Safe haven where women work without pimps

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The Independent Online

Along a 400-yard stretch of the Vecht river dozens of women sit aboard houseboats doing their best to entice men from a long line of passing cars.

Along a 400-yard stretch of the Vecht river dozens of women sit aboard houseboats doing their best to entice men from a long line of passing cars.

This is the Zandpad, a floating red-light zone in the Dutch city of Utrecht that offers prostitutes a safe haven and makes imaginative use of one of the city's many waterways.

Tonight the Zandpad is enjoying a brisk trade. Around 80 vehicles, including a bread delivery van, a caravanette and at least two bicycles, are jammed back to back along the river's towpath. "By midnight there will be at least 120 girls looking for business," says a taxi driver. Rather helpfully the council has built a roundabout on the towpath so the cars can drive back and make their final choice.

Bernhard Jans, of the Utrecht Police Force, says many of the women in the Zandpad come from Poland, Croatia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia. "For these girls, I would say about 80 per cent choose to do their work freely without pimps. They're here sometimes for a few months, sometimes a few years to earn enough money to do other things. Some have been here a lot longer."

The boats are owned by three Utrecht businessmen whom Mr Jans describes as "reformed pimps". He says: "It is very easy to manage the girls when they are all working in a tightly controlled zone."

The Zandpad is a far cry from the cold realities of Utrecht's second tolerance zone on the other side of the city. The Europalaan is based in a light industrial estate where girls who wish to sell sex from the street can go about their business unmolested by the police.

This is what the councillors from Liverpool have in mind for their own city's prostitution-tolerance zone. The Europalaan girls work an 800-yard length of road, sited about 20 yards apart from each other, drawing in much less frequent passing trade than the Zandpad. The council has even erected six "finishing-off booths" for the punter and the prostitute to complete their business.

Many of the girls are drug addicts or without work permits. Utrecht's drug and prostitution support teams have permanent sites here so the girls can seek help whenever they need it. Unlike the Zandpad, where the girls must register with the police and subject themselves to medical tests, the prostitutes here are more itinerant.

Mr Jans says: "The trouble is that some of them still choose to work outside the tipplezone [toleration zone] and this makes it much harder for us to look after them."

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