At least 970 girls under the age of 18 are involved in prostitution in Israel, according to reports by social workers in 2014, but only about 300 are receiving assistance from local social welfare services.
The publication of these up-to-date, official figures is a first small step in dealing with prostitution among minors, as such data have not been released before despite the fact that a number of government bodies have been created to deal with this problem since 1997.
It is believed that the number of minors involved in prostitution might be as high as 1,250 if transgender minors and boys are considered as well. The average age of the girls entering prostitution is 13 to 14, although the welfare authorities say they know of even younger ones.
In December 2014, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira wrote: “The government, local authorities and NGOs have estimates only [concerning prostitution involving minors], and there is a difference between figures presented by the government and by organizations working in the field.”
The comptroller’s report related, among other things, to a survey by Elem, an NGO that helps youth at risk, from late 2011. At the time the organization had received reports on 621 teens involved in prostitution, whose average age was 16.7. Of these, 471 were girls, 124 were boys, and 26 were transgender teens.
The lack of information is not limited to minors involved in prostitution; figures for those over the age of 18 are also lacking. The Social Affairs Ministry decided to address the situation by launching a study, in 2010.
However, according to Tzipi Nachshon-Glick, director of the branch of the ministry that deals with youths disconnected from normative frameworks, a variety of problems, some bureaucratic and some methodological, have delayed completion of the study. It is now due to be completed in the coming months.
Meanwhile, the ministry decided last year to offer special training to social workers specializing in treating at-risk girls, in order to identify and assist those involved in prostitution. The social workers subsequently submitted reports to the Social Affairs Ministry, revealing that there are 970 girls in that category.
According to Nachshon-Glick, only five local authorities run programs for minors involved in prostitution, mainly involving individual and group therapy. Only about 300 minors – about one-third of the girls known to the welfare services and about one-quarter of the estimated total number of all of those working in prostitution – received assistance of this type last year.
“It's important to understand that for these girls and boys an ordinary connection with a social worker is not enough," explains Nachshon-Glick. "The social worker has to have the tools and the specific answers for treating prostitution among minors: They must be taught how to persevere even if the girl does not come for treatment to the assistance center – to give her food, to allow her to shower, and sometimes to make sure she has clothing and condoms."
In 2012, Nachshon-Glick submitted a plan to Moshe Kahlon, then social affairs minister and now finance minister, for the comprehensive treatment of minors involved in prostitution, which she estimated would cost 30 million shekels (about $7.9 million). However, the treasury did not have the funds and the program's budget was pared down to 5 million shekels, which then-Social Affairs Minister Meir Cohen provided.
Talks have recently been renewed between the social affairs and the finance ministries with respect to the program, and now the budget under discussion is 10 million shekels.
According to officials involved in these discussions, the delay in completion of the 2010 study can be attributed to a host of problems, including financial ones, for example, with regard to boys involved in prostitution.
“This is an unprecedented kind of study that involves complex and numerous methodological and bureaucratic difficulties. A population is involved here whose cooperation is difficult to obtain, and it is hard to find the appropriate the research method,” the Social Affairs Ministry said in response to a query.
The ministry added that the soon-to-be completed study includes four parts: a comprehensive survey of the phenomenon in Israel and abroad; a public opinion survey, which was published in 2014; a national survey focusing on the scope and characteristics of the problem; and an assessment of existing treatment programs.