Prostitution in Turkey is punishable by two months to four years imprisonment. Brothels are legal and licensed under health laws dealing with sexually transmitted infections. Women need to be registered and acquire an ID card stating the dates of their health checks. It is compulsory for the women to be subjected to regular health checks for sexually transmitted diseases. The police are allowed to check whether the women have been examined properly, but there are no checks on the sex buyers. According to its Health Ministry, Turkey currently has 3,000 licensed women, who work in the 56 state-run brothels. Unlicensed women in prostitution number 100,000 - more than 30 times as many - about half of whom are foreign.
Turkey is one of the top destination countries for women trafficked into prostitution, coming mainly from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Romania, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Bulgaria, and Indonesia.
Being in Turkey and hearing about the prostitution laws made me recall one of my feminist heroes, the abolitionist Josephine Butler.
Born in 1828 into an upper-middle class, liberal family in Northumberland, having learned of the horrors of the slave trade from her parents, Butler became appalled at how women in prostitution were treated. She was also disgusted at the way servant girls were often sexually exploited by the men they worked for, and then left destitute when they got pregnant.
Having helped prostituted women on the streets and in workhouses, Butler began to take those most desperate into her home, eventually raising enough money to establish her own, non-sectarian, "house of rest". Considering prostitution as sexual abuse by men, she wrote: "The degradation of these poor unhappy women is not degradation for them alone; it is a blow to the dignity of every virtuous woman too, it is dishonour done to me, it is the shaming of every woman in every country of the world."
The laws regulating prostitution - then legal - were nothing short of barbaric. The Contagious Diseases Act, passed in 1864, was intended to stop the spread of syphilis in the armed forces. Under these laws, any woman in designated military towns could be forcibly inspected for venereal disease. It was decided that men should not be examined because they would resist. Women believed to be prostitutes could be reported to the authorities, and those found to be infected could be imprisoned for three months in a secure hospital. There were instances of such women, many of whom were not prostitutes, being subsequently forced into the sex trade.
Butler led a campaign to repeal the Act. The law was repealed in 1886. Turkey could do with its own Josephine Butler.
Yesterday I was interviewing local men and women around and about in Fethiye, asking about their knowledge about and opinions of the Turkish sex trade. Today I am meeting some feminist activists, and a British born journalist who has lived here for many years, who has a mass of information about the industry, as well as some great contacts. Tomorrow I will be visiting a project on the beach that raises money to help the victims of male violence. More anon.