By Luba Fein
Many people in the UK who are unable to work because of disabilities or mental distress dread attending a Work Capability Assessment, where their disabilities and ability to work are assessed and on the basis of which a decision is made as to whether they are entitled to receive social security payments based on their disabilities.
Israel has an equivalent system, run by the National Insurance Institute, and until recently anyone leaving prostitution with physical and/or mental health issues that made it hard for them to step straight into paid work had to attend a similar assessment.
There were no exceptions even though survivors often complained about the experience, saying the assessment committee lacked sensitivity and they felt humiliated and that their privacy had been invaded. As a result, many women gave up applying for the disability benefits they were entitled to – because they couldn’t face appearing before the assessment committee again.
Thanks to ongoing feminist campaigning in Israel, the National Insurance Institute recently changed its protocol so that survivors of prostitution and victims of sexual assault no longer have to attend the assessment committee in person. Physicians on the assessment committee can now make a diagnosis without the survivor being physically present, based on data supplied by the service organisations that are assisting her.
This means that generally survivors of prostitution will now receive a disability allowance for two years without having to attend an assessment. If a survivor chooses to attend, committee members must refrain from making insensitive comments about prostitution. A special National Insurance coordinator is now responsible for survivors’ claims, and works closely with the service organisations that support survivors.
Or Abu, the Director of the Task Force on Human Trafficking and Prostitution that led the National Insurance reform says:
“First and foremost, this massive change is for the women themselves. Beyond that, one more government body recognises prostitution as trauma and understands the needs of the population in the sex trade. It is tremendous both as means of rehabilitation and changing the public discourse.”
Liat Elazar, a survivor of prostitution and a published author, shares her experience and her thoughts on this change:
“I read with happiness and satisfaction that the National Insurance will provide a humane and fair solution to survivors of prostitution who are eligible for disability. I immediately remembered the first time I turned to the welfare department for help when I was still in prostitution. I was miserable and desperate for help from the authorities. It was a terrible time, about two years, before I left this horror for good.
I was sent to the Director of the welfare department. I will never forget the conversation with him. I sat beside him and immediately noticed a disdainful and condescending look. I told him I was in prostitution and wanted to get out of it and work in something else. He looked at me sceptically and then said with a mischievous smile: ‘But you earn well in prostitution; why should you leave it?’
I was shocked, but I tried to explain to him that I was not feeling well and was starting to suffer from anxiety. He prescribed me an anti-anxiety medication and waved me off, saying: ‘Listen, this is not an employment office; I can’t help you with that.’
I left the conversation with my head bowed and disappointed, and two years passed until I gained courage and exited prostitution on my own.
After three years, I could no longer deal with the severe trauma the sex trade left me with, and I returned to the welfare department, this time as a ‘decent woman’. I asked for mental help and was referred to a social worker. At some point, the social worker brought up an alternative to receiving disability support. Before that, I was supposed to go through a committee so that they would decide whether I was worthy of receiving the support or not. I learned that one of the committee members was none other than my friend, who had humiliated me five years before.
I told them I was not ready for him to participate in the committee. I insisted on it, and finally, I won. He did not participate.
It was honey-sweet revenge for the humiliation I suffered.
And yes, I finally got a disability allowance.
Many thanks to the coalition of women’s anti-prostitution organisations for this change.”