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Spain voted in favour of a proposal to draw up legislation to abolish prostitution, cracking down further on pimping and introducing tougher penalties for men buying sex in a controversial initiative that has split the women's rights movement.

Until now, prostitution has been tolerated in Spain, with many brothels operating as hotels or other lodging establishments, although sexual exploitation and pimping are illegal.

The move is part of a progressive drive by the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to extend women's rights, and would see sex workers treated as victims to be protected rather than criminalised as they would be under any outright ban on prostitution.

A total of 232 lawmakers voted for the proposal, 38 voted against it and 69 abstained. It now faces a lengthy process during which lawmakers can suggest amendments that can be approved or rejected.

At the end of the process, lawmakers must vote again and only then will the law be sent to the Senate.

The Socialists, who rule in a minority coalition with far-left junior partner Unidas Podemos, want to introduce longer jail sentences for pimping, removing the present requirement for police to demonstrate that an exploitative relationship exists with the sex worker.

The proposal would also punish anyone using a premises for prostitution, and men buying sex, with aggravated sentences if the victim is a minor or classed as vulnerable.