Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

WOMEN-ARGENTINA: Prostitutes Working For Themselves

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Aug 4 1997 (IPS) - A group of street prostitutes gather three times a week in a small room in Buenos Aires. Their aim: to organise a trade union to fight for their rights.

Some 10,000 prostitutes work the streets of Buenos Aires, a figure that has more than doubled in the past three years. The economic crisis that swept across Argentina and the rest of Latin America in the wake of Mexico’s currency crash pushed many more into the sex trade. Argentina has an unemployment rate of close to 20 percent.

“My feet are aching,” Elena says as she comes in. Wincing in pain she takes off her stiletto heels, opens a bag and pulls out her lunch, a cold meat sandwich, bought on the run at five in the afternoon.

Elena and most of her colleagues at the Argentinian Association of Prostitutes (AMAR) actually met in the cells of the Buenos Aires police, a regular gathering point for street prostitutes. That’s where they conceived the idea of protecting themselves against abuse.

“Yesterday they picked up two girls who were eating in a restaurant,” she says, to illustrate the arbitrariness of the police. But she is not afraid of them. She has taken legal action against a commissioner who threatened her with death after she denounced police abuses on TV.

Elena, aged 47, has two children and a grandson.

“If you have condoms in your purse, they pick you up, because here everything is backwards,” she says. “Instead of protecting us as agents of prevention, they put us behind bars.” Elena says prostitutes explain the risks of AIDS to clients who are reluctant to use condoms.

“Some men tell you, ‘you actually think that I, with this car, could have AIDS?’, and we tell them AIDS doesn’t respect social class, religion, sex or race.”

According to the police AIDS has cut prostitution in the streets in half and doubled the number of women working out of their apartments. But the prostitutes paint a different scenario, saying more and more women are taking to the streets out of necessity.

“It is true that there are many women providing their services in apartments, but they are the ones who want more clothes, the ambitious ones, who aren’t like the girls on the street,” says Elena.

The shortage of other employment, with 19 percent of the country’s working age women left jobless has pushes many of them into the trade — not only single women, but sometimes married homemakers with school-age children.

“We laugh when the police say the number of girls on the street has dropped,” says Beatriz, another prostitute. “Every day we see new girls, young ones. The other day the police picked 30 of us up, and one was crying because she had told her husband she had gone out to look for work.”

An arrest on a charge of ‘scandal on a public thoroughfare’ allows police to detain a woman for 24 hours. “If you have a friend, you can ask her to bring you something, because many of them go out to work without their families knowing,” Beatriz adds.

Their working life is rather different form the prostitutes who work from private homes. Their clients drawn via agencies that post regular daily newspaper advertisements, prostitutes who receive their clients at home are often professional women, administrative staff, students, and even women from upper socioeconomic sectors. Some own the apartments where they work.

Those who work out of their homes can earn up to 8,000 dollars a month. Those who offer escort services ‘for executives only’ charge as much as 1,000 dollars a night.

But those who work the streets do not always make it to 1,000 dollars a month. And those who work in saunas, massage houses, clubs and hotels earn even less.

“Women in the streets are the most unprotected. We have problems with police if we stand at a corner. But women working in saunas or clubs are the most exploited,” says Elena.

The saunas hire women from outside Buenos Aires or from neighbouring countries who come to the city in search of better opportunities. “They pay them only a salary, but make them work 12 to 15 hours. And if the client doesn’t want to use a condom, he doesn’t use it, because the one who pays is the one who decides,” Elena adds.

Between clients — and with her cellphone at hand — Elena works for the Association of Prostitutes, building a union that will effectively defend their rights, and provide secure healthcare and even a pension.

“We have 70 or 75 year-old companions who still have to work,” says Carmen, who also works for AMAR and is an active participant in the union meetings.

AMAR models itself after the AMEPU in neighbouring Uruguay, where sex trade workers have been unionised for more than 10 years, and prostitution has been legal since the beginning of the century.

Some feminist leaders like Marta Fontenla, a lawyer with the Association of Work and Studies on Women, are opposed to prostitutes organising themselves, arguing that it facilitates the creation of red-light zones and fuels trafficking in people.

But the members of AMAR want nothing to do with women intellectuals. They cut their ties with anthropologists, lawyers and sociologists who tried to help them organise. “We want to walk on our own,” says Elena.

First steps have already been taken. They have opened an office in the Central Union of Argentine Workers building and with the help of a sympathetic administrator at the Alvarez public hospital here, they have organised facilities for regular health checks, without discrimination.

At 45, Carmen says she has “at last” been able to leave the trade. Today she works as a cocktail waitress and makes up for the lost income by selling cosmetics.

“I was tired of getting messed about by the police,” she says. A single mother, she started working as prostitute at 20.

“Some people ask us why we don’t work as domestics. But for a single mother with no schooling and no money, everything is harder. Even if they do take you on, what you earn isn’t enough to pay someone to take care of your kid while you work,” says Carmen, who raised her son on her own.

Beatriz, who shows up for the AMAR meeting visibly tired, with no make-up and dressed simply in jeans, t-shirt and tennis shoes, found herself in a similar position.

“I tried to leave it several times, but I always had to come back. When you have a kid, and you want him to have a better life than your own, you can’t stop.”

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