31/08/2012 - Executive Secretary

Violating the rights of female sex workers

In the framework of the 11th International AIDS Symposium 2012 organized by Fundación Huésped, Elena Reynaga —founder of A.M.M.A.R. and Executive Secretary of RedTraSex— explained the difficulties that arise today for female sex workers with current anti-trafficking meassures.

In the discussion table "Vulnerability, Women, HIV and other STIs", that Elena shared with Marcelo Colombo —Prosecutor Coordinator of the Assistance Unit for Research of kidnappings and Trafficking (UFASE)— and Lilian Abracinskas —Director of Mujer y Salud en Uruguay (MYSU)—, they addressed various issues affecting women’s lives. Three approaches to the same problem: the violation of women’s rights and its connection with HIV.

Lilian, who opened the panel, discussed the progress on rights for Uruguayan women due to various social movements. As an example, Lilian described the requirements needed in 1923 to be considered as a teacher: not being married, not be accompanied by men, not stroll the ice cream parlors of the city center, not dye their hair and no makeup among other measures absurd today. "No doubt this is now behind us", said the Director of MYSU, "but there is still much to be done", she added.

Abracinskas spoke on sexual, domestic, labor and gender violence to women of all ages and conditions. “With large female unemployment rates, wage gaps, few senior positions held by women and emergencies in the health field, the violation of women’s rights requires gender equality policies to equalize inequities and correct what is causing these inequities”, she said.

Meanwhile, Colombo from the UFASE welcomed the invitation and valorized the space, recognizing that “it is the responsibility of prosecutors and judges generate that interface with civil society”.

Going back to the analysis of MYSU Director, Colombo raised the importance of the Law 26.364 of “Prevention and Punishment of Trafficking in Persons”, based on a United Nations Protocol of 2000, to combat against this crime.

The Argentine model in terms of sex work is abolitionist, i.e. it seeks to punish the pimp and not the prostitutes, but Colombo said: "Today this is not fulfilled in Argentina due to the misapplications made on offenses and contraventions". The prosecutor told the audience that "in the raids on brothels, women are the first to run away because they are who historically were persecuted".

Nevertheless, after this "mea culpa", the prosecutor Colombo fell into a reductionism putting on the same level autonomous sex work and human trafficking. The UFASE coordinator said that "in any case where sexual services are developed in a brothel, women who are working there are poor and in a position of vulnerability. What we say is that the Anti-trafficking Law has included the abuse of a vulnerable situation as an element that traffickers use to subject others, leaving little room to suppose that there can be brothels today without trafficking for sexual exploitation".

Given this statement, Elena Reynaga explained with examples how anti-trafficking policies are causing more vulnerability of female sex workers in terms of HIV rather than protect them from pimping, and spoke on the many women engaged in sex work on their own without feeling victimized or subjected by anyone.

"I am the woman prostituted, as you say" said Elena to the Prosecutor, "but we assume ourselves as workers, we vindicate as sex workers, we are not victims at all", she said. "I think we’ve demonstrated it in 19 years of militancy, doing what we are doing, on our own. With health centers such as the one in La Plata, with schools like the one in Córdoba; reducing HIV prevalence from 6% to 1.9% thanks to all the work of prevention we have done to among peers, we derogated codes of contravention... I think that when there are some women with enough ovaries to conduct an organization like ours, they cannot be considered victims", she started her convincing presentation. Elena emphatically stated its position to avoid any malicious comments: "We are totally against human trafficking". But she also clarified that the current anti-trafficking law “is being misinterpreted, and so make this tool into something the police use to go on with making sex work more clandestine".

To make her report even more explicit, the founder of A.M.M.A.R. shared the story of nine fellows from Rosario who rent a house to exercise sex work. "The anti-trafficking procedure enters that place; they seized the phones, all the money from the girls and put them against the wall to revise them… rather to paw them. Isn’t that violence?" she asked those present.

"And it is clear that we do not agree with brothels. Now reality shows us that there are fellows who choose to work indoors, and who are we to tell them to go to work in the street? Why? To the police can take them in? No! Until we gain a legal framework that recognizes sex work, where fellows can rent their apartments to make their own working cooperatives, where fellows are no longer bothered by the police we have to do something in between", said the referent.

RedTraSex Executive Secretary left a question for Colombo, which was never answered: "Why it is so easy to break into a brothel and make the aberrations they do to the fellows, who are working on their own and why is not possible to enter into a field where there are 4/5-year-old children from raising eggs?"

As Elena remarked, the greatest enemy of female sex workers is the police, and she explained how the criminalization of sex work exposes who to those who exercised it to being more vulnerable to violence and police abuses. Arbitrary arrests, subjections to compulsive tests and checkups, economic extortion or the request of "sexual favors" are common practices to which female sex workers are confronted.

Finally, the founder of A.M.M.A.R. called for the convening of working together. "If anyone knows where there is trafficking, it is called A.M.M.A.R. Not everything is in the reports, but is in our everyday practices. And we are the first that want to eradicate the issue of trafficking, but not this way. Making a work table where we can denounce and not end up like Sandra Cabrera, with a shot in her neck, or as the fellow of Paraná who is threatened", said Elena convincing.

"We know that there are people compromised within the government. If there is serious responsibility, we can work together for us to have a space and they show that there are concrete actions. Stop keep going into brothels forcing fellows to say they are trafficked when they are not”, Elena said.

The current advisor of A.M.M.A.R. closed her presentation telling the public that there is a Presidential Decree (1086/2005) in which Nestor Kirchner recognized sex work as work, with full rights for those who exercise it. "Kirchner was of advanced and, as he wanted, we hope we can work for their ideals", said Elena.

Quoting Abracinskas "there is still much to be done", a long way to go, distances to shorten and governmental positions that should necessarily open and listen to the protagonist who are affected by these policies.

Only when the whole society recognize, respect and ensure the rights of women, in all its diversity, it will be closer to achieving a just society.