Women in prostitution are “prisoners of circumstance” who end up providing sex for money as they run out of choices, according to experts.

Very often, these women did not have a decent alternative income, were brought up by relatives who were already in prostitution or had experienced abusive relationships, a meeting at San Anton Palace heard.

The activity was organised by the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society as the government prepares to kick-start a debate on the possible regularisation and decriminalisation of prostitution.

The main aim of such changes, according to the Labour Party's promise in its latest electoral manifesto, is to protect sex work victims and strengthen the fight against human trafficking.

As things stand, prostitution in the form of an agreement between two people that includes the exchange of money and takes place in a private place is not a crime. However, loitering and soliciting in public is illegal.

43 to 70 per cent were abused when they were young

The stakeholders attending the San Anton Palace meeting represented women and human rights organisations, victims of prostitution, experts in gender and equality, local authorities and religious organisations, all of whom asked to remain anonymous.

The majority took a strong stand against the decriminalisation of prostitution.

Some backed the so-called ‘Nordic model’, which advocates the decriminalisation of those in prostitution, helping them find an alternative job and raising awareness about prostitution as a form of abuse. Also, clients are criminalised to reduce the demand that drives sex trafficking.

During the meeting, questions were raised about the protection provided by the decriminalisation of prostitution. Who would be protected? The women, children and men in prostitution or the clients, who could be carrying STDs and infecting others?

Concerns emerged about the willingness of those in prostitution to register as such, considering the insular environment prevalent in Malta. Some women in prostitution offer sex outside their hometown in a bid to keep it hidden from relatives and friends.

Several insisted jail is not the solution for sex workers, who need support once they try to get out of prostitution. Housing and the knowledge that they will earn less from an alternative job are two of the main concerns for women in prostitution.

This means they have to be assured they will not run into trouble with the law and will have a clean criminal record if they opt out of prostitution.

Such assurances may have a bearing especially on undocumented migrants, who are otherwise often scared of speaking up, as they can be deported.

Some of those present for the meeting referred to prostitution as a form of violence against women, noting that beyond moral beliefs, prostitution perpetuated the idea that women could be “used” by men.

One speaker also insisted that rather than speaking of prostitution as the ‘oldest profession’, Malta had to decide what kind of society it wanted to be in the near future.

A couple of decades ago, domestic violence was still taboo. Nowadays it is deemed unacceptable and people no longer justify its existence simply because it has always been there.

According to research…

▪ for the majority, the entry age for prostitution is under 18.

▪ 43 to 70 per cent were abused when they were young.

▪ in Holland, where it is legal, from 60 to 70 per cent were forced into prostitution by criminal groups.

▪ 89 per cent indicate they want to leave but cannot find a way out.

▪ the mortality rate is between 10 and 40 per cent higher for women in prostitution.

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