Fighting for the rights of prostitutes was virtually unprecedented in the early 1980s in Italy. However, that did not stop Pia Covre and other Italian sex workers from organizing a protest against repressive laws targeting prostitutes.
True, there was no law that specifically outlawed the practice of street prostitution. But a law did ban the migration of prostitutes seeking to work in different cities. Ms. Covre notes wryly the similarity in the treatment of Italian prostitutes then to the current treatment of foreign prostitutes. In the early 1980s, prostitutes who were caught working in cities other than their city of residence, were arrested, sent back to their city, and were issued a three-year ban from returning to the city of violation. If the woman violated the ban, she risked arrest and a prison sentence. While Ms. Covre and the others did not succeed in their objective of decriminalising prostitution, the protest did lay down the foundation for the establishment of “Comitato per i Diritti Civili delle Prostitute” (Committee for the Civil Rights of Prostitutes).
In the past twenty years, the Committee has weathered shifting policies and politics, and tackled changing issues and trends with aplomb. In the late 1980s, HIV/AIDS was the target concern of the Committee, as the disease spread amongst heroin addicts who prostituted themselves. The Committee initiated a campaign to promote awareness and prevention among prostitutes. Meanwhile the police began their own campaign. They tried to stop street prostitution in order to curb the infection of HIV/AIDS, Ms. Covre states. Italian prostitutes then began to set up shop indoors and foreign prostitutes took over the vacated places on the streets. The number of migrant prostitutes increased dramatically. Market prices for street prostitutes dropped with the entry of the foreign prostitutes, and so Italian prostitutes either left the trade or retreated to private clubs or massage parlors.
The Committee continued its work in HIV/AIDS prevention through the TAMPEP project, sponsored by the European Commission. This campaign targeted migrant prostitutes. Since then, the Committee has been a strong advocate for the rights of migrant sex workers. Ms. Covre states that the Committee opposed the right-wing immigration policies of the mid-1990s and the backlash against the country’s most visible migrants — African street prostitutes. The Committee was the first group to propose Article 18, the current legal provision granting social protection and temporary residency permits to victims of trafficking. Today the Committee seeks to sensitize society, advocate for rights, and publicize the issues that concern prostitutes on the national and international level.
The Committee remains vigilant in its protection of the rights of prostitutes. Currently there is a proposal within the Commission of Justice to oblige prostitutes to work within doors, thereby reversing an existing ban on brothels. The Committee views the proposal as a move to rid the streets of migrant prostitutes and objects to its unequal treatment of prostitutes and clients. The proposal doles out a heavy fine to the prostitute for the first offense. A second offense will send the prostitute to prison. By contrast, a client will receive a lower fine for the first offense, and for the second offense, his vehicle will be impounded.
The Committee is not the only non-governmental organization (NGO) that objects to the proposal. Faith-based organizations, such as Caritas, also object, Ms. Covre says. NGOs that assist migrant prostitutes and victims of trafficking fear that the proposal to remove them from the streets will cut off their access to the women. The Committee and other allied NGOs seek an audience with the Commission of Justice to discuss their concerns about the proposal.
Prostitution still has a long way to go before it reaches the level of recognition as legitimate work. “Now it’s considered a condition of life,” Ms. Covre explains. Prostitution is considered as a “hobby, or a way to survive, temporary and informal,” not as a profession. Ms. Covre stresses that the objective of the Committee is to decriminalize prostitution, not regularize it. Regularization brings “more obligations, but less rights,” she says. The state would impose more conditions and restrictions on the work, but the benefits would be limited. Despite the disadvantages, the Committee would be in favor of regularization, Ms. Covre states, if migrant prostitutes were included in the regularization. The legitimization of prostitution as employment would allow foreign women to apply for work visas as sex workers.
Posted By Julie Lee
Posted Aug 1st, 2003