PRAGUE, Czech Republic (WOMENSENEWS)--The border where Germany and the Czech Republic meet hosts kilometer after kilometer of prostitutes. Women stand on the asphalt of the highway that connects the two countries and wave at passers-by in front of local brothels and bars with names like "The Alibi."
Among the women, however, there are also girls.
The issue of child prostitution may be new to this central European country, but prostitution here has led to the German and Czech border being known as the "biggest brothel in Europe," and the capital city Prague dubbed the "Bangkok of Europe." As the May deadline for the Czech Republic's entry to the European Union approaches, the issue of child prostitution has moved to the forefront and heated up tensions between the two countries.
A report by German researchers released last year says sexual tourists, many from Germany, are coming to the border for girls, aged 12 to 15. The report also says that some of these girls are the children of working prostitutes in the region.
Czech Interior Ministry spokesperson Marie Masarikova says that while child prostitution does happen in the country, the ministry "didn't find proof of child prostitution being conducted in the country in such a massive scale."
Though Czech government officials say that both countries should work together to fight child prostitution, they say the problem is not as large as Germany contends.
But some child-advocacy workers say the Czech government's approach to the problem has been to look the other way. "It's like ostrich politics," said Laszlo Sumegh. "Put your head in the sand and you don't see anything." Sumegh is the founder of Prague-based organization Dum Sance, or Chance House, and has worked with young male prostitutes in the city since 1995.
Girls Sold for the Weekend
Social scientist Cathrin Schauer and German European Parliament member Elisabeth Schroedter have led the charge against child prostitution in the Czech Republic taking the issue all the way to the European Union
Schauer is a representative of the German social-service agency Karo, which receives European Union and local government funds and researched the West Bohemian Czech region of Cheb and As, towns on the border of Germany. Schauer's research on the region's child prostitutes spanned from October 1998 to June 2003. During this time, she says she conducted more than 200 interviews with child and adult prostitutes, police and sexual tourists.
In a report published October 28, with the publishing support of the German committee of the United Nations Children's Fund, Schauer found that German sex tourists are not only coming for women in the Czech Republic, but also for girls and boys.
Her report estimated that at least 500 children solicited sex during the years of her investigation. Though the group did not keep exact numbers, it found that sexual tourists preferred girls between the ages of 12 and 15. The age of consent in the Czech Republic is 15.
Ludmilla Irmscher, part of the Karo research team based in Cheb, says the interviews with child prostitutes uncovered that children were purchased between $632 and $2,531 for weekends. Money, however, was not always the incentive. Sometimes candy was offered in return for sexual favors, Irmscher says.
When interviewing prostitutes, researchers found that many of the children had mothers who also worked as prostitutes, but that it was not always the case.
"The Czech government is underestimating this problem," Schroedter said from her office in Brussels. "It is a children's issue and it is a women's issue--and the two cannot be separated."
Czechs, she said, "seem not to see that the children and women are victims of slave trade."
Czech officials refuted the claims of the Karo report, which was published three weeks after the police force's largest national brothel raid. Petr Vorlicek, the Czech Interior ministry's spokesperson, told Women's eNews he would not respond to such statements, saying "the Interior Ministry does not have the German criticisms of the Czech Republic at its disposal and we will not react to the questions concerning them."
Czech Republic, Germany Cooperate
However, when the Karo report was released, Czech government officials like Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla rejected the allegations. Interior Minister Stanislav Gross even accused Schauer and colleagues of knowing that children were being bought for sex and said that the Karo team should be sued for not reporting these crimes.
A month after his initially hostile response to the child-prostitution claims, Gross began to portray child prostitution, which he labeled "one of the most abominable crimes," in need of urgent solution.
Gross also expressed high hopes for the future cooperation with Germany, adding that he could not specify what the cooperation would entail.
"If we want to effectively map out the thing and to solve it, we cannot say in advance how we will proceed," he told the Czech news agency in December.
At the end of last year, officials from the two ministries met in Dresden, Germany, to negotiate their respective roles in setting up common investigation teams and border-wide sexual tourism prevention projects, according to the Czech ministry.
If a German citizen commits a criminal offense abroad, German law allows for those offenses to be punished by German authorities. Because someone soliciting a child for sex is difficult to catch, German police say they need Czech police to be very careful observers.
Report Reaches European Union
But Schroedter says she felt change was not happening fast enough. In February, along with Dutch European Parliament Member Joost Lagendijk, she raised the problem of child prostitution in the Czech Republic at a meeting of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in Brussels.
Then, earlier this month, the European Parliament adopted the report of the Czech Republic's preparedness to join the European Union. Taking Schroedter's lead, the European Commission noted concern "about the alleged traffic in children at the Czech-German border."
The European Commission report calls on the Czech government to support programs for victims of child prostitution, to provide protective shelters and to provide training for police and border guards to increase awareness of the issue.
Currently, both the ministry and Prague City Hall are working to pass legislation that would officially regulate prostitution, making it illegal to work without certification. The government says it wants to tax, regulate and supervise the industry. It is legal to work as a prostitute in the Czech Republic, but illegal to work as a pimp.
"The Interior Ministry is convinced that prostitution cannot be stopped entirely," Masarikova told Women's eNews in December. "At the same time, it understands that it is not possible to allow this activity in this country without limits."
In regulating prostitution in the country, Czech officials say they hope to eliminate the problem of sex trafficking. The Czech Republic is considered one of the region's transit countries. Many women are believed to be trafficked into the country, often as for the purpose of sexual enslavement, before being moved to countries further west.
Mindy Kay Bricker is a freelance journalist living in Prague, Czech Republic.
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