BEIRUT: “Some nights he wouldn’t let me sleep,” Maya, 25, said of her ex-husband.
“He loved the money [from her prostitution] and wanted me to work all the time,” she said before taking a drag on her cigarette. Maya, not her real name, ran away to Lebanon from Syria with her ex-husband after falling out with her stepmother at the age of 17. As a result of financial pressures and encouragement from her then-husband, she quickly started working as a prostitute.
She worked for six years with a number of bosses or pimps – male and female – and was even based in Dubai briefly.
She only quit when she met her current husband, who helped her leave her ex and get out of the field. She’s now eight months pregnant with their child and works as a social worker, helping teach women about AIDs and drugs.
“I never got arrested or anything so I was able to pick my life back up again,” Maya said.
But many women aren’t so lucky, and Maya said that today’s sex workers in Lebanon were in a much worse situation than previously. The Syrian civil war has displaced more than half a million women into the country, more than 70,000 of whom are between 12 and 18. As a result, prostitutes are getting younger and earning less money.
“Some girls will only get LL10,000 to go home with someone,” she said.
Prostitution is currently illegal in Lebanon, but as in many countries across the world, it is still common, and there is a growing debate over whether to legalize the trade so it can be regulated – as was the case in Lebanon before the Civil War – or try to abolish it completely.
At the moment, those caught prostituting themselves can face 15 days in prison and a fine.
The only exception to this rule is the “super nightclubs” found in Jounieh, where women are brought in from abroad on artists’ visas to work as “dancers.” Upon arrival, General Security gives them STD and pregnancy tests. Once they are working, men are generally obliged to follow a process which involves buying a few bottles of champagne and then arranging to take them out somewhere the next day to have sex.
Women hired are often deceived about the work they will be doing and locked in their hotel room when they’re not working at the club.
Outside of this semi-official system, there is no regulation or health testing for prostitutes at all.
All advocacy groups agree the situation needs to change, but the way forward is heavily contested.
On the main road that leads to the Beirut Rafik Hariri International Airport hangs a large billboard emblazoned with the words: “You can’t buy love.”
The advert is part of a recent campaign by KAFA, a Lebanese NGO that advocates for women’s rights, and aims to change the way people view prostitution and shift the responsibility from the women selling their bodies to the men buying them, known as “johns.”
KAFA says prostitution is violence against women, and argues that most do not enter it willingly, but are pushed into it by a range of factors.
“Choice is considered to be the core issue,” said Ghada Jabbour, head of KAFA’s Trafficking and Exploitation Unit. “We think that choice is very much not free in the issue of prostitution.”
KAFA would like to see the industry abolished, and support systems established. Its stance is largely influenced by the laws on prostitution in Sweden, where all forms of prostitution have been banned since 1999 and buying sex is criminalized. The Swedish government simultaneously set up drug rehabilitation, job retraining and exit programs for prostitutes.
A review of the model has showed some positive outcomes; street prostitution has been drastically reduced and human trafficking – one of the biggest problems associated with the industry – is down to approximately 200-500 people a year. By comparison, neighboring Finland sees 15,000-17,000 people trafficked every year.
However, reports also indicate that prostitution conducted online and in-house has risen, and while the number of clients has decreased, those that remain tend to be more violent.
Women risk losing all their clients if they report the abuse to the police.
When asked about whether such a system would work in Lebanon, Maya was skeptical.
“There are some women that can’t do anything else [besides sex work]. They can’t read or write. Where are they going to get their money from?” she said.
While Dar al-Amal, a women’s rights NGO founded in 1975 that works on the issue, doesn’t have a firm stance on the prostitution policy debate, they too insist imprisoning women is not the answer.
“We work in prisons,” said social worker Hiba Abu Chacra. “So we know when they put a sex worker in prison, they come out just to work again. It’s not the right solution.”
For Maya, the optimum solution would involve state-run brothels where each girl had a license to practice and was protected under the law in a way that would allow women to take better care of themselves.
“[Currently] women are more afraid of getting arrested than they are of catching diseases,” Maya said.
The other option is total decriminalization. This was the case in Lebanon prior to 1975, and led to a number of brothels in the Zaituneh area of Beirut.
In assessing the option, most look to the Netherlands, which made the practice legal just a year after Sweden took steps to abolish it completely.
A Dutch government-funded report found just 8 percent of prostitutes surveyed said they had entered the industry due to coercion, and found virtually no signs of underage prostitution.
But there were also a wide range of problems. Police reports indicate women are still exposed to extreme levels of violence and a U.N. study found the Netherlands was a top destination for human traffickers, with migrants accounting for around 60 percent of those working in the sex industry.
Although not totally enthusiastic, Abu Chacra agreed decriminalization would have some benefits: “If there is any legislation to legalize prostitution there must be some standards: health care, protection of women, all women under 18 being banned [from the industry].”
For KAFA’s Jabbour, returning to the old law would bring new problems with it: “It put a lot of constraints on [prostitutes’] freedom of movement. A little bit like the artist visa, she’s not allowed to go outside the brothel, except for during specific hours.”
One thing all parties agree on is that the factors that often push people into prostitution – poverty, drugs and abuse – need to be addressed to really protect women.
Maya still thinks about going back sometimes but for the most part is happy it’s behind her.
“Now I’m like any woman. I cook, I clean,” she said. “When I put my head on my pillow, I’m relaxed and I’m not scared of anything.”
You can contact Dar al-Amal on 01-483-508 if there are women you wish to refer or to make a donation.