With her painted face and red-tipped wig, the Ivoirian woman who uses the name Kelly seems out-of-place in the picturesque Umbrian landscape.
According to local officials, however, she is one of over hundred prostitutes working local roads and offering their services for as little as 25 Euros, or about $30, usually to passing motorists.
All over Western Europe, impoverished women from the eastern half of the Continent and increasingly from sub-Saharan Africa, are the visible edge of a network of people traffickers who lure the women west with false promises of money and real jobs.
In Perugia, an ancient university town of only about 150,000 inhabitants, officials are using a variety of means to try to clamp down on prostitution, in part because of concern for the damage to the area’s traditional image. So many Nigerian girls recently lined the approach road to the 13th-century castle of Antognolla, said Antonietta Confalonieri, a local attorney, that investors interested in turning it into a luxury hotel took fright.
Historically a country of emigrants, Italy has little legislation to deal with waves of newcomers. A law passed in 2003 stipulates that anyone without papers can be repatriated, which has driven many prostitutes underground.
In Perugia, barriers were erected along the road leading to Antognolla Castle, about 15 kilometers from the town, to make stops difficult for potential clients. The town has also dug deep into the law books, resurrecting what was long considered an obsolete law that provides a penalty of up to 20 years in prison for “reducing anyone to a state of slavery.”
Yet Perugia says it also wants to help women like Kelly, and not simply repatriate them to homelands where they may face prison time. Officials emphasize that they are driven by practicality, not piety. “We are not on a moral crusade against legal private prostitution,” said Wladimiro Bocali,” who heads Perugia’s program of “political and social cohesion. It is the sexual exploitation, sexual enslavement, trafficking and victimization of women and underage girls that is absolutely unacceptable.” Part of his mission, he said, is also educational. We are trying to “teach the community that using the services of trafficked or underage girls constitutes collusion in a serious crime.”
There are an estimated 25,000 foreign prostitutes in Italy. Passed on for a fee from one group of traffickers to the next, their documents confiscated, the women have to buy back their freedom according to Stefania Alunni, a social worker in Perugia. Among the social services the town offers are also safe houses, and half-way houses, and women are offered psychiatric counseling, Italian language lessons and the use of city education facilities to learn computer science or economics. One former prostitute works in a bar and attends Perugia’s University for Foreigners. Women who become witnesses against their handlers are granted immunity, legal assistance and police protection.
Antonella Duchini, a magistrate, pointed out that not all the women involved were from the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. While some are illiterate, there are others with university degrees. But unable to get jobs that pay enough to live on they go in good faith to “travel agencies” that serve as fronts for traffickers. Kelly, who speaks three languages and said she was trained as a lawyer, spoke over lunch not of her work as a street prostitute, but of Kofi Annan and the evils of colonialism. “The work is really not as bad as you think,” she said. “It’s a question of detachment and control. Besides, I can make much more here than in an African courthouse.”
Published in the New York Times, May 25, 2004