No Escape for Palestinian Women Forced into Prostitution

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Beit Anisa, as the house is called, is one of the best-known secrets in the de facto capital of the West Bank. Everyone is aware of the house, which doubles as a restaurant and "night club", and what happens behind the high wooden picket fence that surrounds the building and the trees blocking the windows from the eyes of curious onlookers.

Still, many deny the existence of the world's oldest profession here, even though human trafficking and prostitution are systematically destroying the lives of a group of Palestinian women. Beit Anisa is one of more than seven brothels operating clandestinely in Ramallah and East Jerusalem since 2002, according to Palestinian officials.

According to a 2008 report, "Trafficking and Forced Prostitution of Palestinian Women and Girls: Forms of Modern Day Slavery", by a Palestinian non-governmental organisation, All the Women Together Today and Tomorrow (SAWA), with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), poverty, unemployment and domestic violence were major factors forcing women into prostitution.

The ground-breaking research that went into the report - the first of its kind - however, had little effect on the lives of these women.

"Nothing has changed since we published our first report with the U.N. The situation remains depressingly the same and these women are still vulnerable and subject to exploitation," Suhaila Shomar, SAWA's director, told IPS through her spokesperson.

'There is no hope'

Some of the brothels operate out of private apartments. Others double as official businesses, including cleaning services, hotels, nightclubs and restaurants. Some of the pimps running the brothels are former prostitutes themselves, sometimes operating out of economic necessity, often with the involvement of their husbands.3

"The lives of these women are basically destroyed. There is no future for them. Many of them will commit suicide voluntarily. Others will be forced into suicide by family members who will never take them back," said Rana Atta, a public relations officer from the Women's Affairs Technical Committee (WATC) in Ramallah.

"Society regards them as the lowest of the low, and there is no hope of them integrating back into society again," Atta told IPS. "Those that don't end up dead will end up begging or involved in crime in a desperate attempt to survive."

Many of the women have been battered at home, often by their fathers. Others were forced into marriage and then suffered abuse by their husbands.

According to Atta, such domestic violence forces these women, many of whom are unemployable, onto the street. "Their only chance of survival is by resorting to prostitution," she explained, adding that research suggests that at least several hundred Palestinian women are involved in prostitution.

These women range from young teenagers to women in their forties. Many of the teens have escaped abusive homes, while those in their twenties are frequently university students who can't afford their tuition. Older women who have worked previously as prostitutes are often the pimps.

Clients come from the entire spectrum of Palestinian society, from labourers to university students, upper class professional men and politicians, many of whom are married or engaged. And while police arrest the women, no action is taken against their clients.

The Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs the West Bank, has been accused of corruption on several levels. Not long ago, a PA minister was accused of sexually harassing one of his female employees. No action was taken against the minister but the female employee and her husband were deported to Jordan.

"Prostitution is an issue which is not acknowledged in our society, with many people denying that it even exists in the Palestinian territories," Atta told IPS, explaining why the issue is so difficult to tackle.

"Law enforcement agents have no training in dealing with prostitutes who have been arrested," she added. "There are no government rehabilitation programmes, social networks or shelters to help these women. Sometimes the police even try to take advantage of the girls because they see them as easy targets."

'Modern day slavery'

The 2008 report from Sawa and UNIFEM concluded that trafficking and forced prostitution in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza are carried out on a small-scale as opposed to being part of a sophisticated network. Moreover, it determined that the women involved had little chance of escaping.

The report relied on interviews with the trafficked women and with other Palestinians who were prepared to speak about the issue, including policemen, taxi drivers, hotel owners and lawyers representing the women.

The stigma associated with the topic in a conservative Palestinian society rendered this work difficult, however, and field researchers even received threats to stop their work.

Trafficking involved moving women from Israel into the West Bank and back, and from West Bank cities to Ramallah. Some Eastern European women were also involved.

Source: Inter Press Service