Implications and recommendations for policy and practice

A critical implication of this research is the recognition of the complexity of the area in which the red-light district is located, and the heterogeneity of the group. This strikingly fits into Hayward's categorization of “spaces of deprivation” (Di Ronco, 2014, p. 149), typical of gentrified post-industrial urban spaces found all over Europe. There are no clear-cut or easy solutions to most of the problems encountered and it is important to take into consideration the many differences within the group of African women and the complex socio-cultural fabric of the setting in which they work. Since prostitution does not fall under one clear authority in Belgium as in most European countries, different levels of governance (justice, well-being, urban planning, etc.) must collaborate according to a collective vision that puts the well-being of the women at its centre. Failing to do so may cause the actions and policies of these different bodies to (un)intentionally hinder the progress of each other.

Building trust with the women is key to the successful outcome of any intervention. This is particularly challenging and will always be part of an on-going and labour-intensive process. It is important that the police and practitioners are honest about their intentions and adopt culturally sensitive and non-judgmental attitudes in their interactions with the women. However, there are important “issues” that complicate interaction with the women. First, the fact that the area is insecure, especially at night, hinders the work of practitioners as they also have to pay attention to their safety (Harcourt et al., 2010). Second, the presence of human trafficking networks inevitably impedes access to women who are being exploited. Third, although isolation and distrust are often developed as survival strategies and are not necessarily considered “problematic” by the women, they do interfere with attempts to reach them and provide support.

5.2.1 Community empowerment and revaluation of the area

It is unthinkable to contemplate real change for the women if nothing about this setting changes. Its current place on the margin does not translate into the political influence, which “allows the city to continue its policy of minimal engagement and tolerance of the status quo” (Weitzer, 2014, p. 67). We identified three major issues that contribute to the deprivation of the area and create social tensions that transcend the prostitution activity alone. For real (and necessary) change to take place, genuine investments have to be made to ensure that the area is a safe and clean place for all to reside and work in.

First, there is a dense population, resulting from the co-habitation of different socio-cultural groups with low socio-economic status, which sometimes leads to tensions between these groups. In this highly diverse context, in which there is little trust in the police and formal governance systems, and where there is a reliance on informal support structures, people emphasize real or perceived boundaries between themselves and others, which may have significant consequences for feelings of community, safety, and belonging. There is however little institutional interest in the area to deal with these tensions or address the social exclusion in general, but we believe that interventions aimed at improving social cohesion and addressing the grievances of the residents are necessary. This can be done by initiating partnerships and projects with socio-cultural organizations or empowerment initiatives on a community level. Besides, engaging cultural mediators and street workers in the area could have beneficial outcomes.

Second, there is tension between the residential and commercial character of the area. Bars, prostitution, and drug dealing undeniably disrupt a peaceful living environment to a certain extent. To address this, we recommend that overt signs of nuisance, especially violence related to drug dealing or public alcohol abuse, are closely observed and met with rapid reactions from the police and practitioners.

Third, illegal garbage dumping, vandalism, and bad odours unfavourably influence the sense of dignity of those who live in or move through the area. This could be improved with regular maintenance and cleaning and interventions that revitalize the public space. The general revaluation of the area is closely related to the security issue. According to Wilson and Kelling’s famous broken windows theory, visible forms of crime and vandalism (in the urban context) can be interpreted as signs of little social and institutional control, thus inviting more informal and criminal activities (1982).

5.2.2 Security

We cannot sufficiently stress the urgency of addressing the (in)security issues in the area. To this end, it is first and foremost important to develop and implement culturally competent and respectful policing strategies that will not turn into the harassment of the women and their clients. We therefore strongly recommend the provision of appropriate training for police officers and members of law enforcement as well as the use of cultural mediators/interpreters’ services when necessary, seeing the social and cultural complexity of the group.

In the short term, a safety protocol to prevent violence and facilitate the process of reporting crime should be developed for the women working in the carrés. This would require more police presence in the area, especially at night. The women themselves ask for the regular patrolling and presence of police in uniform in the area and we believe that this could directly disrupt the “lawless state” of today and eliminate some of the violence. Unlike the current situation, in which the women have indicated that it takes 45 minutes or more for the police to arrive after a crime has been committed, there should be a faster response system. This will in turn help to build and re-establish the women’s trust in the police.

