RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
One neighborhood in Rome is working on a plan to deal with public anger at the growing number of sex workers on the streets. It involves creating zones of tolerance - something like official red light districts. Residents seem to approve. The Catholic Church does not. Here's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: On Rome's southern outskirts, Eur is a middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhood full of parks and also home to many office buildings. With tens of thousands of people crossing every day, the neighborhood has become a magnet for prostitutes. Resident Armando Grassi welcomes the plan to corral street walkers somewhere far from his home.
ARMANDO GRASSI: (Through interpreter) That would be so much better than this open-air pigsty - all day long outside office buildings and schools while kids are walking with their grandparents. It's embarrassing. Why should my 75-year-old father have to explain to my 6-year-old son what that couple is doing behind the trees?
POGGIOLI: In one of the many paradoxes of modern Italy, aiding and abetting prostitution is a crime. But the exchange of sexual services for money is legal.
ANDREA SANTORO: (Through interpreter) In this neighborhood, there's a prostitute every 20 yards. They solicit on 18 out of 30 streets.
POGGIOLI: District President Andrea Santoro says Italian society has failed to tackle the problem, and politicians hide their heads in the sand.
SANTORO: (Through interpreter) Until a while ago, street walkers were more or less a part of the landscape. But now with economic crisis and growing insecurity, there's growing intolerance to such flagrant activity.
POGGIOLI: Santoro wants to prevent an explosion of social tensions of the kind that led to riots last year in other neighborhoods. He says Italian law allows the municipality to issue an ordinance banning the solicitation of sex on certain streets.
SANTORO: (Through interpreter) We have chosen the zones where prostitution will be banned - near homes, schools, churches, parks and playgrounds, there will be zero tolerance. Sex workers can solicit elsewhere, on the margins of residential areas.
POGGIOLI: Rome's City Hall has agreed to earmark about $2 million this year for a pilot program that would include greater police surveillance and fines of up to $500 for johns caught with a sex worker in a prostitution-free street. Santoro says the plan also calls for specially trained social and health workers to assist prostitutes and help women who want to get off the streets.
SANTORO: (Through interpreter) I don't know if this is absolutely the best solution. But given the tools at our disposal and given the hypocrisy around prostitution, I believe right now, this is the best proposal possible.
POGGIOLI: Today, the great majority of prostitutes in Italy are foreigners, mostly undocumented Nigerians, victims of human traffickers and women from European Union countries such as Romania and Bulgaria. Exact statistics are hard to find. But some studies say there's been a 25 percent increase in the sex market in Italy in the last seven years. Oria Gargano works for an NGO called Bee Free that provides shelters for women who want out of the sex slave trade. She says there's another Italian paradox. The more Italian women have freed themselves from a patriarchal society, the more Italian men seek the services of prostitutes.
ORIA GARGANO: They don't like the emancipation, the liberation. They say to the prostitute, OK, we do. It's OK because we Italian women are very difficult because we want to be free. We want to work. We want to have our dignity, our autonomy. This is the result.
POGGIOLI: While Gargano does not disapprove of Santoro's tolerance zones plan, the idea is vehemently opposed by Catholic organizations that say it legitimizes the exploitation of women. Father Aldo Buonaiuto is the head of a Catholic group that assists victims of the sex slave trade - women repeatedly raped, battered and often left for dead.
FATHER ALDO BUONAIUTO: (Through interpreter) First, let's free these slaves. And you don't do it by moving them from one street to another, creating ghettos for them. It is shameful that the city of Rome, the cradle of Christianity, can carry out such a proposal endorsing the sale of the human body.
POGGIOLI: Father Aldo would like to see Italy adopt Sweden's pioneering law that criminalizes the buyer, not the prostitute. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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