The official green light has been given to Federal Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne's proposal to reform Belgium's sexual criminal law. The country is now preparing to remove sex work from the penal code.
The Justice Committee approved Van Quickenborne's proposal on Tuesday, the minister announced. The Federal Parliament still has to approve the proposal but that is not expected to be more than a formality.
"This is a crucial leap forward. We are finally giving sex workers what they are entitled to: recognition and protection. Something they have been asking for decades," Van Quickenborne said in a statement to The Brussels Times.
"If the Parliament approves this bill soon, it will finally be possible for sex workers to do their job legally and with equal rights," he added. Until now, sex workers in Belgium often fell between the cracks, leaving them insufficiently protected – something which became particularly obvious during the coronavirus crisis.
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The country's current sexual criminal law dates back to the 19th century and has been a legal no man's land for decades. It sets out to punish "those who cooperate in fornication and prostitution." This bill aims to change that.
Under current regulation, sex work is allowed, but third parties involved with sex workers are committing a crime. The law aims to target pimps but in practice impacts other people involved with sex workers, from book-keepers and web designers to drivers, landlords and even banks.
"Worldwide, only New Zealand did this before us. As with the right to abortion and euthanasia, Belgium is once again putting itself on the map as an absolute pioneer in ethical issues," added Van Quickenborne.
An exceptional case
"That we have come this far is fantastic, but we are not there yet," Daan Bauwens of the UTSOPI sex worker union in Belgium told The Brussels Times. "This work has been going on for about ten months, and we have had to fight so hard to get to this point. This is great, but the Federal Parliament still has to approve the bill."
Until now, all third parties were criminalised, Bauwens emphasised. "In practice, that means that the entire sector was unregulated. There were no criteria to determine what good working conditions were."
As a result, the sector was unregulated and people sometimes worked in appalling conditions. "And worst of all, it was all legally possible, because it was tolerated. That will now hopefully change."
Bauwens stressed the peculiarity of the case that has seen it "opposed from so many different sides, which is why it has taken so long," and praised "the courage of this government" in getting this far.
"The initiative comes from UTSOPI and this government has listened to our sex workers during every step of the process over the past ten months. This is policymaking based on facts and reality, and not on stereotypes."