Historical contextualization of the Brussels’ red-light district where Nigerian and Ghanaian women work in prostitution

In this chapter, necessary background information is provided to better understand the broader context of the research setting. First, a short overview of Belgian legislation related to prostitution is provided. Second, we take a historical look at the red-light district of the carrés as a neighbourhood that has a long (and eventful) history of window prostitution. Third, we give a brief insight into the topic of Nigerian trafficking networks, which is too often misrepresented in the media. Finally, we look at the presence of Ghanaian women in the red-light district.

Prostitution legislation in Belgium

The activity of prostitution in Belgium as in most European countries finds itself in a legal twilight zone.1 Before 1948, it was the responsibility of the municipalities to regulate prostitution on their territory. They organized mandatory registrations and medical checks (Vande Velde et al., 2007). In 1948, federal legislation took away this local mandate. While not prohibiting the activity of prostitution or paying for sexual services, from then on it became illegal to officially regulate the activity (Meheus, 1999).2 The federal laws (with 1946 adjustments to Article 380) only oversee activities related to prostitution: (1) renting rooms for prostitution to realize an abnormal profit; (2) keeping a house of prostitution; (3) exploiting the prostitution of another; and (4) advertising prostitution have all been made punishable in Belgian Criminal law.3 The criminalization of all third-party involvement has been criticized for having adverse effects on the sector (Vandecandelaere, 2019; Vermeulen, 2007).

In general, Belgium accepts the existence of prostitution in its territory and tolerates the forms of prostitution that are voluntary (Persak & Vermeulen, 2014). On a municipal level, regulations can be made relating to public morality and tranquillity (through local urban planning and police regulations). In the private sector (escort, champagne bars, etc.), which expanded substantially with the rise of social media and the Internet, however, there is relatively little interference (Seinpost Adviesbureau, 2008).

For most of the second half of the twentieth century, local governments left a form of “unregulated tolerance” for public forms of prostitution, letting the sector regulate itself (Reinschmidt, 2016, p. 3). Since the 2000s however, municipalities began implementing more substantial local regulations4 under the guise of “ensuring public order and tranquillity” in reaction to what was happening on their territories (Vandecandelaere, 2019). This was facilitated by the fact that they could now (from 1999) implement administrative sanctions (GAS fines) in addition to criminal sanctions that were slow and ineffective (Vandecandelaere, 2019). In consequence over the last 20 years, red-light districts in Belgium have profoundly changed: being relocated, restricted, or closed. Therefore, municipalities have taken very different approaches, influenced by the public response and political ideologies (Vandecandelaere, 2019).

On a national level, there are no indications that there is a political will to move towards a long-term vision regarding prostitution (Persak & Vermeulen. 2014; Rodriguez Garcia, 2014). This has led to confusing situations in some parts of the country, most profoundly in Brussels? Each of the 19 municipalities of the Brussels-Capital region has its local government, four of whom have to deal with forms of public prostitution on their territory, yet there is no joint approach (J. Debuf, personal communication, October 5, 2018). The red-light district of the carrés, which covers just three small streets, is located at the border of two municipalities that have very different approaches, making this a particularly complex case study.

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