In a new light: Antwerp non-profit gives sex workers a voice


Cherut’s volunteers offer friendship and support to sex workers in Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent, enabling them to take charge of their own lives

Right to dignity

According to Visit Antwerp, “window prostitution” in the historic Schipperskwartier (or sailors’ district) “is confined to three streets”. In the surrounding area, the website reads, “you will find authentic pubs, terraced cafes and great places to eat”.

One of these places is Koffieklap, a beautifully renovated, retro-styled and jazz-infused coffee house owned and run by Cherut, a non-profit organisation offering support to the women working in Antwerp’s red-light district.

Cherut’s founder, Johanneke Van Slooten, meets here regularly with volunteers to discuss their work with the prostitutes. At other times, if she’s not out in the streets, she can be found in the organisation’s head office, upstairs.

Several years ago, Van Slooten read about the plight of the city’s sex workers in a local newspaper and decided to talk to them and try to understand the paths that led them to a life of prostitution.

At the time, she was studying to become a social worker and had just returned to Belgium from a stint abroad. The studies, combined with her religious convictions, made her realise that “these girls deserve justice and compassion”.

Inspired by history

In 2009, she made her first contact with the workers by approaching the windows, opening the doors and saying “hello”.  Quick chats grew into relationships, and Van Slooten learned that, on top of emotional support and practical help, many of the women simply wanted to be treated with dignity and respect.

It was from these short but meaningful interactions that the idea for Cherut was born.

Cherut (the Hebrew word for freedom) is a volunteer-run organisation that offers friendship and support to sex workers, enabling them to take control of their own lives. Elizabeth, one of the outreach workers, joined four years ago. Inspired by the story of her great-grandfather, who worked as police officer in the red-light district in the early 1900s, she decided to try and help the women “just like he used to”.

Someone working as a prostitute will not be penalised, but everything around prostitution is not legal

- Elizabeth, Cherut outreach worker

“My great-grandfather would grab abusive pimps, hold them over the river and say ‘if you don’t leave the women alone, I’m going to drop you in the river, and they’ll never see you again’,” she says. “The pimps were scared and they would often stop.”

Many of the women are lured into the sex industry by human traffickers who promise them legitimate employment in Western Europe, as servers in clubs, for example. All too often, Van Slooten says, the club in question turns out to be a window.

The red-light district in Antwerp is made up of three streets with some 280 windows, but it once spanned 17 streets, says Van Slooten. That was before the city government intervened in the late 1990s, and “a lot of the mobsters left”.

Prostitution in Belgium remains something of a grey area. Sex work itself is legal, but the procuring, advertising or pimping of another person for the purposes of prostitution is not.   “Someone working as a prostitute will not be penalised, but everything around prostitution is not legal,” says Elizabeth.

Police presence

Trafficking, on the other hand, is illegal and can result in a lengthy jail sentence. “Police do check the papers, so the pimps wouldn’t risk putting underage girls in the windows,” Elizabeth says. “The girls are also told by the pimps what to say to the police.”

While the legal minimum age for sex workers in Belgium is 18, Van Slooten says the problem is more complex. “They might be 18 when they reach Western Europe, but they have been working as prostitutes for much longer than that.”

The red-light district in Antwerp has a noticeable police presence. If all papers are in order, and there are no incidences of physical violence, Elizabeth says, “the police turn a blind eye to the activities going on there, allowing many of the pimps to feel free to exploit the women and young girls they have brought to Antwerp”.

They might be 18 when they reach Western Europe, but they have been working as prostitutes for much longer than that

- Johanneke Van Slooten of Cherut

The women don’t have high expectations when it comes to the police, she continues, “because they often come from countries where the police are corrupt”. Though they inherently distrust police officers, “they have to call on them from time to time when a client becomes abusive and violent”.

Cherut reports cases of human trafficking to the police and, over the years, it has developed a good relationship with the force. There are times when the volunteers become targets of violent threats, and the organisation’s office has been watched by pimps on many occasions. “Especially when one of the girls goes missing,” says Van Slooten. “The windows in our coffee shop have been smashed in the past.”

Cherut’s interaction with the workers is multi-layered. The organisation has 38 volunteers who perform various functions throughout Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent.

Some work in the Koffieklap, which doubles as a training area for women who would like to leave the sex industry and work in the catering industry; training is also given in jewellery making and sewing. Other volunteers work as translators, counsellors or therapists or do administration.

Building trust

Outreach workers, like Elizabeth, are the ones who make direct contact with the sex workers. Their primary role is to build trust and establish a rapport.

Van Slooten also visits schools, where she educates male students about Cherut’s work. “We have spoken to young people who are between 16 and 18 years old,” she says. “You see them when you come in, they act all tough and think, ‘what are you going to tell us that we don’t already know?’”

Last year, she continues, “I met with a group of troubled youngsters – really tough guys – who walk around the red-light district during lunchtime. So I gave them a reality check.”

She shared with them the stories she’s learned from the sex workers. “I saw that it really touched them, and I know that they left thinking differently. My hope is that the next time they are in the area, they will look into the girls’ eyes and remember what I told them.”

My hope is that the next time they are in the area, they will look into the girls’ eyes and remember what I told them

- Johanneke Van Slooten

Initially, Elizabeth walked around the red-light district accompanied by Van Slooten. “You must be able to handle abuse, rejection and provocation, and you have to be OK with that,” she says. “I am not a prude, but I swear, I wouldn’t repeat some of the things the women have told me. Over time, they open up to you, and they also start asking questions.”

One time, a 60-year-old worker asked Van Slooten to come up to her window. “‘I have something for you,’ she said and gave us a plant with a card that read, ‘Thank you for coming and talking to me’.”

Both Van Slooten and Elizabeth get very passionate when talking about their work. They can reminisce at length about what the women’s lives were like before they came to Antwerp, “before they realised what was being done to them by their family, their pimp, their boyfriend or their so-called loverboy”.

And they empathise strongly with the plight of the prostitutes who have to put on a smile as they wave from the windows, “pretending that they like to have sex with 10 different men”.

The two women have heard countless stories. One of them concerned a Bulgarian woman who was sold into prostitution by her uncle when she was 15.

At some point, she was brought to Belgium by a pimp, who soon fled after getting into trouble with the police. All by herself, in a new country, she realised she was free for the first time in many years.

Lacking money, education or experience, however, she decided to return to prostitution and support her family in Bulgaria. Van Slooten was her first friend from outside the sex industry.

Photo: Gerrit de Heus/EPA/BELGA