In the long term, other security measures should be put in place after careful consideration and in dialogue with the women working in the carrés. Examples of these are the instalment of alarm buttons inside the carrés that attract attention outside or the instalment of functional security cameras on the streets. These are two of the measures that were suggested by the women themselves. Also, we strongly advise the creation of a simple and straightforward complaint procedure for victims of physical and sexual violence that can also be made anonymously without fear of deportation or retribution. Inspiration could be taken from the M. (Meldpunt Misdaad Anoniem), that came into existence in the Netherlands in 2002 along the lines of the crime stoppers concept that is implemented in the UK and the United States. After all, the safety of the women and the value of human life should take priority over immigration concerns.

5.2.3 Support services

Support services in Brussels are highly understaffed and insufficiently funded to deal with all the complexities of this group. Pitcher highlights the challenging work that prostitution support/sex work services have globally; considering that the “group” of men and women working in prostitution is very heterogeneous, with very different needs (Pitcher, 2006). While the holistic and non-judgmental attitude of the health and social workers of Espace P is effective, due to the small number of staff the support they can offer is very limited. It is fundamental that extra funding and support are provided to the support services and partnering organizations to increase and maintain accessible and non-discriminatory first-line support services. This is necessary to reduce the risks related to prostitution/migration including social exclusion, health-related issues, and malevolent exploitation.

The accessibility of services that provide free and anonymous basic (health) care is essential and can be increased by extending the opening hours and expanding outreach initiatives on the streets by doctors and social workers, including at night. Taking into account the mobility and precarious situations of some of the women, consistent and high-intensity outreach work is very important, and this predominantly requires a lot of human resources.

Considering the low education level of many of the women working in the carrés and insufficient knowledge of reproductive health and sexual safety, it is important to invest in sexual health education and promote the use of condoms and contraceptives to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and pregnancy. Having discovered the high mobility rate of the women, this is a continuous and ongoing process.

Next to the (necessary) focus on healthcare, assistance and advice regarding other aspects that shape the well-being of the women must be more proactively available. These could be issues like housing, social networks, education, or legal advice and, in this case, on-ground social workers are key in gaining trust and providing referral when necessary.

Learning from the Brussels’ experience, we believe that a possible partnership with NGOs more adept in dealing with migrants in transit would be beneficial, e.g. for the exchange of expertise and services related to healthcare and information on migration law. Alongside them, cultural mediators could be key figures in reaching the women more effectively, by both commissioning them to work on the ground or for consultations based on their expertise.

5.2.4 Legislation

Including the women in the decision-making process is essential. However, we are hesitant about contemporary theories that suggest collaborative governance (Wagenaar et al., 2017) or self-regulation with quality standard (Vermeulen, 2007) for the red-light district of the carrés, considering the internal hierarchies and forms of internal exploitation that take place within this particular group of Nigerian and Ghanaian women. Rather, we suggest the development of adequate regulations based on a better understanding of the lived experiences and needs of the women (through research and dialogue), and the (respectful) monitoring of these regulations, to detect forms of malevolent exploitation.

We believe that the two municipalities concerned here (Schaerbeek and Saint-Josse) need to collaborate to create common regulations for the red light district of the carrés. The area is made up of merely three streets and the municipal border is neither visible nor known to most women. The existence of different regulations is confusing for the women, therefore it becomes more difficult for both governments to implement these regulations. The Brussel-capital region could play an important role in this process of negotiation.

We recommend that the current regulations in Schaerbeek, based on the use of the certificate of conformity, are evaluated and adapted to the African public. Although this requires further reflection, we advise that the legislative model of the carré be revisited to allow more than one shift a day and to factor in the women’s mobility. Clearer policies that are more realistic and desirable will be easier to implement and monitor, thus creating more room for NGOs and police to intervene to tackle the problematic issues in the area like the trafficking networks, various forms of violence, and social exclusion.

