Friday, February 15, 2002

Shasta Darlington
Reuters News Agency

p. A14.

Berlusconi touts Mussolini-era prostitution plan

ROME — Prostitutes squeezed into bustiers and skin-tight fluorescent body suits are a common sight in Italy's middle-class neighbourhoods and on the shoulders of country roads, even during the middle of the day.

To get them off the streets, parliament is considering regulating brothels and red-light districts.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a media magnate turned politician, summed up public opinion recently when he said: "We have to clean up the streets. I am ashamed to go out driving with my children; there's prostitution everywhere."

"Perhaps we'll have to reopen regularized brothels," he added.

Not surprisingly, the proposals brought swift condemnation from churches and human-rights groups in this staunchly Roman Catholic country. Lawmakers, nonetheless, are thrusting ahead with plans to regulate the oldest profession and have support from many Italians.

According to a poll by Gente magazine, two-thirds of Italians think brothels are the best way to get prostitutes off the streets. More than 70 per cent of the women polled supported the proposal.

Prostitution is legal in Italy, although living off a prostitute's earnings is not.

There are as many as 70,000 prostitutes in the country, and more than half of them work on the street, in part because there are a lot of illegal immigrants put on corners by criminal gangs.

"Brothels are the only way to contain this scandal," said a taxi driver in Rome named Bruno. "Prostitution is the world's oldest profession so you can't get rid of it, but you can at least try and keep it out of sight."

Four in 10 teenaged Italian boys lose their virginity with prostitutes, one recent survey said.

Brothels saw their heyday under Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, when ladies of the night worked in state-run "closed houses" and even travelled to soldiers in war zones to "do their bit for Italy."

But the brothels were shut down in 1958 and priests, human-rights groups and prostitutes themselves say that little more than hypocrisy is behind the move to reopen them.

"Berlusconi says he wants to get nude women off the street, but you see more nudity on his TV network," said Carla Corso, president of the Committee for Prostitutes' Rights, who has 20 years experience in the trade.

"With the brothels, half of the money went to the state, and the rest just covered the cost of food," she said in an interview. "Who would want to do that again?"

Father Oreste Benzi, a priest who has made it his mission to save immigrant women from prostitution and sexual slavery, described brothels as "an obscene idea."

"Beneath the discreet control of the government, the pimps would be able to work in complete tranquillity … exploiting the women further," he said in an interview after meeting Mr. Berlusconi to urge him to make prostitution illegal and crack down on clients.

But most of the proposals under discussion in parliament aim to regulate the industry rather than outlaw it. A separate bill would impose severe punishment for sexual exploitation by pimps.

Parliament is expected to draft a single bill based on the proposals within the next few months.

Most lawmakers, even those from Mr. Berlusconi's centre-right alliance, say the solution lies in making it easier for women who have chosen to be prostitutes to practice their trade, be it in their own homes or in specified zones.

"Of course it's something hard to talk about in such a Catholic country," Giancarlo Pitelli of the parliamentary justice commission said, "but I think we should have a law regulating and taxing the industry by the end of the year."

Thousands of illegal immigrant prostitutes — mostly from Albania, Hungary, Nigeria, Brazil and Russia — hope lawmakers can agree on a plan before Mr. Berlusconi's government passes another law that will put the squeeze on.

The law would prevent non-EU foreigners from entering Italy without a work contract and make it easier to expel the many who have already entered, like the thousands of foreign prostitutes whose papers are often confiscated by pimps.

"With the police all over and Berlusconi trying to get us off the streets, I know I shouldn't be working," Becky, a Nigerian teenager squeezed into tight jeans, said on a recent Monday night waiting for clients in front of the American hospital. "But I have to eat and pay the rent, right?"

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Created: February 15, 2002
Last modified: July 9, 2002
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