Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog demanded Monday that the Finance Ministry immediately release some NIS 16 million in left-over funding for an already approved initiative aimed to both improve treatment for victims of rape and sexual assault and to assist those wanting to escape the sex industry.
Speaking at a session of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, he called to examine the achievements of the two-year-old program, which has been touted by the previous government as a "completely new way for treating rape victims."
Herzog said a large portion of funds promised for the work had not yet been used and he urged the Treasury to immediately release the money so that his ministry could continue developing the initiative.
"We are talking about a program that is at the heart of our office and which offers all female victims the assistance they need," said Herzog, highlighting that the program's budget was only designed to last until 2010. "Releasing the funds for this program will allow us to create new methods to deal with this sensitive issue."
Split into two sections, one dealing with victims of rape and sexual assault and the other designed to provide rehabilitation services for people who worked in prostitution, those who have been working on the project said great strides had been made in the past two years.
For rape victims, three new crisis centers are under development in Jerusalem, Beersheba and Nazareth, while three existing places in Haifa, Rishon Lezion and Tel Aviv have already been renovated and expanded.
In addition, the program aimed at assisting sex industry workers has established a successful mobile unit in Tel Aviv providing medical care and advice, as well as an emergency hot line, a daycare center and a hostel for those who want to break free.
"This program literally saves lives," said Committee on the Status of Women chairwoman Tzipi Hotovely (Likud). "It is aimed at helping some of the weakest people in the population who in the past did not receive any kind of assistance."
However, there was still a very long way to go in terms of improving the program's overall results, she added.
Yael Ballas-Avni, director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers, Jerusalem branch, who was present at Monday's hearing, said that even though she was buoyed by the dedication of government professionals to improve services for rape victims and former sex industry workers, greater investment was still needed.
"If one in three women in this country is a victim of sexual assault, then it is clear that six centers treating 100 women each is not enough," she said, quoting her organization's statistics.
A Finance Ministry spokesman said the budget for the program was approved by the Prime Minister's Office and that left-over funds from the 2007 state budget had already been added to that of 2008.
He added that additional funding left over from 2008 had not yet been transferred to this year's budget, because that was only approved by the Knesset last week.