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Experts warn of teenage prostitution trend

Future in lights? Children's organisations want the legal age for prostitution in Switzerland to be raised to 18

Teenage girls in Switzerland are increasingly turning to prostitution to be able to afford expensive designer goods, according to media reports.

The Swiss Child Protection Association has called for the age of consent in Switzerland to be raised from 16 to 18 in the case of prostitutes.

It warned that because the legal age for prostitution in neighbouring Germany was 21 and in France and Italy 18, Switzerland risked becoming a "paradise for tourists seeking teenage sex".

"We have to close this legal loophole," said Ruth-Gaby Vermot, a former parliamentarian who sits on the association's board. "Otherwise our slack legislation will attract punters from abroad who know they can have sex [with 16- or 17-year-olds] and not get punished."

Prostitution is legal in Switzerland. The age of consent is 16, although if the age gap between parties is three years or less – for example between a 13-year-old and a 15-year-old – no charges can be brought.

"It's important to note that these are two separate issues," Federal Police Office spokesman Guido Balmer told swissinfo.

"There is nothing in the Swiss criminal code on prostitution. There are various sub-clauses – pimping is banned for example – but prostitution itself is not. Regarding sexual abuse on the other hand, the criminal code contains a whole list of offences."

If you are 15, you can't become a prostitute because of the general age of consent, not because of any prostitution law. Sex with people over 16 is legal – paying them doesn't change anything.

"Embarrassing"

For the Swiss Child Protection Association this situation is unacceptable.

"The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography – both ratified by Switzerland – foresee the protection of children against sexual exploitation until the age of 18," the association's Karolina Frischkopf told swissinfo.

"The problem is that [Swiss] law does not mention the situation where [16- or 17-year-olds] voluntarily prostitute themselves. All other situations are covered by current law. It's a question of closing a legal gap."

The association is therefore demanding that the legal age for prostitutes be 18 and that paying for sex with a 16- or 17-year-old become a punishable offence.

Other organisations are annoyed that such a state of affairs is possible in a country that has worked hard for children's rights for years.

"For Switzerland this is simply embarrassing," said Susanne Seytter from Fiz, a women's rights organisation in Zurich.

Government view

For the justice ministry what counts is the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse, which the government is still deciding whether to sign and ratify.

This was adopted and opened for signature at the 28th Conference of European Ministers of Justice in July 2007 in Lanzarote, Spain.

"This convention deals among other things with the issue of penalising those who use the services of 16- or 17-year-old prostitutes," justice ministry spokesman Folco Galli told swissinfo.

However, the convention has still to go through a consultation procedure, an analysis of the consultation procedure, the cabinet's final draft to parliament, then through parliament...

In short, the legal age of prostitutes in Switzerland will not be raised to 18 in the near future.

Label sex

In what has become known as "label sex", more and more teenage girls in Switzerland are turning to part-time prostitution as a source of "pocket money" for designer dresses or expensive accessories.

Girls advertise online or visit upmarket clubs. One Zurich nightclub even organised a theme event – including 16-year-old guests.

Online demand for young prostitutes is high and advertisements emphasise the fact that 16- and 17-year-olds are available.

But Ruth-Gaby Vermot warned that girls who work privately are vulnerable and are at the mercy of the client.

Frischkopf added that teenage prostitution can result in the girl involved drifting away from normal life – it is done in secret and you can't talk about it with family or friends.

"The situation is worsened by the fact that the quick money renders other challenges like education, first jobs and so on less attractive," she said.

"Child prostitution is not a simple 'sin of youth' that one can then forget. Selling your body stays with you your entire life."

swissinfo, Thomas Stephens

Key facts

A Swiss federal police report in 2007 estimated that the sex industry generates SFr3.2 billion ($2.6 billion) a year in Switzerland.
The number of prostitutes working in Zurich rose 20% between 2003 and 2005 with 14,000 registered sex workers in the country in 2005.
The report also estimated that between 1,500 and 3,000 victims of human trafficking were in the country in 2005.

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Prostitution

Prostitution is legal in Switzerland but prostitutes have to register with city authorities and health authorities and get regular health checks.

Having sex with someone under 16 is currently punishable by up to five years in prison.

The legal age for prostitution in Germany is 21, in France and Italy 18.

In Switzerland pimping is illegal and uncommon: most prostitutes operate independently from small studios via mobile phones. They cannot display their wares.

Human trafficking in persons can carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years and coercing a person into prostitution is punishable with up to ten years in prison. Besides trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, legislation is being amended to make trafficking to exploit labour and the removal of human organs punishable offences.

L permits were created in 1975 and allow women from countries that do not have a free labour accord with Switzerland to work as dancers in cabaret clubs for up to eight months.

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