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Tunisia sex workers call for brothel to reopen in resort of Sousse

By Ammar Benaziz, Laura Smith-Spark and Saad Abedine, CNN
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 1609 GMT (0009 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Prostitutes hand over a petition appealing for the Sousse brothel to reopen
  • The brothel was closed down by a court order around 16 months ago
  • Veiled official says she will do what she can to help the women sex workers
  • Prostitutes say they're suffering major financial hardship because they can't work

(CNN) -- A group of prostitutes has called on the Tunisian government to reopen a brothel in the coastal resort town of Sousse, after a court ruling shut it down more than a year ago.

A delegation from the sex workers met with the vice president of the Tunisian Constituent Assembly, Meherzia Labidi, on Tuesday to appeal for her help.

They handed over a petition signed by 120 women calling for the brothel to open for business once more, in a meeting filmed by Tunisian radio broadcaster Mosaique FM and shared with CNN Arabic.

Labidi, of Tunisia's Islamist party Ennahda, which holds a majority of seats in the assembly, told the sex workers that deciding whether to reopen the brothel was up to the Ministry of Interior but that she would do what she could to help them.

The official, who had her head covered, added, "But we still have to recognize that any premise where prostitution commonly takes place, here or anywhere else around the world, is a real problem in itself."

A court ordered the brothel to close around November 2012, after a lawyer argued before a judge on behalf of neighbors in the area. The case came at a time when radical Islamists had launched a campaign in several parts of Tunisia against the licensed brothels.

The head of the delegation told Labidi, "There is no problem. ... We were attacked by the Salafists, radical Islamists, who attacked us and closed the premises by force."

Another woman in the group said that "the neighbors do not have any problem with us and they already informed us that they would not mind that we reopen the brothel."

Other brothels that were shut down are operating again in the capital, Tunis, and in the city of Sfax, she said. "We have to go back to our line of work because we are facing major financial catastrophes," she added.

Labidi told Mosaique FM, "These women are Tunisian and they have rights, and our duty is to serve them. I am ready to listen to everyone on the condition that I have the time and if their demands are possible and can be addressed in such circumstances; they have the right to be heard by everyone."

Although it is a conservative Muslim country, Tunisia allows prostitution in licensed brothels. Buying sex elsewhere is illegal.

The country's licensed brothels date back almost a century and were first documented during the French colonial period.

After independence, the Tunisian government reorganized the sector. Brothels were found in many provinces of the country, especially in areas popular with tourists from the region.

Workers at a brothel are normally overseen by a woman and are subject to a regular health check. This is documented and regulated by the Ministry of the Interior, although it does not run the brothels.

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