5.2.5 Anti-trafficking measures

This research has shown once more that combating the Nigerian trafficking networks must happen on a European level. Per the UN

Protocol against trafficking and 2017 European Commission Communication on the follow-up to the EU Anti-Trafficking Strategy (2012-2016), the EU should continue to promote and facilitate collaborations between police forces to do so. We also recommend a joint European policy on the reception and protection of victims, that guarantees the basic human rights of all victims.

At night there is no doubt that women who have been trafficked are forced to work in the window of the carrés. This urgently calls for a more proactive approach to the detection of victims. Clients, women who work in prostitution, health and social workers, and police all have an important responsibility to do so. Specialized anti-trafficking centres (like PAG-ASA in Belgium) should be more closely involved in the process, most importantly for their expertise in the complexities of victimhood, e.g. when women do not recognize themselves as victims. Also, considering the involvement of the family or larger community and the use of juju, we argue that not all victims are able to denounce their traffickers. Yet, in Belgium this is a prerequisite for receiving protection, as in most European countries. These women should be protected, addressed with dignity, and enlightened on what their rights are. Anti-trafficking measures should never lead to the detention of victims of trafficking, which is a regular practice.

To break the logic of internal exploitation - some women who work in prostitution start exploiting others - we believe that it is important to offer realistic job alternatives to women who want to (albeit gradually) quit prostitution. Women who are tired of working in prostitution often have not developed other professional skills and experiences and are not entitled to unemployment benefits or pensions because of the informal nature of prostitution. This makes them easily tempted to continue in the “business” in the same way they were once introduced to it - through exploitation. A lot of these women have been able to obtain legal residence status and, therefore, specialized projects (that take into consideration the complexities of the target group) could be set up to create alternative careers. Equally, sensitizing initiatives that are directed at the Nigerian and Ghanaian women working in the carrés, informing them of the legal and psychosocial consequences of human trafficking of themselves and others, are currently non-existent. These could be developed through the involvement of NGOs like Casa Rut or Piam Onlus in Italy, both co-run by Nigerian former victims of trafficking who over the years have become spokeswomen dedicated to ending human trafficking from Nigeria.

5.2.6 Further research

The field of prostitution is a highly under-researched one, yet to address and counter existing policies that are often merely based on ideological opinions and moral preferences, it is important to provide information about the actual state of affairs and continue high-quality and in-depth analysis. In the red-light district of the carrés in Brussels, we believe further research will contribute to a more complete understanding of the highly complex social, economic, and political fabric of the area. We list the most important below.

  • • The research was predominantly focused on the well-being aspect of Nigerian and Ghanaian women working in the red-light district. There is a lack of data on the quality of life of the women “outside of work”: housing, social networks, leisure time, level of integration, etc. Although there is little distinction between the private and public lives of many of the women working in the carrés, more knowledge about this is essential to arrive at a comprehensive assessment of their well-being.
  • • The interviews involved asking the women about their subjective well-being and provided limited knowledge of a more objective assessment of their mental and physical health. This is necessary to inform health-related policy to provide the appropriate and adequate support to the women.
  • • This research clearly shows that there are tensions and hostilities between different actors in the area. Through the eyes of the women, however, it gives an insight into their perception of the local actors (social groups, police, etc.) and how they experience discrimination and corruption. To fully analyse the social dynamics in the red-light district of the carrés, it would be necessary to examine the experiences and perceptions of all the other actors who live in or are present in the area: the residents, the clients, the “troublemakers” (those who harass the women), etc. What are their experiences and possible grievances?
  • • The research and theorization of possible exit strategies would be important: What if the red-light district of the carrés closes? Where will the women go? What could be done to make this process more humane?
  • • Further research should be conducted on the relation between local prostitution policy and the working and living situation of Nigerian and Ghanaian women working in prostitution in other European cities. Comparison can be drawn between the settings to inform more effective policies.


1 The idea of the SWIPSER study already existed: the study was being written at the time of the murder.


Brusselse Hoofdstedelijke Raad. (1998). Bulletin van de interpellates en mondelinge en dringende vragen. Vergadering van donderdag 28 mei 1998. 997-98/00034/N/images.pdf.

