Italy: Former showgirl Mara Carfagna comes under fire for anti-prostitution law

September 12, 2008

Mara Carfagna

Mara Carfagna, Italian Minister for Equal Opportunities, has attacked women who “sell their bodies for money”

Mara Carfagna, the Italian Minister for Equal Opportunities and a former “calendar girl” and television showgirl, came under fire from prostitutes’ representatives for condemning women who “sell their bodies for money”.

Introducing a new law making street prostitution a crime, with fines for clients as well as prostitutes, Ms Carfagna, 32, said that at present in Italy, “as in the great majority of Western countries”, brothels and the exploitation of prostitutes by pimps were illegal but prostitution as such was not.

She added: “It’s a shameful phenomenon. As a woman it makes me shudder, I am horrified by it. I don’t understand how someone can sell their body in the street for money. But I realise that it exists and, like drugs, cannot be wiped out. We intend to make it more difficult and to combat the criminal organisations who make an obscene profit by reducing these women to slavery.”

Carla Corso, a founder of the Italian Committee for the Rights of Prostitutes, said that she was “fairly astounded” by the minister’s remarks. “After all, the lady used her own body to get where she is today, by posing for calendars” she told Corriere della Sera. “You only have to look on the Internet to see her charms.”

Ms Carfagna, who has a law degree, was a Miss Italy contestant and worked as a topless model and television showgirl before joining Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. She was appointed a minister when Mr Berlusconi won elections in April, taking office for the third time with a commanding majority.

This summer Italian media reported that phone calls between Ms Carfagna and Mr Berlusconi intercepted by magistrates during an investigation into alleged attempts by the Prime Minister to obtain jobs for actresses on RAI, the state broadcasting service, were “erotic” in nature. The intercepted exchanges have never been published and both Mr Berlusconi and Ms Carfagna deny the allegation.

The new measure, which was approved by the Cabinet last Thursday and is certain to be passed by Parliament, is the first major bill to tackle the problem of sex for sale for half a century. It outlaws prostitution in public places such as streets and parks, defining it as a serious offence causing “social alarm”. Both prostitutes and their clients face up to 15 days in jail and fines of up to €3,000 (£2,400).

The move, which is part of the Berlusconi Government’s promised crackdown on crime and illegal immigration, comes on the fiftieth anniversary of the abolition of brothels in Italy in a law devised and named after Angelina Merlin, a post-war politician who died in 1979.

Critics of the Merlin Law, which shut down some 700 brothels or “closed houses”, say that the result has been a proliferation of roadside prostitution, with prostitutes — many of them foreigners — a common sight both night and day on the outskirts of Italian cities.

According to the Italian Parliament social affairs committee there are an estimated 50,000-70,000 prostitutes — known colloquially as “lucciole” (fireflies) — about 70 per cent of whom work on the streets. Many are illegal immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa who are exploited and maltreated by criminal gangs.

Ms Carfagna said that she had no intention of bringing back brothels or introducing red light districts or regulated co-operatives of “sex workers”. Under the new law sex with under-aged prostitutes aged 16 to 18 carries prison terms of up to four years and fines of up to 6000 Euros. Those caught “pimping” minors under the age of 18 face jail terms of up to 12 years and fines of up to €150,000.

Some Catholic charities praised Ms Carfagna for having the courage to “take on prostitution as a serious social evil”. However Oliviero Forti, spokesman for the Catholic aid agency Caritas, said that it would merely “drive prostitution indoors”.

The charity Save the Children said that it had written to Mr Berlusconi to express concern over a provision in the new law for under-age prostitutes to be repatriated. It said that minors should be asked whether they wished to stay in Italy and be taken into care rather than return to countries where they might be subjected to “persecution and vendettas”.

Livia Turco, social affairs spokeswoman for the opposition Democratic Party, said that the law was hypocritical and would not help women to escape from prostitution. “Once again the weakest members of society are being sacrificed on the altar of propaganda” she said.

The bill is Ms Carfagna’s first major initiative as a minister. Since taking office she has spoken out against same-sex unions, abortion and stalking, and said that her priority was to help boost Italy’s birth rate, one of the lowest in Europe.


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