By Simona Sikimic
Wednesday, January 05, 2011
BEIRUT: Prostitution, the oldest profession in the world, is alive and well in modern-day Lebanon and is outstripping previous attempts to control and monitor the trade.
The industry is home to thousands of women, with estimates varying – some suggest there are around 6,000 in total, while others say this figure merely represents the number of foreign “artists” presently working in the country. These women – often Russian, and eastern European, but also Asian – are shipped to the country en masse, both legally and illegally, to work at one of the many licensed super nightclubs or on the black market dominated by criminal gangs.
But the issue cannot simply be dismissed as an imported one with Lebanese, Syrian and Egyptian women all playing a significant part in the industry, said Nouhad Boustany, a social affairs specialist at the Dar al-Amal shelter for women.
Dar al-Amal is the only Lebanese association sanctioned by the government to receive and host women and girls considered to be “victims” of prostitution. Working with these often-abused and extremely vulnerable women since 1969, the shelter has grown to provide a range of services such as counseling. It now receives around 75 to 80 victims each year, but this number is the tip of the iceberg.
Lebanese NGO Nahwa al Muwatiniya (Yes to Dialogue), which organized a recent public discussion on the topic, argues that the phenomenon is growing and deserves to be addressed openly alongside other issues that are traditionally considered controversial or taboo.
Prostitution has been permissible under Lebanese law since 1932, when specific areas were designated for the first super nightclubs to operate with licenses that permit prostitution but enforce regulations, such as operating hours and an over-21 policy for workers and patrons.
So-called “underground” prostitution, however – commonly associated with curb crawling but also known to include the exploitation of minors or mentally handicapped for sexual purposes – has always been illegal.
But, over time, the laws regulating this matter have become increasingly obsolete and enforcement sporadic, with low jail terms for violations failing to discourage offenders, said Boustany.
Meanwhile the economic depravation and disparity, family breakdowns and sociological or psychological problems which contribute to prostitution have increased, she said.
“Prostitution nowadays is different from what it used to be, and it has now spread in different areas of Lebanon under different forms,” explained Boustany. “Poverty is the main reason for prostitution as is the inaccessibility of primary needs like housing and food, which are vital rights for every citizen to preserve his health. Burdened by this economic pressure, the women and girls can be pushed to go to prostitution.”
And yet, “consecutive social policies that give priority to politics and security and leave behind the social issues” in the country have failed to address these factors. This has helped push prostitution and human trafficking to become the second most lucrative black market business in Lebanon after drugs, she said.
“Present laws only deal with punishment without trying to improve the situation and without enough consideration of the changes happening in our society.”
Moves by various human rights groups to strengthen and modernize the existing legislation, and conduct a thorough re-evaluation of the various 70 clauses in Lebanese law pertaining to prostitution are under way.
An anti-human trafficking law – currently in the draft stages but expected to come up for parliamentary vote in 2011 – has also been heralded as an important step, but activists say more must be done.
With the majority of prostitutes in Lebanon thought to be illiterate or of primary-school-level education, solving the problem requires wide-ranging implementation of programs targeting education, employment, social security, housing and legal reform.
“Prostitution is a problem and it should have laws [and programs] that are specific to it. If it is not addressed it will affect the national health,” said Boustany.