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By  Carmen Rengel / Translation: Blanca García

  • Mixed couples from Jerusalem and the West Bank risk their visas and spend their money to live together in no man’s land
  • The risk of losing their residence or their mobility permits leads them to buy houses on very expensive land, next to the wall, with no services or protection whatsoever
  • More than 60,000 Jerusalem Arabs are now stranded on the other side of the concrete wall, because of the security layout imposed by Israel

The siege on Palestine complicates even love. A West Bank citizen, his moves completely limited, who cannot go to Gaza and who only exceptionally and for a very limited time has a visa to cross over to East Jerusalem, is almost forced to find a partner in his or her hometown, in the next village at most. There is no mixture, no integration: there is endogamy, and it gets more limiting every day. The blood and friendship ties among the historical Palestinian communities are reduced. Isolation is reinforced. You have to pair up with your neighbor. And that’s it.

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By Carmen Rengel / Translation: Blanca García

  • A UN report unveils the exploitation of about one thousand women: poverty, patriarchy and violence lead them to prostitute themselves.
  • Most of them are sold by their relatives, their first abusers. Almost half of them were already married by the age of 14 and 60% were raped during their first time.
  • The lack of legislation in the Territories leads to the complete impunity of pimps and mafias.

Randa, who was prostitute for 21 years, poses hidden under a borrowed kiqab. Now she works in a store

The gospel says that Jesus healed Mary, the sinner, of seven demons who tormented her. It was over by Magdala, a village by Lake Tiberias, more than 2000 years ago. About an hour away from the Magdalene’s village (which the maps now say is called Migdal and is on Israeli soil) lives today Randa, 38, two kids, Palestine, Muslim, prostitute. She still lives with her seven demons: poverty, analphabetism, domestic violence, sexual abuse, human trafficking, family disownment, venereal disease…To name just seven. What she narrates is enough to understand that there are still a few more demons stalking her. Her case is one of the ones that have been the basis for UN Women (the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women), whose experts have drafted the first report on prostitution and AIDS in the Palestinian territory and East Jerusalem, from about 250 testimonies of sex workers, pimps, clients and sanitary workers. It is radiography of a double disaster: that of female exploitation, hidden behind patriarchies, poverty and hunger, and that of the unknown disease, silenced, ignored by oppressors who place their pleasure over the safety and dignity of the woman.

According to data from the main Palestinian women’s aid NGO’s, at least a thousand of them prostitute themselves constantly in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. As they explain in SAWA (All the women together today and tomorrow), “necessity is the best aphrodisiac and Palestine, with poverty levels above 20% at best, is not an exception”. There is no work for them: barely 15.5 % of Palestinian working-age women, compared to 67% of men (these are averages, in Gaza for example unemployment levels are over 45%). As the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) confirms, the rates have been stuck at the same level for a decade, so necessity becomes once again the best breeding ground for exploitation: families with an average of seven members, extremely low salaries (around 180 Euros a month), refugees, with limited movement because of the Israeli “occupation force”… “That leads to the families being the ones to give up their daughters in a lot of cases, even knowing that a stranger is going to wreck her”, but they need the handful of bills, the report points out.

That is what happened to Randa (fictitious name), who had to leave her home at the age of 15, straight to the brothel. It was her father who decided to sell her. She doesn’t know for how much. He did it “out of necessity”, six children and a wife to support on a construction worker’s salary but there was no sorrow in his decision. In 36.5% of the cases the fathers are the ones who initiate the girls in prostitution or their own husbands (38.1%). The clients’ cynicism is brutal when, in the survey, more than half of them state that they are convinced that the women act “freely”, that they are the ones who administer themselves and who decide to practice prostitution. The same men who take the first step in white slave trade, even with their own blood. Randa now works as a clerk in a West Bank store, after leaving prostitution three years ago. She was lucky: she was able to escape because lately she had been working for a pimp, not in a brothel, and he died of cancer. She did not owe anything to anyone. Nothing to account for. She packed her bags and left for a different town, and for another one, and for another one. Now she feels safe. Her children are her daily light. Neither one of them was born out of love, but out of clients’ rapes. Knowing who the fathers are is impossible. She does not see them as a disgrace. She leans on them, illegitimate children as disowned by society as herself. Two boys who now have their first girlfriends, whom they respect and take care of.  “People think that I’m a Gazan’s widow, I have my job and my kids are studying. But some people ask too many questions…”, she states, sheltered by staff from the NGO that helped her start her new life.

