According to a report released on Wednesday, increasing numbers of women in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are being forced into prostitution by traffickers and family members.
The report entitled "Trafficking and Forced Prostitution of Palestinian Women and Girls: Forms of Modern Day Slavery", was supported by the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and researched by SAWA-All the Women Together Today and Tomorrow, a Palestinian NGO, during the first half of 2008.
"What drives them to this is the economic situation, poverty and domestic violence," Jalal Khadr, a SAWA representative told The Media Line. "It's a human rights issue and it should be part of the negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel."
"It's important that there be cooperation between NGOs and the Palestinian Authority to combat this and to have resources to take care of them," he said. "The major problem is that in Palestine, we don't have social security... and that's what pushes women to go to prostitution."
The publication was issued as part of the Global 16-day Campaign to Combat Violence Against Women, and tackles taboo subjects, which few governmental bodies and NGOs have been able to compile accurate statistics for due to widespread denial of the issues.
"The problem is not completely new," the report says. "The deteriorating political and ensuing socio-economic situation may be contributing to its rise."
Fabricia Falicioni, a women's rights officer with UNIFEM said the report was very preliminary but hoped it will prompt further investigations.
"First this needs to be opened for discussion," she told The Media Line. "Then this should be investigated to find out how extensive the phenomenon is."
The report found prostitution to be mainly operating informally on a small-scale basis. Girls and women are being provided through escort services, hotel based brothels, rented houses, private apartments and even house-cleaning companies.
The report, featuring testimonies from hotel owners, police officers, taxi drivers, lawyers and the victims themselves, offers a rare glimpse on the issue of women trafficking and forced prostitution in the Palestinian territories.
The report focused on possible trafficking routes, including routes from Israel to the West Bank and vice versa, from the West Bank to eastern Jerusalem, within the West Bank and from the Gaza Strip into Israel.
"Fourteen girls and women, ranging in age from 14 to 28 years old, have been brought illegally from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip," the report said. "They are beggars during the day and work in prostitution at night."
The report asserted that Palestinian police traditionally claim that women engage in prostitution by their own will, while admitting that a small number are forced into it due to dire economic situations.
"This amounts not only to an inaccurate interpretation of the truth but also constitutes a very dangerous view," the report said, adding that a lack of willingness by law-enforcement officers to investigate and prosecute traffickers silences the victims and allows the traffickers to operate with impunity.
"It's a very fine line between your will and what you're made to do," Falicioni said. "If you have to feed your children, you might be willing to do that, but it's cutting a fine line to talk about the will of a woman who sells her body."
Most of the trafficked women have been violently abused by their families, especially their fathers, according to the report. They testify to resorting to prostitution as a means of escaping violence and abuse. If they do ever return home, thy will most often hide the experience from the family for fear of being ostracized.
"They'll think she's been working in something else," Khadr said. "If the family or the community does know, her situation will be very bad and it will be difficult for her to get out of it because in Palestine they don't have enough safe houses to protect these women and provide them with vocational training to help them assimilate back into society. The Palestinian Authority and government need financial resources to do this if they want to care for these women and reintegrate them into society."
A hotel in Jerusalem's Old City which recently ran into financial difficulties and began functioning as a brothel in an attempt to find additional source of income was cited as an example.
Another case told the story of a man in Tul Karem, in the West Bank, who in 2006 sold his two daughters aged 13 and 14 to two brothers aged 16 and 17 from Ramallah, in exchange for 1,150 Jordanian dinars ($1,620).
The case was reported to the Palestinian authorities a year later, after one of the girls was hospitalized due to heavy bleeding and was found to be pregnant.
The boys were arrested and sent to jail for a month after which the case was closed and the girls, who were not present in the court sessions, were married to the boys.
There are also cases of women working as prostitutes in Israel, who are originally from Eastern Europe, mainly Russia and the Ukraine, and are trafficked into the West Bank.
"Prostitution houses are predominantly found in east Jerusalem, including Israeli settlements, refugee camps, West Jerusalem and their surroundings," the report said. "More specifically, the area of East Jerusalem is very active as there are several known brothels run by women in the Old City of Jerusalem."
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