, but they are not punished and most of the [legal] files opened by the police and the prosecution are closed on the grounds of a lack of public interest or a lack of evidence."

According to a report by the Knesset's Research and Information Center last year, law enforcement efforts to address the problem have been lax in the 10 years covered by the study. The police opened only two cases against customers of juvenile prostitutes during that period, and both cases were closed, one for a lack of evidence and one on the grounds that there was no public interest in prosecuting the case.

In addition, three of the eight cases opened for pimping involving minors between 2000 and 2009 were closed. Criminal charges were not pursued in 19 of the 35 cases that the police opened during that period for commercial exploitation of a minor. Usually the reason was a lack of evidence or a determination that the suspect was not guilty.

"The data presented to the committee and the cases dealt with by Elem are just the tip of the iceberg of the shocking phenomenon of youth prostitution in Israel," said MK Orit Zuaretz (Kadima), who heads the Knesset subcommittee.

"The main failing is that a year after the previous [subcommittee] session on the subject ... the responsible ministries have not presented a plan and are still developing ways to deal with this 'new' phenomenon of juvenile prostitution." She said the phenomenon was largely driven by poverty and the need for these young people to support themselves.