‘I am also a part of this society’
We are doing important social work . . . It is because of us that there are less cases of rape.’ So speaks Lily Cortez, president of OTN, the sex workers union of La Paz. OTN, along with its sister organization ONAEM, in Cochabamba, is fi ghting for sex workers’ rights. While prostitution is legal in Bolivia, sex workers are often not treated well and socially ostracised.
In 2005, residents of El Alto attacked a number of brothels and bars, ransacking and burning them in moral outrage, due to a belief that prostitutes ruin homes and spread disease. Cortez denounces this as hypocritical behaviour from of a society that enjoys prostitution clandestinely. Alina Rueda, a social worker at the CRVR clinic for sex workers in El Alto, confirms that Bolivian sex workers are for the most part in very good health, as by law, they are required to attend weekly health checkups. Rueda sees 500 workers a month pass through her doors. In the past two years, only one case of HIV infection has been diagnosed at the clinic, and less than 3% of her patients have been diagnosed with other sexually transmitted diseases
Unfortunately, sex workers are taken advantage of by the forces that are supposed to protect them. Paloma*, another sex worker advocate, says that the police sometimes extort money, usually 30 bolivianos, from women to complete their compulsory checkup. She also says that the police occasionally raid illegal brothels and offer the workers there a stark choice: a 300 boliviano ‘fine’ from the owner or free run of the brothel, its booze and its women for the duration of the night. The owners always choose the latter.
Illegal operations are a blight to sex workers’ rights organisations because, according to Cortez, society lumps legal and illegal sex work into the same pot and brands it negatively. But, Cortez rejoins, ‘Work is one thing, and crime another . . . I am also a part of this society.’ In fact, OTN and ONAEM campaign virulently against criminal sex activity because of the damage it does to their members’ profession. They receive anonymous complaints from sex workers who are mistreated in illegal establishments, and make public denouncements in an effort to close them down. They campaign against pimps and the trafficking of minors, and have helped deliver some trafficking victims to government shelters.
Evelia Yucra, a member of ONAEM, stresses that her organisation has helped give women back their sense of self-esteem, reciting a mantra invented at one of ONAEM’s first meetings: ‘Now I know who I am, I exist, other eyes have looked at me, I know that I can speak.’ At the moment, both organisations are, controversially, campaigning against the Bolivian Ley de Trata y Tráfico – the ‘Sex Trade and Trafficking Law’ – which they insist that, while it intends to protect minors, will damage opportunities for sex workers.
While OTN and ONAEM provide protection and solidarity to sex workers, they also paradoxically sustain a profession which most women admit they would rather not be engaged in. ‘Prostitution is consensual rape’, says Cortez. If she could make enough to live on with an office job, she’d leave sex work behind, and Paloma dreams of returning to her studies one day. They speak of finding strategies to deal with the pain that their daily work causes them. In El Alto I meet Gracia*, a shy woman in her forties, buried within a pale purple bowler hat and a voluminous pollera, who has been doing sex work for the past 20 years. Unable to read or write, she began sex work to support her family. Gracia finds it hard to speak about what she does, but says that her clients usually make her feel unhappy: they are drunk and use violent, offensive language, which she does not want to repeat. When she is feeling too downcast she switches brothels in order to get a change of scene. She is paid 30 bolivianos per client, 10 of which go to the establishment, and she is expected to service at least 10 clients a night. Rueda says that younger women might be expected to receive up to 40 clients a night, and that often men will pressure the sex worker to have sex without a condom, offering a handsome 100 bolivianos. Workers are sometimes robbed, but cases of extreme physical violence are rare. Nevertheless, both Rueda and Cortez can name workers killed by sexual violence. Violence can also extend to the family home: Rueda describes how a husband might fi nd out his wife is supplementing her income with sex work and then beat her. More sinister, some men force their wives into sex work, pimping them out and collecting all their earnings at the end of the night.
Rueda estimates that some 10% of workers are students looking for income support. The vast majority are single mothers who, hiding their work from family and friends, dream only of a better future for their children. Yucra, Gracia and Cortez are among the latter. Paloma, who has no children, says that she is inspired by the fi lm Pretty Woman – it comforts her through her day-to-day pain by showing a sex worker who is able to change her situation and find love. Rueda, though, is more cynical about this possibility: ‘Every now and again there are clients that fall in love with the sex workers, and they are able to leave the brothel work’, she begins, ‘but the utopia never lasts long. Eventually the man starts sleeping around again, and when the woman speaks up he says, “You’ve no right to complain, you’re just a bitch.” Usually they split up, and the woman returns to sex work.’
The need for OTN and ONAEM represents an inevitable reality in modern Bolivian society, helping women to survive it as best they can. While sex work typically involves the subjugation of the woman offering it, Yucra and her colleagues feel that the willingness of single mothers to sacrifice their bodies in this way is testimony to their profound strength. ‘Women are more responsible’, she says. ‘Women always think of others. We are the ones that take care of everything in the end.’
*To protect interviewees’ anonymity, some names in this article have been changed