Welfare Minister Meir Cohen last week discussed a new plan to allocate NIS 6.5 million for the rehabilitation of minors working in prostitution.
During a tour late Thursday night in South Tel Aviv and a visit to the “Awake at Night” housing project for youth involved in prostitution run by ELEM, the organization helping youth in distress, Cohen outlined the details of the program.
The plan calls to start by combating youth prostitution in the “big cities,” primarily in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Of the funds allocated, NIS 5m. is geared towards hiring and training new staff, the establishment of additional rehabilitation centers operating 24/7, and a telephone hotline offering realtime assistance for youth involved in prostitution in Tel Aviv. The remaining NIS 1.5m. will go towards similar purposes in Jerusalem.
The “Awake at Night” program, a joint ELEM and Social Services and Welfare Ministry funded project, aims to assist and rehabilitate youth working in prostitution by offering shelter, counseling and positive adult role models.
Currently, the program operates in only a limited capacity, as the shelter is open only a few days a week due to a lack of qualified staff. The new funds will enable this shelter and many others like it to work around the clock to assist minors working in prostitution.
The minister said he had heard countless stories of youth moving to “the big city” from the periphery only to end up working in prostitution.
“We need to deal with these young people with a lot of empathy,” said Cohen as he portrayed the minors as “shadows in the streets.”
“We have to remember these youngsters are merely children who live in hell, every day they live in hell,” he added.
The minister said the key to combating youth prostitution is to first and foremost track and locate the minors.
In order to do so, the establishment of suitable housing centers operating around the clock based on the ELEM model is necessary as well as training new staff to actively identify and find under-age prostitutes.
“When we are able to locate the minors, there will be proper treatment,” said Cohen.
“Money is not a problem.”
Cohen also heard from Shani Nardimon, manager of ELEM’s “Awake at Night” project, who told the minister that nowadays a majority of under-age prostitution takes place through the Internet, rather than on the streets.
Nardimon, a clinical criminologist, showed the minister how through use of the Internet she is able to track down minors working in prostitution.
Logging into well-known sex sites through the use of a fake user account, Nardimon is able to track down and follow minors offering sex through the Internet. She showed examples of users posting sensitive information on chat forums, rating prostitutes, using code words to indicate a prostitute is a minor, and even in some cases offering contact information, which she is then able to use to directly get in touch with the young people and offer assistance.
Shockingly, even mainstream Internet sites such as Walla Chat and Tapuz have youth prostitution activities, through the use of secret symbols and words, such as $ signs next to a person’s user name.
Nardimon said she spends a great deal of her time online trying to track down minors involved in prostitution.
Once she is able to locate a child, ELEM staff reaches out to the minor in what is often a very long first step towards rehabilitation.
Nardimon said that surprisingly 10 out of 11 young people she contacts are open to the idea of receiving help from ELEM, though they are very cautious and often months of emailing and phone-call exchanges are required until enough trust is built to meet the minor face to face.
A majority of the youth she is able to track and locate are around the ages of 16 to 18, though she posits by the time ELEM is able to track them down they have been involved in some form of prostitution as early as age 12 or 13.
Reut Gai, a professional coordinator for the Program of Youth and Fatal Risk explained to the welfare minister that often youngsters start by exchanging sex for basic necessities such as clothes, food and housing, and only later in exchange for money.
Gai discussed the ELEM statistics Cohen presented last week at the Beersheba Conference on the Welfare of the Child at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev that in the Tel Aviv area alone, some 700 children work in prostitution, of whom 300 are still enrolled in school.
“We can only imagine it is the tip of the iceberg,” said Gai, adding that one of the most important tasks facing ELEM is training professionals to identify and locate youth at risk both online and in the streets.
She explained that the “hardest” cases of youth prostitution are the ones encountered on the street. Gai also said that in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Eilat and Jerusalem there were a few hundred minors in rehabilitation through the ELEM youth in prostitution program.
“We need to learn from ELEM,” said Cohen, “and create many more housing centers like ‘Awake at Night.’”