'No one enters and remains in prostitution voluntarily'

'No one enters and remains in prostitution voluntarily'

Women's Rights Foundation calls for end to exploitation

Lara Dimitrijevic and Stephanie Caruana. Photo: Jonathan Borg

Lara Dimitrijevic and Stephanie Caruana. Photo: Jonathan Borg

The justice sector needs to be more conscious of the needs and vulnerability of victims of prostitution and human trafficking, according to women’s rights advocates.

“Women in prostitution are not just a figure. They are human beings and we need to ensure that they can access justice,” Lara Dimitrijevic, director of Women’s Rights Foundation, told this newspaper.

Flanked by her “right hand” and colleague Stephanie Caruana, Dr Dimitrijevic spoke of a recent case where two women charged with soliciting and loitering were handed the same sentence as their pimps, who were accused of making earnings off prostitution.

For Dr Dimitrijevic, no one enters and remains in prostitution voluntarily and most often women in prostitution do not pocket a penny from their clients. She believes that such exploitation is a form of human trafficking.

Human trafficking is a reality in all sectors in Malta, including the labour, domestic servitude and sexual sectors, but it seems as if we are wearing blinkers, Dr Dimitrijevic said.

Malta was and still is a transit country for human trafficking, even though the methods have changed.

“I’ve been saying this for years. I still vividly remember a 14-year-old Nigerian I met in detention in 2006 who carried a teddy-bear wherever she went.

“She arrived here with other migrants on a boat, but I immediately knew that she was being trafficked, and I made her memorise my phone number.”

Despite Dr Dimitrijevic’s efforts to alert her, the girl believed she was being taken to Italy for education purposes.

We need to ensure that they can access justice

Two months after the girl was released from detention, Dr Dimitrijevic received a call from the police in another country to tell her that she had been trafficked to a brothel. Dr Dimitrijevic later learnt that she had been smuggled out of Malta illegally.

The girl was eventually relocated elsewhere for her own safety.

Nowadays victims arrive here legally with a work permit or a student visa, or even on chartered boats. Some are then kept in flats and allowed no contact with anyone. Others are forced to work in massage parlours or in rented hotel rooms, she explained.

“I think the numbers of sexually exploited people are shocking, running in the hundreds.”

WRF has a strong stand against the legalisation of prostitution and instead supports what is known as the ‘Nordic model’. This 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.

Human trafficking is but one of the several issues at heart of the WRF.

The foundation was established in 2013 as a result of Dr Dimitrijevic’s frustration with the lacuna of legal support for domestic violence victims. Apart from misconceptions about their rights, as a lawyer she felt that these women were often voiceless.

However, when she set up the organisation she did not just focus on domestic violence victims and started supporting victims of human trafficking, sexual abuse and gender discrimination, among others.

WRF provides free legal advice and also helps out in emergencies, as access to legal aid services can take a number of weeks.

The organisation also follows up, pro bono, some very serious cases.

Over the past four years, the foundation has seen a doubling of cases wherein elderly parents reach out after being abused by their children, Dr Caruana told this newspaper. This increase is probably a result of awareness. Such cases are the most challenging as mothers are very reluctant to involve the police in such matters.

WRF has a drop-in clinic every Thursday on a first come first served basis. Log onto www.wrf.org.mt, send an email on info@wrf.org.mt or call on 7970 8615 for more information.

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