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Former Prostitutes

John LaurensonOctober 5, 2006

The German Protestant church, with the support of the EU, is helping former prostitutes to turn some of their talents -- though, naturally, not all of them -- to aiding Germany's fast-growing population of old people.

The "profrida" project wants to give prostitutes other optionsImage: AP

Thirty prostitutes in western Germany have begun a two-year course to re-train as either saleswomen or, more controversially, nurses for the elderly. One of these women is Tanya, who didn't want to disclose her real name.

"Prostitution is hard on the body and soul," Tanya said. "You wake up in the morning, think what the day has in store for you and shudder."

She said as her children grow up, she has become increasingly concerned that they would find out what she did for a living.

"But it's a devil's circus," Tanya said. "Once you're in, it's difficult to get out." But Tanya did get out and is now one of the 30 prostitutes between the ages of 19 and 40 who are building themselves new careers -- and new identities -- as caretakers for the elderly.

A non-judgmental approach makes it easier for the women

Prostitution is legal in Germany. The charities that work with these women estimate that one million Germans have sex for money each day. This number is based on the more than 200,000 registered prostitutes who pay taxes and get state health insurance.

Prostitution in Tschechien
There is a way out for prostitutes, if they wantImage: AP

The two-year re-training program is called "profrida." The regional government of North Rhine-Westphalia and the EU's European Social Fund finance the project's bill of 1.05 million Euros ($1.3 million).

The woman who dreamed up profrida and organized the funding is Rita Kuhn of the Protestant charity Diakonie Westfalen.

"If we go back to the Bible, there were several persons who worked as prostitutes -- think of Maria Magdalena -- and they were respected in that time," Kuhn said. "That's what our point of view is. We think it is not fulfilling of a woman's life but, if she wants it, we will respect it."

This non-judgmental approach has made it easier for women to come forward and sign up for the program.

"Former prostitutes are very customer-orientated"

Recruiting the women has been assigned to a Protestant help center called Midnight Mission. It sends its people -- some of whom are former prostitutes -- out to the brothels and on to the streets to talk to sex workers. The Mission's head Jutta Geissler-Hehlke said these women, used to giving a helping hand, are just what the elderly of Germany need.

Leben im Altersheim
Germany needs more caretakers for the elderlyImage: dpa

"We find that former prostitutes are very customer-orientated," Geissler-Hehlke said. "They are very friendly and aim to make these old people happy and satisfied, and enjoy the last parts of their life." She said skills such as these were part of prostitution, too.

"In their former jobs, they had to deal with physical aspects a lot and to find out how bodies want to be treated," Geissler-Hehlke said. "They had to be gentle and kind."

To stop the men they'll be looking after from getting any funny ideas, they're not supposed to know about the past jobs of their new nurses. But some older people at a local café were quite keen on the idea.

"Oh I think it's a good idea to give these prostitutes a perspective for the future," said one man. "Many older people might get a bit excited and have some fun in their heads, in their fantasy."

"It's a good thing for all the women," a female café visitor said. "They get training and it doesn't matter what history these women had. It's a chance for a new future."

Project makes economic sense

With over 6,000 vacancies in geriatric nursing, Germany's Employment Agency is very keen on the project. For the prostitutes, filling those vacancies is starting to make economic sense, too, said Geissler-Hehlke.

Prostitution in Deutschland
Eastern European competition is pushing pricesImage: dpa

"We've got a lot of foreign prostitutes coming from poorer countries, especially Eastern Europe," Geissler-Hehlke said. "Sometimes they only work here for a couple of weeks and then go home and the whole family can live off that money for the whole year."

Competition is very high in the prostitution industry and it is pushing prices, sometimes to as little as seven Euros for sex, she said. Caring for an elderly person's more innocent needs might be a relief for all concerned.