By Ana Enriquez
Latin American sex workers' organising attempts go back to 1982 when the Ecuadorian sex workers formed an organisation. Six years later they went on strike to resist police malpractice and exploitation within the brothels, and to gain attention for their demands for decent working conditions.
In the late eighties, Mexican, Brazilian and Uruguayan prostitutes created their own organisations.
In Latin America as in many other regions where sex workers have organisations there is a debate within the feminist and women's rights movements over the issue of whether to recognise the concept of sex workers.
This article gathers information in some Latin American countries about sex workers' struggles, mostly from their point of view, and their experiences in getting organised.
In 1998 during the first National Forum for Mothers in Special Situations, which included sex workers, HIV positives, and single mothers, an ex-sex worker walked up to the stage. She was black, wore here hair in a pony-tail, and had big eyes. Her tired look appeared to be a reflection of hard living. She looked at the audience calmly as she took some diplomas and graduation pictures from her bag. Showing them proudly she said, "These are my children."
Marina raised and educated her sons and daughters. "When I arrived home at dawn, I took off my shoes so as not to awaken them," she explained. "My children, neighbours, and everybody who knows me treats me with respect. I was a sex worker, but do you see any chop in my forehead?" she said. Marina is a health messenger who works independently with women in prostitution. She belongs to the Women United Movement, putting her energies into organising and helping sex workers.
In July 1995 at the opening ceremony of the First Sex Workers' Congress, one scene from the Provocation Theatre was presented. Sex workers grouped as a health messengers team used their life stories to stimulate the audience, and to bring their health messages to bars and 'entertainment' businesses.
"I don't think that the society has any right to censor me. Not even my family because when they need 100 pesos I give it to them and they cannot provide me what I need".
"If we weren't marginalised our families would not be ashamed of us, and clients and bar owners would not mistreat us".
"In this country the capability and intelligence of woman are not measured. If a woman rebels then she's a devil. There are many of us living triple lives, hiding from our neighbours, family and kids".
The First Congress was a product of the long term work done by the Center for Counseling and Integral Research (COIN), particularly the health messengers, who are ex-sex workers.
In 1996 sixty sex workers formally set up the Women United Movement to demand that prostitutes be treated as persons with human and constitutional rights in the Dominican Republic.
For Marina it was an achievement that sex workers got together to discuss, analysing each topic and choosing a board of directors. Even the name of the organisation was chosen by debate. They formed commissions to include health, legal issues, public relations, and outreach.
COIN has established a way of considering sex workers in the Dominican Republic, avoiding aid or charitable approaches. Health messengers have educated people to make the work visible, and to show private and official violence that women in prostitution suffer, like verbal violence from bar and brothel owners, and physical, verbal, and sexual violence from clients.
COIN's board of directors and Marina agree that organisation, social participation, and a rise in self-esteem will give them back the perception that they are human beings and should claim their rights as such. "Many people think that a sex worker is the worst that exists. They don't understand or have sensitivity and reject them. That's why one of our objectives is to uplift their self-esteem."
"We are the most forgotten. We don't fit into government programmes for the poorest, not even the programme for householders although almost all of us are," says Sulma Manco, a promoter (promotora) from a women in prostitution organisation. "All programmes from every new government do is to ratify us in this work."
Organised sex workers say they have attended many courses provided by government rehabilitation programmes. They learned how to be dressmakers, or hair dressers. Some have even saved to buy sewing machines or the necessary implements to set up a beauty parlour, and once in a while they make clothes for their children or cut their neighbours' hair, but they cannot earn a living from that. Women in prostitution are tired of attending these courses, because they are not followed up with practical or realistic employment options.
"It's not easy to get out of prostitution nor to find the chance to do that. Sometimes it seems as if we are wearing the "P" of prostitution or pest on our forehead. When people know that we are or we have been prostitutes they kick us out, keep us out of their sight. We are treated as if we are pests".
This was the main reason for forming the Women's Colombian Organisation (Cormujer) after other organising attempts became increasingly politicised. They do not just want their organisation to improve the conditions of women in prostitution but to help them to build other real options for life, to sustain themselves and their children.
"We're not promoting prostitution, we're helping women to find ways out of it. She who wants to stay in sex work, for whatever reason, should know her rights and duties and most of all be aware of herself and the implications of her work."