Police raid in East Jerusalem, last January. Most of the arrested were Arabs and Eastern Europeans /Jerusalem City Police

Her case is prototypical, it fits the most important strokes of the UN report: she was abused in her home, just like 96.3% of Palestinian prostitutes, mostly by her father; her oldest uncle tried to sexually abuse her several times, but always there was a witness to spoil his plans and he just touched her –another common trait, sexual attacks by relatives, almost eight out of ten prostitutes suffer them-; like 74 % of them, Randa did not finish even her basic education, she stopped going to school when she was 11 to help her mother sew at home; her entry into the world of prostitution was clearly forced (like in 64.3% of the cases). “Actually, the remaining percentage of women who choose sex do it out of obvious necessity so, even though they are the ones to take the first step, it is not really voluntary either”, clarifies the report.

Prostitutes in Palestine are mostly local, with whom they traffic internally between Qalqilia, Hebron, Tulkarem, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jerusalem, for the most part. Before the blockade they also arrived from Gaza. There are exceptions, such as the almost one hundred girls from Eastern Europe who were first taken to Israel and then to the Territories. Even though social pressure and religious connotations make the topic absolutely taboo, the UN has found “clear evidence of escort services, private houses, brothels and homes supposedly familiar”; the most common, they say, is that the girls work in brothels ran by a madame. “A tyrant who let us eat bread with milk once a day”, Randa reports, remembering her first exploiter, the one who was her father’s accomplice. To hide from curious eyes, some mafias go to the extent of buying houses in Jewish colonies in the West Bank, in the ones that are less watched over, and set up the meetings there. If they are “urgent”, abandoned or under construction buildings will do.

Most of the girls are single or divorced, recruited by their close circle (family or neighbors). 43% of all married prostitutes got married when they were under 14 years old and for 58.3% of them their first time was not consented. “It is in these marriages blessed by society in which forced relations take place from the beginning, to which we have to add the fact that husband and wife don’t know each other, the age limitations, the lack of knowledge about their bodies, their dignities and their obligations, the risk of submission…”experts indicate. Many of these teenagers, who have already grown up humiliated, were Randa’s mates in many West Bank brothels. “Most of them were prostitutes because the husband demanded it to pay for his gaming or drug debts”, she tells.  It is an almost unbreakable loop: “First it is your husband who abuses you. Then he starts offering you to his friends for money, then to the people he owes money to or to the dealer he wants drugs from. Sometimes you end up in an apartment with a madam and sometimes you become a drug addict yourself and then, even of your husband is not there or does not demand you prostitute yourself, you stay in the sex business to pay for your addiction”, she adds. UN Women has found widowed women hooked on drugs because of their husbands, who after they died, kept offering their bodies around refugee camps like Shufat. Sometimes they would do it for 20 shekels (around 4 Euros). Money, food, clothes, cell phone charges… Anything that allows them to breathe or to bring some money home. “We have found 15 to 20 year old women who are the oldest ones in their household and that way they make some money for the younger ones. There are others who live in places like Hebron, where all the industries have been destroyed and they are the only ones who have a source of income. There are some whose husbands are in prison for political reasons and who no one wants to hire in case Israeli soldiers look for her and cause trouble. Some have even turned to selling sex to pay for their college tuition fees as a way to escape and have other opportunities in the world”, explains the report. In most cases they do not take the money and administer it, they do it through their pimps, so they do not always manage to pay the bills. Even worse if they are forced to look for clients in bars and restaurants, because they are the ones who have to pay for the orders. Barely a third of the services are estimated to end up in the girls’ hands. There have been documented cases like that of a young woman from Gaza who offered her services in exchange for a sandwich. Those who complain receive beatings or threats against their children. “They are prisoners”, the experts sum up. And they do not report it out of fear of losing their kids, suffering even more brutal abuse or losing their lives.

