Brothels were legal in Italy until 1959, when then minister of parliament Lina Merlin introduced legislation to close bordellos and make the ‘exploitation of prostitution' a crime. However, the widespread closure of Italy's so-called case chiuse under the Merlin Law involuntarily pushed thousands of prostitutes back onto the streets.
According to a recent study, approximately 60 percent of the estimated 100,000 prostitutes working throughout Italy sell their bodies along city streets and highways. The majority of sex workers hail from Eastern Europe, Russia and Africa, and about 20 percent are minors. The number of clients is estimated at 9 million.
A law recently passed by Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right government has once again made street prostitution a crime with fines and possible jail terms for sex workers, pimps and clients.
The new bill carries fines ranging from 200 to 3,000 euro and sentences of between 5 and 15 days. Clients who have sex with minors face harsher fines, between 1,500 and 6,000 euro, and jail terms ranging from six months to four years.
The law primarily targets prostitution rackets and carries tough punishments for those who exploit prostitutes. For example, pimps exploiting teenage prostitutes are punished with terms of 6 to 12 years and fines ranging from 15,000 to 150,000 euro. Prostitutes who are forced onto the streets through rackets use that use violence and threats will not be punished under the bill. The bill also provides for assisted repatriation of foreign prostitutes under the age of 18 unless they have family members living in Italy.
Equal opportunities minister Mara Carfagna said she drew up the bill because ‘It horrifies me, I don't understand people who sell their own bodies. But I realise that the phenomenon exists and that unfortunately, like drugs, it can't be overcome, but it can be fought'.
However, the bill has attracted widespread criticism by an array of Catholic organizations, women's rights groups and prison rights associations. Catholic charity Caritas called the decree ‘ineffective and counterproductive...Prostitution will simply move to places that are less accessible to the police and to social workers', said Caritas immigration chief Oliviero Forti.
Prison rights groups argue that the bill will only cause more problems in Italy's already overcrowded prisons. Meanwhile, Prostitutes' Rights Committee spokesperson Carla Corso said the legislation would make sex workers more invisible than ever: ‘The traffickers will take the women off the streets but they will set them to work in apartments, buying up old buildings in the suburbs, and they will do so with the government's good wishes . . . This bill gives traffickers a licence to exploit women-it's like reopening the brothels but without any regulation'.