Ground-breaking Report Documents Forced Prostitution in Palestinian Society

Palestinian women are being forced into prostitution in both Ramallah and Jerusalem - including in Jewish neighborhoods of the city, according to a report prepared by the Palestinian organization SAWA, which fights violence against women.

The report, released yesterday, says the victims come from various parts of the West Bank - mostly urban areas - as well as the Gaza Strip and Israel.

It also notes that some eastern European women who were originally trafficked to Israel to work as prostitutes are ocassionally sent to the West Bank.

The report reveals that several legally registered hotels and cleaning agencies are doubling as suppliers of sex services.

SAWA's report is ground-breaking, because until now, a conspiracy of silence has existed about prostitution in Palestinian society. It does not pretend to be a comprehensive study of this phenomenon, but its authors hope it will lay the groundwork for such a study.

The report, titled "Trafficking and Forced Prostitution of Palestinian Women and Girls: Forms of Modern Day Slavery," is based on a relatively small number of interviews conducted during the first half of 2008. The interviewees include only three women involved in prostitution; the others are cab drivers, lawyers, hotel owners and Palestinian policemen who have been involved in or exposed to this business. It was prepared with funding from UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, and released as part of a global 16-day campaign to combat violence against women.

The report's authors said they found no evidence of an organized, sophisticated human trafficking network. Mostly what they found were private initiatives by Palestinian madams, mostly former prostitutes who are now in their forties of fifties.

One Jerusalem madam, for instance, maintains four different brothels. She allows her girls to visit their families periodically, but employs various methods to intimidate them into returning. She also "supplies" her girls to customers in Israel.

Though the authors believe that, as in other places around the world, economic distress is the main factor that pushes women into prostitution, the actual cases they cite indicate domestic violence as a major factor, and sometimes also forced marriage at a young age.

Some of the prostitutes they learned of are college students; others are high school students.

The report does not, however, go into detail about the identity and background of the customers, merely saying that they range from young men to wealthy businessmen.

The report urged both the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian society to recognize the existence of the problem. It also urged nongovernmental Palestinian organizations to push for legislation that would define prostitution as a form of sexual violence and define prostitutes as victims rather than criminals, and called for the PA to adopt such legislation.

It urged that law enforcement personnel be trained to treat prostitutes with dignity and fairness, and called on the PA to build new shelters and allocate more funds to existing ones.

SAWA - All Women Together Today and Tomorrow was founded in 1998. It runs a telephone hotline for women and children and provides training to schools and the police about how to recognize and combat violence against women.