TEL AVIV, Israel (WOMENSENEWS)–One year ago, police officials knocked on the door of Dorit Fridman’s home and dropped off a young Russian immigrant named Natalee.
Natalee didn’t realize it then, but Fridman directs a therapeutic rehabilitation program for adolescents engaged in prostitution run by the nonprofit organization, Elem Youth in Distress in Israel. Her Tel Aviv-based program, Awake at Night, offers a supportive day center, a hot line, community outreach, medical care and close contact with mentors and professionals for youth and young adults who have sold or are selling sex.
Natalee, now 20, said she turned to prostitution after her mother died of cancer shortly after they immigrated to Israel. The dark blonde with deep blue eyes says she now has a steady boyfriend. But when she didn’t, she drank excessively and went out looking for "boyfriends," a code word for clients, program officials say.
"This is like our house. I don’t have a home," Natalee said in broken Hebrew from the colorful, spacious living room of the project’s day center as an American cigarette dangled loosely from her fingers. Natalee comes every weekday to the center to share meals, relax, watch television and talk openly with others who understand.
"I am here, but not alone," she said.
Legal in Israel, But Few Resources
In 2005, Awake at Night provided services to 95 girls, boys and transgender Jewish and Arab youth, including a dozen that were able to break away from prostitution. The practice is legal in Israel, however, being a client of a prostitute is illegal but rarely prosecuted.
Staff members are now coordinating with city officials to expand the Tel Aviv program to Jerusalem and the desert town of Be’er Sheva.
"In Israel, we began to work in a formal manner with minors engaged in prostitution only five years ago," Fridman said. "This is the only project. It’s very sad. Outside Israel, there are a lot of projects that have taken this on for many years."
Although females comprise the majority of prostitutes in Israel, they are a minority in the program largely because females are more likely to be involved with brokers or boyfriends who control their business and that makes them more difficult to reach. One way employees and volunteers try to draw females into the program is by walking the streets at night and frequenting popular night clubs, where they distribute marked lighters or other discreet information, even going undercover and pretending to be prospective clients.
Awake at Night has seen an increase of more than 20 percent in the number of program participants over the last three years, which according to an Elem spokeswoman, could reflect a similar increase regarding the number of young people engaged in prostitution.
In the city of Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv, at least 350 teens ages 13 and 14 prostitute themselves at "extremely low prices," according to a spring 2004 report made to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
Children Enter Prostitution Early
The average age a youth in Israel starts to engage in prostitution is 11 or 12, Fridman said.
"No one is registering prostitutes in general, and youth prostitution in particular," said Yitzhak Kadman, founder and executive director of the National Council for the Child. "However, according to our estimates, the numbers are growing in the last few years, and they are in the thousands, not in the hundreds."
While it is easy to identify such adolescents at the central bus station, on the beaches and in clubs, it is much more difficult to locate those that use the Internet to make contact with clients. Most child prostitutes today, Fridman said, locate clients through the Internet and through personal ads.
"There is never an exact number because some of the children study in school, live at home and they perform regular tasks," Fridman said. "They go in the morning to school, they go afterwards to parties, they live with their parents, and they also work in prostitution."
Shabtai Amedi, who works for the Jerusalem municipality with teens and young adults at risk, has talked to scores of pre-teens and teens involved in prostitution there. About five years ago, he discovered a home behind his office that was being used as a brothel for teens.
"I began to understand that there are a lot of such places in Jerusalem," said Amedi. Once advertised in newspapers as massage or escort services, brothels are now more difficult to locate.
Many Causes Behind Prostitution
Research has indicated that the top common factors of youth prostitution are previous exploitation and abuse–often sexual but also physical or emotional–and a strong sense of rejection or neglect, Fridman said. Other factors are a desire for control and independence and a desire for acceptance and love.
But Kadman of the National Council for the Child, a Jerusalem-based lobbying group, says he believes that a deteriorating economy, government cuts in social services for children and youth, and the availability of pornographic materials that seem to legitimize sex with children are significant reasons for the situation in Israel.
"There is no question that the worsening economic situation and the fact that more and more children are living under the poverty line, and are looking around and seeing their peers consuming lots of brand (names) is pushing some of the youth to an ‘easy solution’ like selling their bodies to have money or other goods," Kadman said.
It is also not surprising that pre-teens are involved in prostitution since in recent years, children can be found on the streets at a younger age and have sexual relations sooner, experts say.
"The age of maturity begins earlier," said Sharon Sionov-Arad, who manages the Youth Representation Clinic through the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
There is a need for more intervention for adolescents engaged in prostitution in Israel, Sionov-Arad said, and they are often placed in the criminal system for drug use without authorities being aware of or treating the real problem. Without aggressive intervention, they’ll either become adult prostitutes or die on the streets, whether beaten to death by clients or from a drug overdose.
Awake at Night staff members believe the answer lies in real, honest connections with people who do not want to exploit them. That connection could be with a significant other or with a family member, said Nechama Daves, who manages the program’s Day Center.
"Or they found true love," Fridman added. "Someone told them you are not a prostitute. You are a human being."
Brenda Gazzar is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. She has lived or worked stints in Spain, Egypt, Israel and Mexico and has a joint master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies and communications from the University of Texas at Austin.
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