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At the time, she was studying to become a social worker and had just returned to Belgium from a stint abroad. Quick chats grew into relationships, and Van Slooten learned that, on top of emotional support and practical help, many of the women simply wanted to be treated with dignity and respect. It was from these short but meaningful interactions that the idea for Cherut was born. Cherut the Hebrew word for freedom is a volunteer-run organisation that offers friendship and support to sex workers, enabling them to take control of their own lives.
Elizabeth, one of the outreach workers, joined four years ago. Someone working as a prostitute will not be penalised, but everything around prostitution is not legal. Many of the women are lured into the sex industry by human traffickers who promise them legitimate employment in Western Europe, as servers in clubs, for example. All too often, Van Slooten says, the club in question turns out to be a window.
The red-light district in Antwerp is made up of three streets with some windows, but it once spanned 17 streets, says Van Slooten. Prostitution in Belgium remains something of a grey area. Sex work itself is legal, but the procuring, advertising or pimping of another person for the purposes of prostitution is not. Trafficking, on the other hand, is illegal and can result in a lengthy jail sentence. While the legal minimum age for sex workers in Belgium is 18, Van Slooten says the problem is more complex.
The red-light district in Antwerp has a noticeable police presence. They might be 18 when they reach Western Europe, but they have been working as prostitutes for much longer than that. Cherut reports cases of human trafficking to the police and, over the years, it has developed a good relationship with the force. The organisation has 38 volunteers who perform various functions throughout Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent.
Some work in the Koffieklap, which doubles as a training area for women who would like to leave the sex industry and work in the catering industry; training is also given in jewellery making and sewing. Other volunteers work as translators, counsellors or therapists or do administration. Outreach workers, like Elizabeth, are the ones who make direct contact with the sex workers. Their primary role is to build trust and establish a rapport. So I gave them a reality check.