MADRID – Adebi works in the shadows on La Rambla, Barcelona’s famous boulevard.
In normal times, she tries to attract tourists or locals who are out for a night out on the city.
The 36-year-old has lived in Spain for 10 years but when she arrived in her adopted home from Nigeria, prostitution was hardly what she had in mind.
“I wanted to come here and do domestic work, you know, send money back home. It has not been like that,” she told VOA.
Adebi, who did not want to use her real name, is like many other women who have been tricked into prostitution by well-organized sex trafficking gangs, who demand that the women pay off a debt by selling themselves for sex.
Prostitution has boomed in Spain since decriminalizing the practice in 1995.
The country became known as the brothel of Europe after a 2011 United Nations report said it was the third biggest capital of the sex trade after Thailand and Puerto Rico.
The sex trade is worth $25 billion per year and about 500,000 people work in unlicensed brothels, according to data from Eurostat, the European Union Statistics agency.
About 80% of these women are victims of sex traffickers, say Spanish National Police officials.
Now, Spain’s leftist coalition government wants to ban prostitution by bringing in a new law that would attempt to penalize anyone profiting from the sex trade.
“We are on the right path, which has to end in national legislation against prostitution and trafficking, which says that our sexuality is available to men that we are a commodity which is bought and sold,” said Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo last week.
“There is trafficking because there is prostitution; if there is no prostitution there is no trafficking. We are abolitionists.”
Prostitution occupies something of a legal limbo in Spain; selling yourself for sex is not illegal but profiting from it is.
According to Spanish law, sex trafficking is when one person moves, detains or transports someone else for the purpose of profiting from their prostitution using fraud, force or coercion.
Previous attempts to bring in a national law have floundered because political parties could not agree.
Calvo has the support of the far-left Unidas Podemos party, the junior partner in the coalition government, but seeks to win over the opposition conservative People’s Party and regional parties.
More harm than good?
Nacho Pardo, a spokesman for the Committee to Support Sex Workers, CATS, believes banning prostitution will harm the very people it is designed to help.
“This will not eradicate prostitution. It will not offer people working in prostitution and it will help the mafias in the same way as happened in the US when prohibited alcohol,” he told VOA in a telephone interview. “I think it will be catastrophic.”
CATS helps about 2,000 prostitutes in southeastern Spain each year, of which about 10% were victims of sex trafficking, says Pardo.
He said many women, men and transsexuals from Africa and South America, became involved in the sex trade in Spain because sex traffickers insisted they pay off debts. The traffickers demand payment for the cost of smuggling the sex workers and finding them work, but advocates say the alleged debts in reality amount to swindling and extortion.
Nigerian women form the largest group of Africans who operate in Spain, Pardo said. Romanians form the largest group of foreign prostitutes in Spain, followed by women from the Dominican Republic and Colombia.
“Most feel deep shame about being involved in the sex trade,” he said.
Rocio Mora, who has been campaigning against sex trafficking for three decades, is the director of Apramp, which helps protect, help and reintegration women who are in prostitution.
She says her team sees almost 300 women per day who are victims of sex trafficking.
“Since 1985 we have been calling for abolition of prostitution. In a country which believes in the state of law, no person should be sold for their body,” she told VOA. “There is now a need for a comprehensive law that criminalizes those who profit from what is a form of violence against women.”
Back on the streets of Barcelona, Adebi says all women were forced to have sex with clients, often under threat.
She says some Nigerian women were told they had run up debts of up to $60,000 but despite plying their trade for years, they never worked it off.
“Women are fined for being late, not looking good, buying cigarettes from a place which is not the sex club they are working in, anything,” she says.
“That whole film with Richard Gere was a myth. There is no such thing as Pretty Woman.”