Deception techniques are also used in this region: 15% of the girls end up in prostitution after getting fake documents to cross the border to Ramallah or East Jerusalem, supposedly to work as cleaners. The mafias also publish job offers with 2,500-3,000 shekels salaries (between 500 and 700 Euros, a good wage) and, when the girl shows up, she is asked about her family’s money, if she is married, if she has any diseases… “If she is not very pretty or if she is a little fat, she is immediately rejected. Clearly, they were not looking for housekeepers, secretaries or store clerks”, like the ads said.

woman rests in a dump site in Gaza. “Poverty is the biggest aphrodisiac”, experts point out

The subjugation of these slaves –deepens the report- is more intense than in other areas of the planet because they come from backgrounds in which a woman’s voice does not matter at all. Patriarchy leads Palestinian women to having a secondary role, to a forced dependence, to “vulnerability and exploitation”. In fact, the few reports that are made are done by the Europeans, says the Jerusalem City Police. To that we have to add the torment undergone after years of enduring beatings and abuse: according to PCBS, 61.9% of married women suffer psychological abuse in present day Palestine; a third, physical abuse, and 11% sexual abuse. Domestic violence is a private matter that is not talked about or reported out of shame or because of the damage to honor, the same one that has, in the last year, taken the lives of nine girls, at least two of them pregnant with their own brother of father’s baby. Divorce is not an option, because the families do not always welcome the woman back. If they do not have a partner or a home, they reach prostitution in a short period of intense desperation. Everything keeps adding up until making up the forcibly submissive soul of these women who, moreover, because of their culture and lack of knowledge, understand sex as complete service to the man, “who is not a man for some of them if he does not hit and dominate”. “To that are added the problems caused by the Israeli occupation, which are reflected in the homes and in the brothels. The men who feel insecure or weak may turn to violence to exert control over their families, to regain the sense of power. If you are humiliated at a checkpoint, it is possible that you go home and beat your wife, and even more a prostitute, which they treat with total impunity”, the report points out.

Palestine, relatively autonomous, and at the very least, months away from being independent, does not have any laws that penalize these kinds of behavior, so the problem is never solved. There are some traces of Egyptian and Jordanian laws, the countries that controlled the Territories before the 1967 war, and before the Israeli laws were applied in East Jerusalem, but the doubts as to which text is valid cause that, in the end, they are worth nothing. Some laws are already being revised (domestic abuse, crimes of honor, divorce…), but the burden is still there: for example, in rape cases, they make a distinction of victims who are virgins and victims who are not, and if the crime is committed against the second ones, the conviction is minimal (two months to two years in jail); there is no conviction or fine if the rapist agrees to marry his victim and there are no legal references either to rape inside marriage, as the 1960 Jordanian legislation indicates. The conviction for having a brothel is six months in prison, for the pimps it is six months to two years, although the average time is never over a year. Exploiting women is very cheap. In the case of sheer prostitution, the law does not link it to human trafficking, so that other criminal circle impossible do dissociate is never investigated. As if throwing a teenager from Jenin onto a truck and sending her with a false visa to the At Tur neighborhood (East Jerusalem) was not pure trafficking.

The Police do not offer much help: there are not enough resources, training or sensibility, denounce the authors of the report. 91.4% of prostitutes do not think the officers would protect them if they needed it. There have been cases of girls who have sought their protection and, an hour later, were being dragged out if the police station by “a hundred” relatives, claiming vengeance on the whore that is dishonoring them. They might even be the same ones who initiated her in the business and who raped her as a child. “The most painful thing is to see how the woman completely loses her capacity to make decisions, they control the way she dresses and she is told how to look for a partner, they need a man to open a bank account and then they are exploited with no legal consequences. Fear of a bad reputation, social norms, tradition, the way sex is understood and unspoken violence make it a breeding ground for suffering”, concludes the document. Those who live under Israeli legislation are not better off, some because they are in East Jerusalem illegally, others because for political reasons are scared or going to the “enemy” agents. The result is the same: utter defenselessness. Several doctors confess to the UN that they have tried to help these women and that they have found themselves with answers such as: “It is not your business. You are just a doctor. Do not stick your nose into other people’s business”. The person who got such a cutting answer had just attended a nine year old girl that several relatives raped and who was “available” to anyone who wanted her, with previous payment. The report holds testimonies of clients who, without hesitation, justify the sexual exploitation of women. “Our society is closed and of you are not married it is impossible to obtain sex any other way”. “I go out of desire or to find more sexual variety”. “We know of madams who you call and they send a little girl to your house any time you want”. “It is a good way to initiate yourself in sex”. “They do what they have to do because we tell them to”. Most clients are married (58%) or married men who “cannot stand” waiting until the wedding (32.8%). There are taxi drivers, lawyers, salesmen, and even some of the many foreigners who move around the Territories. More and more, adds the UN, teenagers become part of this inhumane chain. In Palestine there is the character of the teacher, a man who takes whole groups of young boys to drink alcohol and do drugs and, later, to “visit the prostitutes”.

