Israel Fails to Implement Rehabilitation Programs for Sex Workers After Landmark Decision

Despite approving a $24 million plan to help thousands of women and men, the money has not been distributed nor has funds been assigned

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A survivor of prostitution who works at a women's rehabilitation center, July 7, 2019.
A survivor of prostitution who works at a women's rehabilitation center, July 7, 2019. Credit: Meged Gozani

More than six months after Israel’s cabinet approved a plan to rehabilitate sex workers and reduce prostitution, funds are still missing and none of the plan’s provisions have been implemented, Haaretz has found.

In January, the cabinet approved the recommendations of an inter-ministerial team and a three-year budget of 90 million shekels ($24.5 million), starting this year. The program was supposed to provide for the immediate needs of thousands of men and women in the prostitution circle, including transitional and halfway houses for mothers and young women involved in sex work, the creation of a separate halfway house for transgender prostitutes, the expansion of treatment options for prostitutes in the Arab community, and the hiring of social workers and counselors to work with sex workers in the LGBTQ community.

But the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry, which is responsible for allocating funds to the other relevant government units, did not receive the earmarked amounts from the Finance Ministry until April, and little has been done since. The money needed to operate emergency social services that were to be the program’s first phase has not been distributed, nor have funds destined for nongovernmental organizations that were assigned to operate additional programs.

>> Read more: Israel's law against prostitution heralds a new era of gender equality | Analysis ■ Prostitution survivors' poems on display in Tel Aviv tell stories of hardship and hope

The Social Services Ministry failed to pass on allocations to the Education Ministry to develop curricula on sexuality and preventing sexual abuse, and to train school staff members to identify at-risk children. Education Ministry officials who spoke with Haaretz on condition of anonymity said the ministry is prepared to implement its part of the program as soon as the funds are made available.

The Health Ministry, which is tasked with expanding the activities at existing clinics for former sex workers and to establish new ones, received its funds for these activities from the Social Services Ministry only two weeks ago,

The January cabinet resolution called for the Social Services Ministry to carry out research, with the help of the Public Security Ministry (which oversees the Israel Police and the Israel Prison Service), on the effectiveness of both the program and a January law outlawing the purchase of sex which will go into effect next year. The 9 million shekels allocated for this research for 2019 have also failed to materialize.

“Budgetary approval was given only in April, which is why the programs have not been fully implemented,” the Social Services Ministry said, adding that it is waiting for official approval to fill the positions specified in the cabinet resolution. “The ministry is making great efforts to meet all the goals of the program... including writing requests for proposals, building treatment and intervention models and choosing subcontractors,” the ministry said.

The Finance Ministry said the allocations were disbursed “as soon as possible, in April,” and blamed the delays on the Social Services Ministry.

The Coalition Against Prostitution in Israel says that in the past six months it has demanded that the Social Service Ministry transfer the full amount budgeted to it as part of the rehab program. Officials in the organization said they feared the delays would affect the introduction of the new law, as it requires an expansion of social services available to prostitutes.

“The law banning payment for sex will directly affect the lives of the 14,000 men and women engaged in prostitution in Israel,” said Nitzan Kahana, a lawyer who is a co-director of the Task Force on Human Trafficking. The organization is a member of the Coalition Against Prostitution.

“The government program, which we helped to write, is supposed to lead to the provision of new options for underserved populations alongside emergency support to nongovernmental organizations, which operate with minimal staffing and on shoestring budgets,” she said. “We expected there would be recognition of the urgency involved, but despite the Finance Ministry passing on the funds, the Social Services Ministry did not use them,” Kahana added.

In a written response, the Health Ministry said it recently received its funds for the rehabilitation program from the treasury, but that things were already moving. “Mobile units to treat people working in prostitution are expected to expand their activities to Be’er Sheva and Jerusalem in 2019, with Eilat to follow in 2020,” a statement said, adding that the plan also included opening a clinic for sexually transmitted diseases in Be’er Sheva and the provision of psychiatric services for female sex workers.

The Finance Ministry’s statement also added that it was “involved in passing the law prohibiting paying for sex, and designing and budgeting for a basket of services for survivors of prostitution, at an annual cost of 30 million shekels.”