by Caroline Achieng Otieno
The Netherlands is a beautiful country. A typical Dutch postcard displays Friesian cows grazing in lush green fields with huge windmills looming in the background. Others are adorned with colourful tulips of the Keukenhof gardens, or Dutch folk richly dressed in their traditional garb complete with clogs, posing with large blocks of yellow cheese. The country, however, is known for another attraction: The Red Light District.
While prostitution is considered the world’s oldest profession, in most nations it is shunned and not permitted. Though prostitution in Holland was legalized in 2000, in Amsterdam it is double-faced; and with the pursuit of freedom and liberalism comes bondage, crime, and the issue of human trafficking.
On one hand you have the prostitutes of the Red-Light District, licensed to do what they do, visible under red neon lights, in skimpy lingerie like live mannequins on display. On the other hand you have invisible undocumented women, young Africans trafficked into the Netherlands and tucked away in rooms and houses in the Bijlmer, South East of Amsterdam.
Jaap van der Wijk, a probation officer with the Ministry of Justice, lived and worked in the Red Light District for many years. He blogs that, “It is safe to say that most of these women became prostitutes because they needed the money, either to survive or to maintain or pursue a certain lifestyle.” He continues, “I have never met a prostitute who had a happy childhood,” and “At least 30 percent of the prostitutes I talked with were sexually abused in their childhood, usually by a relative, or men they thought they could trust, like a neighbour, or a friend of the family.”
Nonetheless, this is not necessarily the profile that fits all the prostitutes found in the Red-Light District or Amsterdam in general. For the most part, their stories are about seeking greener pastures, being trafficked, and finding themselves sold into sex slavery.
Beulah (not her real name), from Ghana, was once happily married. Her fiancé brought her to Holland, married her, and ensured she had a resident permit. A few years into their marriage, her husband became her pimp and began arranging for her to go to the streets every night. “He used me,” she laments. “We made roughly 1000 Euros a month, but he kept all the money.” When she was arrested, her husband became busy in a new relationship. She was released after ten months and to her astonishment her husband had vanished with their child. Though she was due to get her Dutch passport in a few months, because her husband had left the country, her permission to stay was invalid and she became illegal. She felt the only way she could live on was through prostitution.
Aurelia (not her real name) is from Sierra Leone. She remembers good times and the large family she left behind. “My dad was polygamous and had three wives,” she says. Her huge family is scattered all over Holland and in other parts of Europe. Her big sister paid a lot of money for a smuggler to bring her to the Netherlands so that she could earn money by going out with men. Aurelia never had plans to do so and decided to part ways with her sister on arrival in the Netherlands.
Aurelia recounts terrible memories of the civil war in Sierra Leone, “The soldiers would rip open the bellies of pregnant women and pull the foetuses out … They would ask people whether they wanted a long sleeve or short sleeve,” in reference to the severing of limbs either at the elbows or at the wrist. She recalls the forcible circumcision she experienced as a child and despite revealing all to the immigration department, her application for asylum was rejected. Out on the streets, alone and estranged from her sister, the harsh reality set in and paradoxically she chose sex with men just to survive.
Amsterdam Councilor Karina Schaapman Content, herself a former prostitute, is quoted by Radio Netherlands as saying, “There are people who are really proud of the Red Light District as a tourist attraction. It’s supposed to be such a wonderful, cheery place that shows just what a free city we are. But I think it’s a cesspit. There’s a lot of serious criminality. There is a lot of exploitation of women and a lot of social distress. That’s nothing to be proud of.”
