The human rights agenda in Turkey is crowded with unresolved issues: language, culture, religion, women’s rights and many others. Most of the issues find their way onto the international agenda as well, either as part of accessionary talks with the European Union or within the always-busy European Court of Human Rights.
Our story in Monday’s Daily News by reporter Sevda Yüzbaşıoğlu showed with disturbing detail the exploitation present in Turkey’s "legal" brothel sector, headquartered on Istanbul’s Zürafa Street in the district of Karaköy.
Yes, the women who work in the 18 municipally sanctioned brothels are registered employees. They pay taxes and earn entitlement to a pension under Turkey’s social security system. Twice a week, they receive health inspections. This sounds marginally more humane than life in the same profession on the street. But we remain unconvinced.
The chilling statistic is this one: Within the 18 brothels work some 120 professional prostitutes. Each day, they collectively share a clientele of 5,000 men. Meanwhile, some 6,000 women are queued in an Interior Ministry registration system to gain employment on Zürafa Street.
This is a vivid portrait of exploitation. As the European Conference on Sex Work has argued, these are the kinds of conditions that trap women in something approaching servitude. Health services, whose efficacy is suspect, are driven by assumptions on the health of male clients, not the female workers. There is little to no evidence that these women are accorded a true choice. Their destinies are controlled by organized crime; many are bought and sold under circumstances scarcely different than slavery.
All societies approach the issue differently, and Europe is a patchwork of different rules and regulations. But the guiding contemporary principles are decriminalization, access to health care and guarantee of rights comparable to those of other workers. Mandatory registration is a discriminatory practice that has been abolished in most of Europe.
Turkey must find its own solutions, and we recommend no specific model. One initiative we support, however, is an effort we reported on last year for sex workers to be allowed their own trade union.
"There is a social consensus that if you are a sex worker, then you deserve to be exposed to violence, harassment and discrimination," one activist told us. A union will hardly end all abuses. But it would serve as an effective forum to bring to light so much of what has been hidden in the shadows.
Such an effort could serve as an effective platform for the ultimate construction of reasonable laws, policies and protections. No group should be excluded from the pursuit of universal human rights.