Bulgaria Moves Away from Legalizing Prostitution

Friday, October 5, 2007

by Nicholas Kulish, International Herald Tribune, October 5 2007

SOFIA — The Bulgarian government Friday abruptly reversed its longstanding move toward legalizing prostitution, part of a broader trend in Europe to make prostitution illegal as a way to combat sexual trafficking.

Prostitution exists in a legal gray area in Bulgaria, a small but key country for the European sex trade. Bulgarian women are sent abroad by the thousands each year to work as prostitutes, usually against their will.

"We should be very definite in saying that selling flesh is a crime," Interior Minister Rumen Petkov said Friday at a forum on human trafficking that was also attended by the president, the minister of justice and the U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria.

Bulgaria is only the latest European country to shift its approach to prostitution. Finland changed its law last year and Norway is on the verge of following suit. Even in Amsterdam, the city government has proposed shutting down more than a quarter of the famed storefront brothels in the city's red-light district. And in the Czech Republic and the three Baltic republics, pushes for legalization similar to the Bulgarian one have also been turned back.

"It has turned around," said Gunilla Ekberg, formerly special adviser to the Swedish government on the subject and now co-executive director of the nonprofit Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International. "There's a recognition, both politically and in civil society, that Bulgaria is not going to be a haven for prostitution."

The fight against legal prostitution has been led by an unusual coalition of allies, including the Bush administration, feminist groups and the Swedish government. The Swedish model, which punishes the customers rather than the prostitutes themselves, has been successful in Europe precisely because it targets the demand for paid sex without criminalizing those involved, mostly women, who proponents of such measures describe as the real victims.

While increasingly appealing, the Swedish model is by no means the only one. The Hungarian government announced in September that it would give entrepreneur permits to prostitutes to help bring them into the legal economy - and to collect tax revenues.

The most common arguments against the Swedish model are those that have long been used in the legalization debate, that prostitution is all but impossible to eradicate and it is better with some measure of control.

Even if it is not a crime for the women, they would be forced to hide to protect their clients.

"If they make the prostitution illegal, it will go much more underground, more inaccessible for services and help, for police and for protection," said Nadia Kozhouharova, a psychotherapist who works with abused women, including victims of trafficking, through the local group Animus Association.

On the streets of Sofia, several women engaged in prostitution said that they took advantage of condom distribution and free health checkups presently available.

A 23-year-old woman working as a prostitute, who declined to give her name to keep her family from finding out about her occupation, said that she preferred working on the street because she could make a judgment about whether to go with a client.

"If you're in a club you go to addresses and you don't know what will happen," she said through an interpreter, referring to making house calls out of a brothel. "They may beat you. That has happened."

The young woman worked a stretch of Hristo Botev Boulevard populated with a mix of women and transvestite prostitutes. She wore fishnet stockings and a denim jacket and snapped her bubble gum in between drags of her cigarette.

Asked how she ended up in prostitution, she replied simply, "No one has become a prostitute for a good reason," refusing to elaborate.

The anti-prostitution movement has received significant support due to the linkage between prostitution and human trafficking, an increasingly high-profile issue. According to the U.S. State Department, an estimated 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, and four out of five are women. In December 2002, the United States adopted a policy against legalized prostitution, due to the link to trafficking.

"Legalizing prostitution creates a legitimate business front for the most brutal exploitation of women," said Mark Lagon, the U.S. ambassador-at-large to combat human trafficking. "It is the demand that draws a flow of people and a dark underground sex trafficking industry."

Bulgarian officials said that the flows of trafficked women from their country were directed chiefly to places in Western Europe like Germany and the Netherlands where prostitution is legal.

"The traffickers are very practical businessmen. They are going to the countries where the law is not suppressing them," said Antoaneta Vassileva, executive secretary of the national anti-trafficking commission here.

The Bulgarian and Norwegian police together broke up an alleged human trafficking ring in Oslo in May, where 18 Bulgarian women were held in a series of apartments around the city and forced to work as prostitutes.

The Norwegian government is working on a law based on the Swedish model that would punish people who buy sex. A government official there said it should be in effect by spring 2008.

The Swedish law went into effect on Jan. 1, 1999, prohibiting the purchase of sexual services. While the law allows for jail sentences, so far customers have only been punished with fines.

Much of the deterrent effect, proponents say, comes from the repercussions of public outing as a sex buyer. This, in turn, makes Sweden less appealing for traffickers, officials say.

Kajsa Wahlberg, a detective inspector with the Swedish National Criminal Police, said that when eavesdropping on telephone calls by traffickers and pimps, "they complain that Sweden is a bad market."

She added: "Buyers are afraid to get caught, you have to have an apartment. You have to move the women around."

She said that compared with Oslo or Copenhagen, where brothels might have 50 women in each, the ones broken up in Sweden had just two or three girls usually.

Advocates in Bulgaria hope to emulate Sweden's success. One of the leading voices here - and an organizer of the seminar - is Nadezhda Mihaylova, a member of Parliament and former foreign minister. She said the debate in this country of 7.2 million was still affected by the echoes of the communist era.

Under Communism, the state had control over almost all aspects of life. Afterwards, she said, the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction. "A lot of people say the state should not interfere with personal choice," she said.