At the national level

Cyprus - EWL Members challenge the media framing of the debate on prostitution

[MIGS - Niscosia, 08 May 2012] The emerging debate in Cyprus following the recent arrest of prostitutes in Athens that were found to be HIV positive on charges of threatening public health, and the disclosure of their photographs and other personal details, brings to the fore shocking realities in relation to women in prostitution.

The Cyprus media did not miss the opportunity to cover the story, but did so by framing the issue solely in terms of public health with the intent to protect ‘clients’ of prostitution services and their families / partners while demonizing women in prostitution as a threat to "respectable" society. Furthermore, the Cyprus Health Minister’s statements in a mid-afternoon television broadcast (dated 05.02.2012) left civil society dumbfounded, as the issue was addressed with a complete lack of sensitivity for the human rights of women that are socially and economically vulnerable, and a lack of gender perspective – ignoring even their most basic sexual and reproductive health and rights.

The Minister of Health went as far as making a public admission that women in prostitution are migrants from third countries and victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation by stating that "upon arrival to Cyprus all migrants go through medical testing, and [...] there is no evidence that incidents of HIV/AIDS have increased [...] Some women have visited specific health centres where they are taken by those that promote them.”

The above raises a number of serious questions:

Whether the issue, both in Cyprus and in Greece, has been handled with the appropriate ethical sensitivity and with due consideration to the protection of the basic human rights and dignity of women?
If the whole debate regarding the medical testing of women in prostitution is in the interests of protecting public health, then why is the responsibility of the ‘client’ (and in the case of Greece the disclosure of their personal details) absent from public discourse? Are the ‘clients’ who choose to buy prostitution services and who do so without the use of appropriate protection not a public health risk since they may also infect their partners/spouses and other unsuspecting women they are likely have sexual relations with?

Society can no longer deceive itself with regard to the realities of the system of prostitution. This is not about ‘paid love’ (agoraio erota) – prostitution and the sex industry should not be romanticized. The term ‘ierodoules’ (sacred workers), used arbitrarily in Greek and Cypriot public dialogue, makes a mockery of women that are often forced into the system of prostitution. These women are completely unprotected, many are victims of violence and most likely do not dictate the terms of their ‘transactions’, including whether or not to use adequate protection from STDs. The public discourse should not only revolve around public health, but about the system of prostitution itself and about the assignment of responsibilities wherever they are due. This highly patriarchal and sexist discourse stigmatizes already marginalized groups of women and promotes gender inequality, normalizing the ‘right’ of men to buy women and girls.

We should also not ignore the widespread phenomenon of trafficking and sexual exploitation by criminal networks that generate massive profits. This extreme form of violence, affecting mostly women and girls, is a gross violation of basic human rights and dignity which clients of prostitution and sexual services feed and perpetuate. As stated by the General Secretariat for Gender Equality in Greece, "Rather than focusing on the responsibility of the ‘client’ towards society as a whole, responsibility is placed only on the women themselves that are forced into prostitution”.

Both policy makers and the media should consider whether in our discussion of “prostitution and sexual services" we should turn our attention to those that feed the demand for such ’services’. We should also consider that both the Council of Europe Convention on Combating Trafficking in Persons (adopted), and the new European Commission Directive (to be transposed) clearly indicate that states must take measures to discourage demand for services from victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. "There is also the option for Member States to consider criminalizing demand for such services, a measure which has been adopted in a number of EU countries," says Ms. Josie Christodoulou, Policy Coordinator at the of Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies.

Society must reconsider: Who is the victim and who the perpetrator?

We demand that Cyprus Government take responsibility for women victims of sexual exploitation, and specifically for:

The initiation of a public dialogue on the criminalization of demand for sexual services and other measures to discourage such demand;
Access to comprehensive exit programmes for women in prostitution in combination with appropriate psychosocial support as well as programmes for their integration in the labour market;
Access to high quality, free and confidential sexual and reproductive health services to women in prostitution without discrimination.

Source: Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies Press Release in Greek and English:

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