Di Ronco. A. (2014). Regulating street prostitution as a public nuisance in the “culture of consumption”: A comparative analysis between Birmingham, Brussels and Milan. In N. Persak & G. Vermeulen (Eds.). Reframing Prostitution: From Discourse to Description, from Moralisation to Normalisation? (pp. 145-171). Maklu. doi: 10.1080/13876988.2015.1013760.

Harcourt, C., & Donovan, B. (2005). The many faces of sex work. Sexual Transmitted Infections, 81, 201-206. doi:10.1136/sti.2004.012468.

Harcourt, C., O’Connor, J., Egger, S., Fairley, C.K., Wand, H., Chen, M.Y., Marshall, L., Kaldor, J.M., & Donovan, B. (2010). The decriminalization of prostitution is associated with better coverage of health promotion programs for sex workers. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Publie Health, 34(5), 482 486. doi:10.111 l/j,1753-6405.2010.00594.x.

Persak, N.. & Vermeulen, G. (2014). Faces and spaces of prostitution. In N. Persak & G. Vermeulen (Eds.), Reframing Prostitution: From Discourse to Description, from Moralisation to Normalisation? (pp. 14-24). Maklu. doi: 10.1080/13876988.2015.1013760.

Pitcher, J. (2006). Support services for women working in the sex industry. In R. Campbell & M. O’Neill (Eds.), Sex Work Now (pp. 256-283). Willan Publishing, doi: 10.4324/9781843926771.

Vermeulen. G. (2007). European quality labels in prostitution as an illegal sector. In G. Vermeulen (Ed.), EC Quality Standards in Support of the Fight Against Trafficking in Human Beings and Sexual Exploitation of Children (pp. 274-278). Maklu. doi: 10.1080/13876988.2015.1013760.

Wagenaar, H., Amesberger, H., & Altink, S. (2017). Designing Prostitution Policy: Intention and Reality in Regulating the Sex Trade. Policy Press.

Weitzer, R. (2014). Europe's legal red-light districts: Comparing different models and distilling best practices. In N. Persak & G. Vermeulen (Eds.), Reframing Prostitution; From discourse to description, from moralisation to normalisation? (pp. 53-69). Maklu. doi: 10.1080/13876988.2015.1013760.

Wilson, J.Q., & Kelling, G.L. (1982). Broken windows. Atlantic Monthly, 249 (3), 29-38.


access to services see support services

Aarschotstraat (red-light district) 1,

27, 30, 49, 64, 69, 72

agency 5-7, 54, 60, 62, 75, 88, 90

anonymization of data 20 anti-trafficking measures 79, 96-97 ashawo 4-5

broken windows theory 94

Clerfayt, Bernard 28

collaborative governance 96

Edo 31-32, 42, 61, 65, 78

Espace P 43, 60, 75-76, 80, 91, 95

ethnography: method 15, 21;

volatile 22

Eunice, murder of 39, 51, 62

facilitation practices 63, 74, 90

field notes 17-18

health: problems 45, 59, 78, 98;

care system 56, 58, 75, 80;

reproductive 81

human trafficking 8, 31-33, 76-79, 90, 97

Kir, Emir 69-70

labelling theory 5

M. (Meldpunt Misdaad Anoniem) 95 madams 23, 31-32, 54, 64. 78, 80

Mama Leather 1, 79

migrant protitution 8

mobility 22, 62-65, 81, 91

Nigerian Pidgin English 6, 16

Oba of Benin 32

prostitution: terminology 4-5; policy and legislation 9, 26-27, 30-31,

68- 72, 91. 96; public, urban, window see red-light district

red-light district 7-8

referral network 20

Saint-Josse Ten Noode 28, 30-31, 42,

69- 71. 72-73

Schaerbeek 27-28, 30, 68-69,


security/insecurity 23, 45-55, 67, 80,

89. 94

support services 8, 56-59, 75-76, 80,

90, 95-96

stigma 4, 43 45, 67-68, 81-82, 89

trust issues 2, 21-22, 43, 59-60, 89. 91

Twi 4, 16

well-being 5-6, 79-82

yemeshe 90

Yoruba 4, 16, 41

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