Prostitution in Belgium
Prostitution in Belgium has been decriminalized since 1 June 2022. Human trafficking or exploiting individuals involved in prostitution is punishable by a maximum prison sentence of 30 years.
A report commissioned by the National Bank of Belgium, estimated a turnover of 840 million Euro in 2015. The most important segments of the market seem to be escort and private prostitution, rather than the more visible forms of window or street prostitution.
Prior to 1946 prostitution was regulated by the municipalities, with mandatory registration and medical checks. In 1946 Federal legislation replaced local control of prostitution, however the municipalities could still regulate in their local area for the sake of public order or morality.
Prostitution and paying for sexual services were not prohibited in the 1946 legislation, but Article 380 added the following offences:
- Procuring through the provision of premises (running a brothel, providing premises for prostitution etc.) for unjust gain
- Aggravated pimping (violence, threats, deception or exploitation of a vulnerable situation)
- Advertising for the purposes of prostitution
- Prohibition of soliciting was extended to include all forms of communication.
- Legislation in connection with procuring was relaxed, providing abnormally high gains are not made (although "abnormally high gains" is not defined).
- Increase in penalties for human trafficking.
- Powers given to the courts to close premises and confiscate property.
In 2005 the 1995 Act was amended to give greater power against human trafficking, including an increase in maximum sentences. It also brought Belgium law in line with EU and international instruments that had been introduced in the previous years.
From 1 June 2022, sex work is decriminalized.
There have been a number of draft bills proposing changes to the existing prostitution laws. Proposals from the pro-prostitution camp have included licensing brothels and giving special status within the law to sex-workers. The anti-prostitution lobby proposals have included the banning of windows and criminalisation of paying for sexual services (Nordic Model).
Reforms in 2022
A law passed in March 2022 by the Federal Parliament decriminalised their work and third parties who make sex work possible (for example accountants, banks and drivers). It also allows some advertising by sex-workers. This law came into effect on 1 June 2022. The new law also gives sex workers rights in terms of status, social protection, and healthcare, like other self-employed workers. This includes (but is not limited to): social security, unemployment, access to healthcare and maternity leave.
Municipalities can impose local regulation on public order or morality grounds. Generally, these powers were little used until the 2000s, most preferring an "unregulated tolerance" approach.
In the 2000s the municipalities took different approaches to regulation. Some, such as Liège and Ghent, banned window prostitution or moved it out of its traditional locations in the city centres. Others, such as Antwerp totally restructured its red-light district and heavily regulated it. Seraing is planning to build a new 'Eros Centre' to replace the existing windows.
Prostitution was known to exist in what is now Belgium since the middle ages. Regulation of prostitutes was introduced during the Burgundian regime (1384–1482) but often ignored. In Brussels, the public executioner was tasked with controlling the trade in the city.
During the French regime (1794–1814) prostitutes were required to have mandatory health checks in hospitals. After the Belgian Revolution brought about independence in 1830, the regulations set up by the French continued. In 1844 identity cards were issued to prostitutes and twice weekly medical check-ups were required.
The "White Slave Scandal" ("affaire des petite Anglaises") in 1880/1881 brought prostitution in Brussels into the spotlight. Over 40 minors, mainly English girls, were found to be working in brothels after being lured to Brussels with promises of work in bars and nightclubs. As well as those involved being prosecuted, the Mayor and Head of Police in Brussels were forced to resign.
During WW1, the occupying Germans took over control of prostitution. In an attempt to prevent the spread of STIs amongst their troops, the trade was strictly regulated and girls forced to undergo regular health checks.
In 2016, 184 people were prosecuted for sex trafficking and 144 victims of trafficking were assisted. The victims are given help in specialised NGO-run shelters and when they leave the shelters, they are given protection, residence and employment permits and access to legal services. In 2017 there were 176 sex traffickers prosecuted and 59 victims assisted.
The United States Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons ranks Belgium as a 'Tier 1' country.
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