Italy moves to rein in street prostitution

Proposed law would target men who solicit women for sex, but allow small brothels.

When Adriano Cartura and his wife transformed their 16th- century home and former monastery into a bed and breakfast 12 years ago, they had no idea that another kind of cottage industry would eventually sprout along these backroads: immigrant prostitution.

"We ignore them but it's a blight," says Mr. Cartura. "You have the stunning beauty of Tuscany but prostitutes on the roads."

Trafficking in women from Eastern Europe, Russia, and Nigeria for sexual exploitation has so expanded in Italy over the past decade, it even touches rural communities like this village of 95 residents.

Within a mile-and-a-half of Mr. Cartura's home, as many as five Nigerian prostitutes - some looking barely 15 years old - dot the roads. Wearing blue jeans, sweaters and long winter coats, the girls sit on old kitchen chairs, trying to lure passing field workers. Dropped off in the morning by their "protectors," they call each other on their cell phones in between clients and tuck their lunch bags off to the side. At night, these prostitutes will work the corners of Florence or Empoli. They are among an estimated 2,500 to 5,000 girls and women trafficked into Italy each year over the past decade.

Experts in human trafficking say Italy's problem is part of a growing trend. Hoping to better their lives, women in poverty-stricken countries are vulnerable to being drawn into sexual slavery .

But a new law proposed by the Italian government and expected to pass by the end of 2003, aims to discourage organized gangs from trafficking in women and children and move prostitution out of the public's eye.

Italy has an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 "fireflies," and by conservative estimates, at least 4,000 are girls and women trafficked in as sexual slaves, mostly from Albania and Nigeria.

If the law passes, men who solicit prostitutes will risk being arrested and fined, for the first time ever in Italy's history. But it also means returning to closed houses of prostitution, which were banned in 1958. Under the new law, it would not be illegal to rent apartments, condos, or homes to prostitutes, but no more than two prostitutes could inhabit one dwelling.

International experts in prostitution and organized trafficking say the greatest benefits of the proposed law include a reduction in other crimes associated with street prostitution, such as petty theft and drug trafficking - and a safer environment for the country's estimated 30,000 to 40,000 street prostitutes, almost all of them immigrants.

But critics say the proposed law fails in two important ways: It does not include funding for training programs that would offer prostitutes another way to make a living - and doesn't do enough to punish men.

"The government must dedicate money to help these women into new jobs," says Dr. Ernesto Savona, director of Transcrime, a research center at the University of Trento. "It isn't enough to just fine them. You must fight against what they are doing and actually treat them as criminals."

The prostitutes come from more than 10 countries, ranging from Romania and the Baltics to Ukraine and Turkey. Most, however, are Albanian or Nigerian.

According to Silvia Decarli, a researcher at Transcrime, recruitment typically occurs through advertisements specifically seeking prostitutes, false promises of legal employment as housemaids or waitresses, or kidnapping.

Dr. Andrea DiNicola, professor of criminology at Transcrime, says three elements are essential for breaking organized crime rings that import women:

• Economic development to improve the quality of life for women in their own countries and advertising campaigns warning women in those countries about sexual trafficking.

• Thinking of the prostitutes themselves as victims rather than criminals, and helping their transition to other jobs.

• The creation of special police units dedicated to investigating prostitute smuggling and stronger laws against the traffickers, including confiscation of money and property used to commit the crimes.

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