Cormujer has conducted a survey to discover how many sex workers there are. The survey also revealed that they want to live in a different way. With the survey findings they have organised groups, for example, for those who want to work together selling shoes. So as not to repeat the failures of official programmes, the training goes together with an employment option, a practical learning of how the product is produced, and where and how to sell it.
In the same way they achieved a quota in an educational programme run by the Pedagogic University, which was initially for the political reintegration of those excluded but they have helped to extend it to social reintegration.
Sulma and Marta recognise that something good was gained from campaigns by official and non-governmental bodies, to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. They said that a good percentage of women in prostitution in Bogota have learned that they are worthy in themselves and they request clients to use condoms. But clients' irresponsible attitudes towards safe sex are not the only problem for them. Violence from police is an even greater problem than from clients. And it is difficult to denounce them.
To face these problems the Organisation has promoted meetings with the police commander of capital city, Bogota, who have implemented a decree about AIDS which facilitates the elimination of health cards that every woman in prostitution should present to clients and authorities. According to Sulma some police used the card to extort money or sex from the women.
Their organisation is also preparing a law project for the recognition and regulation of sex work. This project addresses the benefits of social security and pensions.
"The defence of this project is going to be hard. We're going to have to talk about many ugly and painful things, but society does not know the human side of women in prostitution. It believes that we are here because we like pleasure or because we want to be here. But crying children can make us ignore moral values and rather look after our families."
"Today is a real possibility, yesterday was only a dream" said Cristina Vazquez, leader of the Association of Public Prostitutes of Uruguay (AMEPU). On 5 December 1995 the Social Security Bank approved a resolution to give sex workers the status of independent workers and with that, possible rights to retirement benefits under Uruguay's social security system.
Ironically the social security system here is undergoing reform which actually makes it more difficult for all women workers to obtain retirement benefits by raising the retirement age from 55 to 60 and from 65 to 70 to obtain the benefits.
In 1994 the association held its Second National Encounter of Sex Workers. In 1988 sex workers got together as an association to claim their rights as human beings and workers.
They say that relations with the women's movement reached maturity, broke down prejudices and attempts to discriminate against them.
They are campaigning for guarantees of their major aims. These are fair treatment in relations with police, recognition of status as workers at union level, treatment for AIDS, and benefits from social security.
In Mexico City, La Union Unica was founded in 1993 as a sex industry advocacy association.
Claudia Colimoro, president of the association, said: "The business is good for us. We earn very well and have flexible hours. That's why we are here. We need more than health projects; we need social security, low income housing, medical assistance, tax rights as any other workers, and education as it says in the constitution. We generate a lot of indirect employment, we are a world of people."
"We have gone to the press to say that we're sex workers, and that our group is not high risk (HIV/AIDS). Our work is not to buy drugs; it's the same as other work. We have had to be very strong and courageous to be accepted in different social circles. It's not easy for feminists to understand that we are not sexual objects. Instead, our work is like any other - only we do it with our genitals. It has been a very difficult struggle." Vanguardia Libre Maria Magdalena (Free Vanguard Mary Magdalene) was founded in 1991 as a civil association by more than 80 sex workers in a block in the red light area of Tijuana, called the North Zone. They became organised to stop violence and abuse from the police. After two years of being organised they stopped the abuse and obtained an agreement with the municipal health services authority to get better treatment and services. The organisation has helped them to win public support against police extortion as well as to promote reproductive health workshops and self esteem. They also arranged to have a programme of talks with local authorities, party candidates, and specialists in different issues.
Organised and unionised transvestites and prostitutes have been defending their right not to be molested or arrested in the streets during daytime because of their clothing or 'behaviour'. Their struggle led to a reform of the 'living together' code in Buenos Aires city, which protects this right. Soon after the code's reform they faced the organised resistance of neighbours. In an atmosphere of general controversy the government made more reforms to the code which do not actually penalise prostitution but impose sanctions on noise pollution or the 'abuse of public space'. The code's intention is to put restrictions on street sex workers. The restrictions vary between placing signs '500 metres away from residential areas' and concepts commonly interpreted as scandalous. Elena Regiaga, president of the Argentinean Prostitutes Association (AMAR) thinks that the reform is not very clear: "Do they mean that we're not be able to stand in front of a house? At what distance? We're afraid that in the end the police will decide again." The positions for debate cover serious matters such as the issue of personal and collective liberties or the scope and forms of control and surveillance.