A former trafficking victim from the Czech Republic (name withheld) testifies that, “These people put me in the window and told me what I had to say, how much money I have to ask, how much money I have to pay every day. If I don’t do it they will just kill me or my daughter. I wouldn’t talk to anybody about the situation and these people tell me that they were watching me every day. And it’s true because I was working in a window upstairs and downstairs are walking men every day and every night so he [pimp] could tell how many men go upstairs so I can’t get some money for me, ever. He knows everything and I was working like this for almost a year. The clients - men, police, lawyers, everything and you don’t get help from these people. You don’t have to tell these people because they know and some of these people have been in touch with my boss, my pimp…”
The legalization of prostitution has had a counter effect, as officials at Amsterdam’s City Council now discover. Since prostitution was legalized, the European Union (EU) enlargement has taken place and there has been free movement across borders. With the high unemployment figures in Eastern Europe, many women looking for greener pastures fall into the hands of traffickers. In countries such as Moldova, Hungary, and Russia, job advertisements for dancers and waitresses turn out to be traffickers manipulating them into prostitution. When these women cross over, they find themselves sold into sex slavery to pimps or lover boys who enslave and house them, forcing them to pay “debts” by working overtime as prostitutes.
Toos Hemskerk from Not For Sale Amsterdam feels that investing in business in Eastern Europe is the key to creating new futures. She shares, “Here any woman from Romania and Bulgaria can work as a self-employed prostitute, but due to visa restrictions, cannot work in other industries. Their options are limited. Stay in prostitution, or go home and face unemployment. The creation of new jobs will give hope to those who otherwise feel hopeless.” Toos gives the example of a Hungarian woman, Verni, who “looked like she got it together. She had this little boy in Hungary whom she was providing for and we kind of thought she’s not working for a pimp, she’s working for herself, but how different the story was.”
She continues, “She told us she went back to Hungary and was allowed by her so-called boyfriend to stay home for a week with her little boy, and when she was there, after two days her boyfriend said, ‘We need to go back to Amsterdam.’ She resisted and said, ‘You promised me I would stay, I’m not going back’ and she refused. However, later that evening he molested her father, her brother-in-law and beat her up in front of her little son.” Verni decided to go to the police. Yet, in eastern European countries, prostitution is illegal, so the police are reluctant to handle such cases. The police discouraged her from testifying or pushing on with the case, but Verni was adamant. The man was eventually put behind bars and she could go back. However, she didn’t have an alternative once she came out of prostitution. Toos ends her statement by saying, “It is so important we move on and build alternatives in Eastern Europe.”
In a rare interview, Metje Blaak, herself a former prostitute and heading the information centre, The Red Thread (in dutch De Rode Draad), bemoans the lot of prostitution in these current times. She complains that there are indeed big problems with the government. “There are too many rules, I feel that there is coming a time when it will be illegal to solicit a prostitute, we are heading in that direction,” she says when I ask her about the challenges with the Amsterdam City Council. “Legislation was a great idea for the girls, they are free to work, but there are challenges with the rules, there are too many rules; rules about registration, about taxes. There is a lot of regulation and the girls are going out of business.”
While The Red Thread is very prominent in Amsterdam’s Red Light District – acting as an information centre with a mission that includes “empowering sex workers by helping them to inform, identify, investigate, advise and connect,” – there are organizations at the opposite end of the spectrum that act as enabling mechanisms for those who want to escape the clutches of prostitution. Organizations like The Scarlet Cord, Not for Sale, and CoMensha work closely with prostitutes revealing human trafficking cases and enabling the women to flee from that lifestyle; in essence giving them other options and room to recover and rehabilitate to normalcy.
About the author:
Caroline Achieng Otieno is a citizen of Kenya currently residing in the Netherlands. Her work experience has involved work as a Flight Operations Officer in the East and Central African region; (communicating with pilots on radio) and as well work as a Staff Writer for a regional youth magazine directed to the youth in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Uganda. Since 2008, she has been contributing articles on a monthly basis to African Bulletin, based in Eindhoven; and has writted for Helium, The Displaced African Blog and the African Center Blog. She is currently involved in human rights activism and philanthropy and has a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations (cum-laude honours); Master's studies in International Law, and a Masters in International Law with a human rights specialization. Caroline's passion is women's rights and protection of children especially in conflict zones. She is currently involved in establishing a non-governmental organization for the advancement of the girl-child in Kenya.