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Most Kenyans were taken aback with a report that prostitution would be legalized in Kenya. There was a huge outcry, saying that it would greatly contribute to the moral decadence of society and that our girls would be given a bad example and would no longer have the morale to attend school.  However, there were a few of those who felt that prostitution was going on albeit illegally in Kenya, and it indeed had a huge patronage which included the cream of the society; lawyers, politicians, ministers and so forth.  With that in mind reasons were pushed forward why it should be legalized, even going so far as to quote the Netherlands as a country which has controlled prostitution and has had a measure of “success.” Obviously, outsiders have little knowledge about how the country, most especially the city of Amsterdam is grappling with the issue a decade since it was legalized.


While prostitution is considered the world’s oldest profession; in most nations it is shunned and not permitted. In Holland, it is a different matter; prostitution is considered liberal having been legalized in 2000. With every pursuit of freedom and liberalism however come bondage, crime and the issue of human trafficking. Prostitution has a queer face in Amsterdam.  There are the prostitutes of the Red-Light District, the ones who are licensed to do what they do; the ones who are visible as they stand under red neon lights, in skimpy lingerie behind windows like live mannequins on display. What is not known is exactly how many of them are there by their own “free” choice and volition.


Jaap van der Wijk has lived and worked in the Red Light District for many years. In his experience as a probation officer with the Ministry of Justice, he says that, “It is safe to say that most of these women became prostitutes because they needed the money, either to survive or to maintain or pursue a certain lifestyle.” He continues to say that, “Most prostitutes came from broken homes with a poor social background, and most of them grew up in institutional/correctional facilities.” But he admits that “Not every prostitute I know spent her childhood in an institution, but I have never met a prostitute who had a happy childhood, and if they spent their childhood with their parents, it was either too many rules or a complete lack of rules that made them feel unloved.” He adds that, “At least 30% of the prostitutes I talked with, were sexually abused in their childhood, usually by a relative, or men they thought they could trust, like a neighbour, or a friend of the family.” Nonetheless, this may not necessarily be the profile that fits all the prostitutes found in the Red-Light District or Amsterdam in general. For the most part, their stories are about seeking greener pastures, being trafficked and finding themselves sold into sex slavery.

Strolling in the Red-Light District, I am aware of a sense of security. Security guards act as a buffer to the sex industry here, and the prostitutes are protected by the police. It is not difficult to bump into policemen who patrol the area in pairs every few hours and on a daily basis. The safety however, seems like a mirage; for in the undercurrents, criminal activity and human trafficking is very present.


Amsterdam Councillor Karina Schaapman Content, herself a former prostitute is quoted by Radio Netherlands as saying, “There are people who are really proud of the Red Light district as a tourist attraction. It’s supposed to be such a wonderful, cheery place that shows just what a free city we are. But I think it’s a cesspit. There’s a lot of serious criminality. There is a lot of exploitation of women and a lot of social distress. That’s nothing to be proud of.” A former trafficking victim from the Czech Republic (name withheld) testifies that, “These people put me in the window and told me what I had to say, how much money I have to ask, how much money I have to pay every day.  If I don’t do it they will just kill me or my daughter.  I wouldn’t talk to anybody about the situation and these people tell me that they were watching me every day.  And it’s true because I was working in a window upstairs and downstairs are walking men every day and every night so he (pimp) could tell how many men go upstairs so I can’t get some money for me, ever.  He knows everything and I was working like this for almost a year.  The clients, men, police, lawyers, everything and you don’t get help from these people.  You don’t have to tell these people because they know and some of these people have been in touch with my boss, my pimp…”


The legalization of prostitution has had a counter effect, as officials at Amsterdam’s City Council now discover. The ten-year period since prostitution was legalized, has concurrently been the period that the European Union (EU) enlargement has taken place. As a consequence there has been free movement across borders, and the high unemployment figures in Eastern Europe means that many women looking for greener pastures fall into the hands of traffickers. 


In countries such as Moldovia, Hungary or even Russia, job advertisements for dancers and waitresses turn out to be traffickers manipulating them into prostitution.  When these women cross over, they find themselves sold into sex slavery to pimps or lover boys who enslave and house them, forcing them to pay “debts” by working overtime as prostitutes.  It would take singular bravado for a young woman to break out and begin to tell their story.


The 1012 project, launched by the Amsterdam municipal council about three years ago and named after the red light district's postcode, has been shutting down brothels and other businesses conducive to crimes while bringing in fashion designers, fancy restaurants and art shops.  Lodewijk Asscher, deputy mayor of Amsterdam is determined to further advance the on-going renovation project aimed at discouraging crimes and upgrading tourism in the city’s well-known red light district.  More than 100 brothels have been closed so far, midway towards the city council’s goal of reducing its’ number by 40 percent.  For sex workers who want to quit, the city council also has a special programme with an annual budget of 500,000 euros to help them start a new life, but it is proving to be a difficult task as most sex workers working in the district come from outside the Netherlands and often travel across Europe. 


Toos Hemskerk from Not For Sale, Amsterdam feels that investing in business in Eastern Europe is the key to creating new futures.  She shares why, “Here any woman from Romania and Bulgaria can work as a self-employed prostitute, but due to visa restrictions, cannot work in other industries. Their options are limited.  Stay in prostitution, or go home and face unemployment. The creation of new jobs will give hope to those who otherwise feel hopeless.”  According to the city council, the 1012 project will last for 10 or 15 years. In the meantime, a new law on prostitution is widely expected to be passed as early as this summer, under which the minimum eligible age for prostitution will be raised from 18 to 21.


In a rare interview, Metje Blaak, herself a former prostitute and heading the information centre, The Red Thread bemoans the lot of prostitution in these current times; complaining that there are indeed big problems with the government. “There are too many rules, I feel that there is coming a time when it will be illegal to solicit a prostitute, we are heading in that direction,” she says when I ask her about the challenges with the Amsterdam City Council. “Legislation was a great idea for the girls, they are free to work, but there are challenges with the rules, there are too many rules; rules about registration, about taxes. There is a lot of regulation and the girls are going out of business.”  While The Red Thread is very prominent in Amsterdam’s Red Light District; acting as an information centre with a mission that includes “empowering sex workers by helping them to inform, identify, investigate, advise and connect,” you have organizations at the opposite end of the spectrum that acts as enabling mechanisms for those who want to escape the clutches of prostitution.  Organizations like The Scarlet Cord, Not for Sale and CoMensha work closely with prostitutes revealing human trafficking cases and enabling the women flee from that lifestyle, in essence giving them other options; room to recover and rehabilitate to normalcy.


* Caroline Achieng Otieno has a post-graduate degree in International Law - Human Rights specialization, and can be contacted at

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