The arrogance of the clients and the lack of information are the causes of the lack of protection these prostitutes face AIDS with. According to UN Women, limited access to brochures, advice, therapy and other health orientation prevents them from choosing between their security and the exploiter’s orders. They cannot negotiate. It is not only a matter of will, many of them do not know what AIDS is or how it is transmitted: 39% of them admit to not knowing the risks, compared to 1.6% of clients. They do know, but they deal with it with superiority (“That cannot happen to me”): 81.2% of the men believe that they are not vulnerable to HIV; the women, when they learn about it and understand, confess that they are completely exposed to it (78%). “There is no AIDS in the Middle East, condoms decrease pleasure and also here we have a healthy environment. I sleep with young and clean girls, I am sure they do not have AIDS”. With statements like these, 64% of clients refuse to wear a condom. It is what the girls say. The men deny it, only 14% confesses to never using it. Experts suspect that the percentage may be even higher, because many times the girls are used after having been drugged. “They are not too sure about what they do to them”. The men do not use condoms, basic means to prevent the transmission of HIV, because “they feel less pleasure”, “it is more natural without it”, “they cost a lot money”, “they cause infertility” or, simply, because they don’t want to. That way the risk increases because of fluids and because of the possibility of blood exchanges, due to the injuries the women can have during these brutal sex sessions. The girls who also do drugs maintain that sharing needles is very common in brothels.

The National Palestinian Authority’s Health Ministry has registered since 1986 about 19 cases of asymptomatic HIV carriers and 47 of fully developed AIDS, most of them young men infected during heterosexual relations. The WHO says that this data is very questionable; the chaos of an unfinished administration reaches health too. In all of the Middle East and north of Africa the epidemic is constantly growing, going from 200,000 cases in 2001 to 310,000 in 2008. There is an estimated 33 million people with HIV worldwide. Prostitutes, since they are more exposed (bad habits, violence, change of partners) should be more careful in its prevention, but it is not the case: only 18.5% of the women have gotten tested at some point, opposed to the 81.5% who never have. They are completely unaware that, if they go to a healthcare center, they have the right to get tested with complete confidentiality. They are more scared of the publicity than of the disease itself.

Randa confirms what the UN data say. She got to the point of being subjugated to 9 men in one night. She barely remembers having used condoms, and every time she did it was because the woman who owned the club demanded it, not because her wishes were heard. She only got tested once in 21 years, at the demand of a German business man who fell for her and was her stable client for a while. She could not work for ten days after a client repeatedly raped her and hit her with a rubber truncheon. Sometimes she left her sons in the brothel because she did not have friends of money to make sure they were taken care of. She is still recovering from the gonorrhea that has caused her severe hemorrhages.  She pretended to be the mother of some younger prostitutes to make believe that they had permission to go shopping in Jerusalem.  Those girls stayed in the capital hidden and they were never heard from again. She was kicked out of a brothel for refusing to recruit young girls (“I was not going to do with them what they did with me”) and one of the partners kept her to secretly drive her to a small village, where he left her living on the outskirts, in the fields, in an unreachable area surrounded by a tiny vegetable garden and a well, where every night he would bring the clients and some food, so no one would see her or know anything about her. A great deal of pain until the death of his last pimp set her free. Her testimony, brought together more by the volunteers than by herself, is sharp and gritty. It is the result of the hands that have beat her, the force that has subjugated her, the pain that has sunken her.  Now she tries to look towards the future with her sons and her job. Just a humble and simple wish of survival in peace. It is what she wants for her old workmates and for the 4.5 million women who are prostitutes in the world right now.

UN Women report recommendations:

  1. To create temporary laws in Palestine to avoid the lack of protection of women who are prostitutes and to punish the crimes they endure before and during the exploitation
  2. To strengthen the role of women in the Palestinian job market, that prevents them from being forced into prostitution out of necessity. We must insist on opening new ways in traditionally male jobs and new areas of innovation
  3. To train the Police to assist the victims and prevent their exploitation and illegal transportation
  4. To set up a national plan against domestic and sexual violence, forced prostitution and human trafficking
  5. To reinforce an education based on equality and values so the models of oppression and violence are not reproduced in adults, with special insistence on rural and unstructured areas
  6. To facilitate access to information about HIV and to guarantee safe and private tests.