Last Wednesday the University of Malta Debating Union brought to us their first debate of this scholastic year, in the form of what turned out to be a fiery discussion on the matter of prostitution, and whether it should be legalised or not. Moderated by Alexander Hili, the discussion panel was made up of the Parliamentary Secretary for Reforms, Citizenship and Simplification of Administrative Processes, MP Julia Farrugia Portelli; the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, MP Claudette Buttigieg; Dr. Anna Borg from the Centre of Labour Studies and the Malta Confederation of Women’s Organisations; and University student JC Fenech.
The crux of the whole debate was based around the problem of prostitution. There have been recent calls to bring some form of regularisation to prostitution, and this has given rise to huge debate, which transferred into this event, both through the panelists and also the audience who brought up several different opinions during the allocated question time.
“The Prostitute is the Victim here…” – MP Julia Farrugia Portelli
What became increasingly evident was that both the panelists and the room were totally divided on this issue. MP Julia Farrugia Portelli opened the debate by stating her view, and in turn that of the government she was representing – that there should be some form of decriminalisation when it comes to this matter, and that we need to understand what is causing people to go into sex work in the first place. She stated that the prostitute is the victim here, and that by parading them in court as we do today – it only suceeds in victimising them further. She promised that reforms in this matter were in the pipeline, but didn’t elaborate on the nature of these.
MP Claudette Buttigieg followed saying that we need to know what we are talking about when approaching such a subject. Prostitution, she said, centres mostly around women being bought out and dominated by men. “If that is not an insult to anybody who believes in gender equality then I don’t know what is.” she went on. She lamented on how any changes that occur cannot only happen in terms of legislation; but there must also be a culture change. Closing off her introduction, she said that such a matter is something radical for our society and has to be taken on in an open and proper manner.
“Will pimps be made into businessmen? Will brothels start popping up left, right and centre?” – Dr. Anna Borg
Dr. Anna Borg was altogether much more critical of any form of decriminalisation. Whilst she agreed that the blame shouldn’t be laid at the feet of the women in this situation, she was much more vociferous on the matter of decriminalisation. She asked several questions as to what this will lead to – Will pimps be made into businessmen? Will brothels start popping up left, right and centre? She continued by saying that by legalising prostitution, we are “increasing demand, meaning that there needs to be an increase in supply as well.” She continued to ask, “Who’s children will we sacrifice for this? If in a normal environment we don’t accept rape and illegal touching, then why should we accept it if payment is involved?” Moving along the same lines, she closed on the notion that decriminalisation and hence legalisation would only lead to there being more victims.
“Upon arrival her passport was taken and she was told that she had to work as a sex worker and she would get 5 euros from every 25 that she makes.” – MP Julia Farrugia Portelli
The discussion moved on to encapsulate a number of other related subjects, including that of human trafficking. MP Farrugia Portelli indeed said that this matter must be discussed, and brought up an example of a Chinese woman who “was told she was coming to work at a massage parlour, but upon arrival her passport was taken and she was told that she had to work as a sex worker and she would get 5 euros from every 25 that she makes.” She brought up several ideas that would look to protect those who wished to leave the trade; such as the model used in France which provides an educational programme to prostitutes to push them towards finding proper work and an identity protection system and made reference to the Whistleblower Act brought in by the current government which would protect those who wished to go to the police with information.
“The pimp used to force her to work even when she was pregnant and her water broke with a client” – MP Claudette Buttigieg
MP Buttigieg indeed agreed with MP Farrugia Portelli that more protection was needed for prostitutes, as this is “very dangerous work.” She too put forward a case example taken from a Masters thesis by a University of Malta student about a woman “whose pimp was her cousin. She has 6 children, 2 with him, and the pimp used to force her to work even when she was pregnant [at which point Dr. Borg interjected saying that clients would pay more if the prostitute was pregnant] and that her water broke with a client. The pimp then refused to take her to hospital, leaving the client to do so. It was thankful that the hospital held her there for a few days, as otherwise the pimp would have dragged her back to work the very next day.” “This is the reality”, she concluded. She also agreed with MP Farrugia Portelli about protection being needed in the form of the Whistleblower Act, but lamented on how “the last person who used this act had to disappear from the country”, in obvious reference to the Russian lady who brought forward corruption allegations against Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, First Lady Michelle Muscat and other high ranking figures in the Maltese government.
What certainly came forward from debate was a lot of discussion, as even the audience waded into the fore with several members from a variety of different backgrounds making their opinion heard. Many times indeed, these opinions clashed.
Several different notions and ideas were brought up by members of the audience as well. These opinions ranged across all levels of opinion, with one audience member nothing that “the pimps are the root of all the evil” and that prostitutes should even be given a warrant to work and hence be eligible for work-related benefits, whilst another member saw legalisation as helping only businessmen and not the women involved. Other matters such as the different faces of prostitution, education, safety nets and the morality behind this whole debate were brought up by different audience members, creating a lively discussion that stretched on even after the debate had concluded.
This debate did not, by any means reach a coherent conclusion. Even MP Farrugia Portelli herself said that just because there was this discussion, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the government is moving forward to having brothels everywhere, as Dr. Borg and another audence member mentioned. However she said that feedback was needed to have a clear picture, before closing off by saying that only through the points that unite the people present will a solution be found. Indeed as with any dilemma – it is the uniting factors that is the best place to start.
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