A report by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child criticized the way Israel deals with children exploited for prostitution.
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It said there is insufficient coordination between different state agencies, no clear-cut plan for dealing with the problem, a shortage of data on its scope and insufficient prosecution and punishment of sex offenders. The Knesset Committee on the Rights of the Child discussed the report on Monday.
A source familiar with the issue said that despite growing awareness of the problem, helping juvenile prostitutes “still falls between the governmental cracks.”
Moreover, of all the police probes opened into sex crimes against minors last year, about 45 percent have been closed.
In 2008, Israel ratified the portion of the Convention on the Rights of the Child that deals with trafficking in children and child prostitution and pornography. The UN committee publishes periodic reports on how well the convention’s signatories are meeting their obligations. Its latest report on Israel, which was published this summer, voiced dismay over what it termed Israel’s lack of a comprehensive strategy for dealing with these problems and its slow progress toward implementing a recommendation made in the previous report – setting up a state agency dedicated to children’s rights.
The report was scathing about Israel’s handling of cases against people suspected of sex crimes against minors. It said the number of cases investigated was low to start with, and only a small percentage of them actually go to trial.
Moreover, even when convictions are obtained in child prostitution or pornography cases, the sentences don’t always match the severity of the crimes, the report said. It recommended instituting stiffer sentences for obtaining sexual services from a minor.
The latest data compiled by the Knesset’s research center seem to confirm the report’s findings. This data shows that of 2,349 cases opened into sex crimes against minors in 2014, only 11 percent have yet produced a verdict.
Moreover, almost 45 percent of these cases were closed – 30 percent because the criminal was unknown and 13 percent due to lack of public interest.
MK Yifat Shasha-Biton (Kulanu), who chairs the Knesset Committee on the Rights of the Child, also echoed the UN report’s complaint about lenient sentencing. “A sentence of up to three years for obtaining sex services from a minor is ridiculous,” she said.
At Monday’s meeting of the Knesset committee, a representative of the Social Affairs Ministry confirmed another criticism in the UN report, regarding Israel’s lack of a system for coordinating among different government agencies involved in this issue. He said his ministry “works to rehabilitate minors employed in prostitution, but doesn’t coordinate with the Education Ministry on preventing [minors] from sliding into prostitution or on locating minors employed in prostitution.”
An Education Ministry representative said the ministry provides lesson plans on healthy sexuality and instructs teachers on how to identify children at risk, but there are no lesson plans dealing specifically with prostitution. “It’s preferable to speak with the students first about healthy, normative sexuality before we get into the issue of prostitution,” she said.
The UN report also criticized the lack of data about the scope of sexual exploitation of children in Israel. State Comptroller Joseph Shapira leveled similar criticism in a report published in December 2014, writing that “government ministries, local authorities and aid organizations only possess estimates and assessments.”
About three months ago, Haaretz reported that the Social Affairs Ministry knows of at least 970 children exploited for prostitution, but estimated the true figure at around 1,250.
“Despite the progress that has been made, there’s still no known, agreed figure on the number of minors exploited for prostitution,” said a source familiar with the issue. “This is in gross contradiction of a series of public and governmental committees which said that gathering data is the essential first step in dealing with the problem.”
The UN report also charged that Israel lacks adequate systems for identifying children at risk of becoming crime victims. But Reut Guy of ELEM – Youth in Distress said such children are hard to detect.
“Often, professionals oppose branding a 15-year-old girl as a prostitute, and therefore, her treatment evaporates,” she said. Moreover, some local authorities avoid the issue, she said: “On the periphery, there are towns that are afraid to touch it.”
The Social Affairs Ministry said it runs a nationwide program to help child prostitutes and plans to open centers in 15 additional cities once the 2016 budget is approved. It added that it cooperates closely with the justice and public security ministries, but has some professional differences with the Education Ministry on this issue.