Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees

JAMAICA: The Other Side of Paradise

Kathy Barrett

NEGRIL, Mar 16 2010 (IPS) - It’s just before midnight, and the music pulsates through the massive speakers perched under the ceiling, scantily clad girls in their five-inch heels moving closer to the iron poles.

"Shoeshine", a transvestite sex worker, says prostitution of underage girls is common is Negril. Credit: Kathy Barrett/IPS

"Shoeshine", a transvestite sex worker, says prostitution of underage girls is common is Negril. Credit: Kathy Barrett/IPS

To the rhythms of reggae and dancehall music, they sashay onto the platform, grab the poles and dance like molasses sliding down a wooden banister.

This is the scene in “Scrub a Dub”, the exotic adult nightclub in the picturesque tourist resort town of Negril on Jamaica’s west coast.

Misty, 24, has been dancing for just over four years. She came to Negril from the capital Kingston, 222 kilometres to the east. Her story is one of hopelessness that drove her to the resort town in search of a better life.

“My life was hard, I needed to make more money. A friend told me to come to Negril where I could work in the tourist industry,” she said.

But she was disappointed to find the jobs in the luxurious all-inclusive hotels were hard to come by.

“My friend took me to this club and they wanted dancers. I was afraid at first, but now I make good money and I can take care of my two-year-old daughter, the men tip well. I hope to become the best dancer in here,” Misty said.

Misty is not alone. Hundreds of girls, many under the age of 18, flock to this tourist mecca and knowingly or unknowingly are drawn into the commercial sex trade. This is the other side of paradise, a hotbed of human trafficking, prostitution and drugs – a stark contrast to the Negril promoted around the world with its seven miles of white sand beaches.

Rev. Margaret Fowler is a minister of religion and social worker who came to Jamaica over 20 years ago from Scotland. She runs a foundation to aid women and girls who have been drawn into the commercial sex trade.

“It’s a modern-day slavery because the people have just been dragged into some kind of bondage,” she told IPS.

With the support of her church, Fowler pledged to make a difference, no matter how small. In 2005, she established the Theodora Foundation with funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development to conduct research on human trafficking in Jamaica and help affected women.

Perched on a hill in the western end of Negril, the foundation has a halfway house for girls who are at greatest risk. Under the watchful eye of house mother Yvonne Ramsay, Theodora House is home to up to four girls who stay there for a maximum of two years.

“Here at Theodora House we want to show them [the women] real alternatives to the life they knew and show them that there is a place where they can be loved without giving anyone anything in return,” Ramsay explained.

The foundation also works with youth in Negril who are susceptible to exploitation in their search for a way to survive. It offers classes in reading, math, business, computer science and life skills.

Most of the students, including a few young men, can read only at the fifth-grade level. The teachers work to get them to the point where they can take entrance exams to enroll at a national training institute.

“Our task is to give them information, so they can say ‘I don’t have to do this’,” Fowler said. “The temptation is there, when you are poor and have no money …if we can get them to the stage where they don’t have to go down that road, we have done a good job.”

There is one group of young women that Fowler still hopes to reach – young girls under the age of 16. This is one of the dark secrets of Negril, spoken about by very few.

The prevalence of girls, some as young as 13, was confirmed by “Shoeshine”, whose real name is George Coombs.

Shoeshine, 51, is a transvestite who moved to Negril from the eastern parish of St. Mary years ago.

Living in a crudely built one-room hut just on the outskirts of the hotel strip, he knows the ins and outs of all the underground establishments geared towards the commercial sex trade. He even opens up his house to those who wish to get involved with the young girls.

“You have young girls, it’s not legal, I can show you plenty of them… they come from all over, the older dancers bring their daughters into the business, the white people want the young girls,” he said.

Negril is especially impacted by sex tourism, which thrives in this popular tropical vacation destination. It is primarily poor women and girls, and increasingly boys, who are trafficked from rural to urban and tourist areas for commercial sexual exploitation.

The problem is growing across the island, prompting the government in 2007 to implement the Trafficking in Persons Act, which prescribes penalties of up to 10 years imprisonment.

A study that year carried out in Kingston, the tourist capital of Montego Bay and Negril found that “girls as young as 13 are full-fledged prostitutes.” It said some of them live on their own, while others are taken to holding areas in the communities and used as dancers in the more popular nightclubs.

But a renewed crackdown appears to be bearing fruit. In the last two years, eight suspected cases of human trafficking have been successfully investigated and brought before the Jamaican courts. In 2009, five raids were conducted, resulting in four arrests and three prosecutions.

The government has established a trafficking-in-persons unit that operates within the police force and has five detectives.

For the Theodora Foundation, a success story is already in the making. Camile, 28, dropped out of school at 16 and headed to Negril to work as a bartender, but in her words, things just didn’t work out.

“I even tried to commit suicide at one time, but now being at Theodora safe house, they have helped me to be more confident and have more self-control,” she said. “I know that I will reach there, this is where I see myself, working in a big business place, coming out in my heels and suit… I want a job to take care of my mother and my son.”

“Before living here, I would be on the street, the men would have to have sex with you before they give you anything,” she said. “But I now have hope… I will be okay.”

*The dancers used pseudonyms to protect their identities.

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