5.1.1 The social, cultural, and economic fabric of the area in which the red-light district of the carres is situated is complex, marginalized, and conflict-filled
Twenty years after the Belgian politician Serge Patoul called the area an insult to its citizens (Brusselse Hoofdstedelijke Raad, 1998), it remains to this day a very problematic neighbourhood. There is a high density/concentration of marginalized and poor residents and users of the space. The presence of commercial activities, such as bars, drug dealing, and prostitution, also makes it a place with high mobility. There are tensions between groups with different ethnic backgrounds. In shaping how prostitution is experienced the “social backgrounds and political capital of the population residing in the vicinity” (Persak & Vermeulen, 2014, p. 19) is very influential. The area is dirty, and the buildings are not well maintained, there is conflict, harassment and overt crime daily, and there is a tension between the commercial and residential character in the area. The fact that there are two local governments with two different policies on prostitution is confusing and results in a situation of lawlessness. The structural neglect of the area and its people have unfavourable effects on the women who work behind the windows.
5.1.2 There is a lack of security for the women
Prostitution is a high-risk activity that exposes women to different forms of violence. In the setting of the red-light district of the carrés, there is a high prevalence of physical, emotional, and sexual violence directed at the women. Stigma and discrimination furthermore result in everyday harassment: breaking windows, spitting, taking photos, etc., and the women are also frequently robbed. Fundamentally, there seems to be a breach in the basic code or understanding of prostitution, namely “the provision of sexual services for money or its equivalent” (Harcourt & Donovan, 2005, p. 201). One of the most common “problems” in the carrés is the presence of men who do not want to pay for the sexual services they receive. Since the police do not have a presence on the streets and are slow in responding to the women’s calls for help, the women do not trust the police “to be on their side” and rarely report acts of violence or access the justice system. It is this security-void that has given rise to worrying vigi-lantism practices. Although the women have developed tactics for their survival, they cannot prevent all violence from taking place and the subjective experience of feeling insecure on an everyday basis is destructive for their well-being.
5.1.3 The experiences and needs of Nigerian and Ghanaian women in the red-light district of the carrés are diverse
The women share a similar migratory condition. They were born in West-Africa and migrated to Europe, where they carry the double stigma of being an immigrant woman and a prostitute. However, their experiences are very heterogeneous.
The distinction made into three groups is generalizing but helps to understand some of the complexities that we encountered. The first group identified are older Nigerian and Ghanaian women who work during the day and have legal residence status in Belgium. The second (and more recently arrived) group are Nigerians, mostly in their thirties, who were trafficked into Europe and have lived a considerable time in another European country (mainly in the South). They mostly come to Brussels for economic reasons and stay for a short or long time, working during the day and/or at night. The third and last group is made up of very young Nigerian women who work mainly at night. They have a lower status in the community, thus have less agency, and are more likely to be present-day victims of trafficking.
The women define their well-being according to different categories/ measures. First and foremost, while all the women work in the windows to make money, the reasons behind it are very diverse. Some are more individually motivated, others more related to the well-being of the family or community back home. They also relate differently to the host society and have different prospects and intentions in Belgium. Some women are attached to other European countries, which they consider more as their “home", or see their future in Nigeria, and this has implications for integration processes and language learning in Belgium. Finally, the women are individuals who have their own motivations and aspirations. Some for example want to have children, while others do not.
Between these groups, there are internal hierarchies that create a welcome order (in a very chaotic setting) but have the potential to become exploitative, especially in this context of deprivation. It is general knowledge that within Nigerian human trafficking networks, some women who were previously victims of trafficking themselves begin exploiting other women. Also, more “innocent" practices of exploitation or facilitation, e.g. subletting according to the Yemeshe principle, can be unreasonable and become malevolent. Although these hierarchies are not necessarily harmful, they do offer challenges to practitioners. While it is important to respect a certain group culture to gain trust and get access, some of the women may block or prevent access to others.
How the women perceive prostitution is also not the same. Those who disapprove of prostitution suffer internalized stigma and do not identify/relate to the labour rights discourse. In contrast, a small group expresses the desire for more recognition and respect for the kind of job they do.
5.1.4 There is a group of women “on the move” for which support services are not adapted and accessible
Most of the participants do not see Brussels or Belgium as their home, as they spent many years in their first country of arrival in Europe, only moving to Brussels for economic reasons. Some of these women have legal residence status in Italy, Spain, or even Greece, and do not
Conclusions and recommendations 91 necessarily plan on spending a long time in the red-light district of the carrés.
This is also because many of the women do not see prostitution as a long term “job” but as a temporary money-making venture, after which they hope to restart their lives in Nigeria or elsewhere in Europe. Therefore, these women are not necessarily interested in integration into the host society. Furthermore, due to strict migration laws, they prefer to move around unnoticed, to protect their freedom of movement. This high mobility does not facilitate the work of health and social workers and police in building trust relationships and protecting the most vulnerable.
Certain women thus fall outside of the law, and thus often outside of protection and care. This is a risky situation when it comes to women who work in prostitution and are therefore very vulnerable to different forms of violence, both malevolent exploitation and health risks, as they do not have access to the justice system. Support services play a vital role in offering low-threshold and confidential first-line support, as well as doctor visits inside the carrés and social work outreach. In Brussels, the health and social workers of Espace P, a very small organization responsible for offering support to all sex workers in the Brussels region, cannot sufficiently address the needs of the women.
5.7.5 The current policy frameworks regulating the carrés do not address the needs of the women
The legislation of the carré is not correctly implemented or applied as most of the women are unaware of or confused about the legislation, and the area is organized in a self-regulatory and informal way.
Regardless of the political (un)willingness to do so, we argue that this is foremost a consequence of the inadequate and outdated character of its design. Remembering the basic premise of the carré, i.e. that one woman (and one woman only) officially rents and works in the carré, it is clear from our findings that this is no longer adept to the situation of the main public working there, more specifically the African women. The mobile, insecure, and self-regulatory character of the area today generates the failure of this model. Research shows that prostitution markets are very flexible and constantly changing, therefore holding on to a model that once worked can be counterproductive for the well-being of those who work there.
In the 1980s and 1990s, this conception of the carrés could be considered ideal to avoid nuisance. This is important when taking into account the residential character of the area because it eliminated the need for any third-party involvement, as the women did not need anybody else in order to work. This last point is also important because it meant that the women were less vulnerable to malevolent exploitation. This worked well for the Belgian women (and still works for those who are there).
Today, however, the situation is different. First, the problematic nuisance in the area is mostly related to drug dealing and bars, which attract “disorderly individuals” (Weitzer, 2014. p. 59). The residential character might be threatened, but not by prostitution alone. Second, the rental prices have gone up because of exploitative rental practices and heightened competition for places. Third, the Nigerian and Ghanaian women have different needs, especially related to their migratory condition:
- • The women are dependent on others to access a place to work (migrant condition).
- • The women do not feel safe alone.
- • The pressure to make money is higher because the women are often the providers for their family.
- • The women travel and prefer a more flexible system.
These needs do not easily fit into the “one woman per window” model that does not allow double shifts, company, flexible contracts, or third party involvement.