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Sex workers seek to dignify their profession
Tomás Andréu
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Bill seeks to recognize and protect sex workers.

Using the body as a tool to give pleasure in exchange for money is a conscious act. But this personal decision has a bad reputation both in society and among Latin American governments. Marginalized, discriminated, stigmatized and hated, sex workers have no other choice but to deal in silence the constant violations of their rights. Now, an organization in El Salvador aims to change this story and test the highest authorities of the Central American country.

The non-governmental Women’s Movement Orchids of the Sea (Movimiento de Mujeres Orquídeas del Mar) has drafted a bill to protect the rights of sex workers in El Salvador. The proposal will be formally presented to the Legislature in 2016, but by the end of next November, it will be presented and discussed publicly, said the executive director of the group, Haydeé Laínez, to Latinamerica Press.

The organization advises women who have chosen to work providing sexual services. The organization brings together about 2,700 women from across the country and is present in the departments of Sonsonate, San Miguel, Santa Ana and San Salvador. In addition, the group is part of the Latin American and Caribbean Female Sex Workers Network (RedTraSex).

The idea to dignify sex work in El Salvador emerged soon after the birth of Orchids of the Sea in 2005, but it was not until five years ago that a team of this group, with international counsel, decided to analyze all the country’s laws — for and against sexual workers — to create its draft of a bill.

“This document is the essence of the feeling of sex workers,” emphasizes Laínez in conversation with Latinamerica Press. For her, there is a clear violation of the rights of her colleagues since they have no access to bank credit, social benefits such as social security or pension rights. They also cannot acquire their own home.
“We work 365 days a year. We pay taxes, because when we pay water, electricity, and phone bills, we are paying our taxes,” says Laínez, 46, who started sex work at age 18. She has managed to live through the blows of life and society. She has had to battle with abusive customers, insults in public, the police and military and with municipal laws. And as if that were not enough, she has had to deal with gang extortions.
Repressive municipal laws
The Constitution of the Republic of El Salvador does not prohibit or punish sex work; however, the municipalities do. Municipalities punish the supply and demand for sexual services with fines and imprisonment. That is why it is not surprising that the Metropolitan Agents Corps (CAM) — a type of municipal police force — and state security agents harass those who offer their sexual services on the streets. Rather than implement fines, authorities look to blackmail and exchange offenses for sexual pleasure.

“It is curious that the ordinances [secondary laws] recognize us, but they recognize us only to discriminate against us and to take money from us,” says Laínez.

The sex work bill is based on the recognition of this type of work by the authorities and Salvadoran society. From this emerge other equally important points, such as better health care that is free of prejudice and discrimination. In addition, the potential approval of this bill would repeal secondary municipal laws that persecute those who provide sexual services. It would also put a stop to sexual exploitation and trafficking in places like nightclubs. 

“Humanity has been told the story that what we do is not work and even we ourselves have believed that, but we have to disprove it and have to raise awareness in governments and society about this issue,” says Laínez, who is about to graduate with a degree in Social Work.

The bill of Orchids of the Sea has the financial support of Plan International. Laínez said that they bring together various State and civil society institutions in what she calls Sex Work Roundtables in which the ministries of Labor, Health and Economy and security agencies such as the National Civil Police and the CAM participate.

The most difficult stage, however, is the Legislative Assembly. On May 1, 2015 the new legislature that will govern until 2018 was elected. Young people have entered the majority parties. This could help update the mentality of the veteran politicians of Congress. Or at least, there could be a willingness to listen and discuss thorny issues such as the decriminalization of abortion or a proposal such as the sex work bill.

Latinamerica Press did a survey of the different opinions of the most representative parties of the Legislature. Although there was resistance to comment on the issue — the representatives wanted to see in writing the proposal rather than risk giving a statement — their reactions have common points that show an open mind to hear the proposal of Orchids of the Sea.

The representative and chairman of the Board of Congress, Guillermo Gallegos of the right-wing Grand Alliance for the National Unity (GANA), believes that although the issue has already been “regulated in several countries, it would not be a bad idea [to regulate it in El Salvador] because that would control the situation; through regulation we can prevent many STDs.”

“I would not rule out supporting such an initiative. It is something that is practiced here and anywhere in the world and will never go away. Not that we agree with it, but given the situation, it would be best to regulate it. And yes, I do believe that [sex workers] should be given attention through legal regulation.”
Stigmatization and violation of rights
Sex work is not a pleasant subject to discuss in much of feminist or progressive circles. The feminists claim that women who offer sexual services are perpetuating the maximum expression of patriarchy, which reduces women to pieces of meat that exist only to satisfy men. The progressive circles say that a real man would never seek a sexual service because that is not what men or gentlemen would do. Or, the fact that a man could be a sex worker is simply unthinkable.

“Those who do not know sex work should not speak. Only those of us who have worked [as sex workers] know what we’re talking about and what this means. If they have not lived it, how can they argue?,” says Laínez.

But support comes from an important entity in El Salvador called the Feminist Collective for Local Development. One of their spokeswomen, Morena Herrera, asserts that “a legal regulation on sex work is necessary because the lawlessness [no regulation or prohibition] of sex work only contributes to the violation of rights, the greater stigmatization and, in many cases, to violence, persecution and criminalization of sex workers”. Herrera also adds that the “prevailing double standards in society, including in the Legislative Assembly” does not create a positive environment for sex work proposal. However, “if the debate is not framed in the sphere of public morality, but in recognition of citizens’ rights, which the State has to protect,” then there is hope that it could be approved.

Ingrid is 51 years old and has been working in the sex activity for 25 years. For her, a law that would dignify her work “would be an endorsement of our denied and invisible rights.” Through her sexual services, she managed to finish her high school studies, feed her family, and provide a roof, clothing and education to her daughters, who already know what their mother’s work is.

“A law that would benefit us would frighten people who try to sexually exploit or to attack us,” says Ingrid to Latinamerica Press.

Sandra, 30, is also a sex worker. She began when she was 18 for a simple reason: money at home was scarce. Now she does it not only for that reason, but because she is aware of her condition.

“Now that I am an organized sex worker, I realize that my work is like any other. We all charge in exchange for something. A law in our favor would allow us to have access to decent housing. It would really change our situation of exclusion to which we have been subjected.”
—Latinamerica Press.


“Sex work is a job too” say Movimiento de Mujeres Orquídeas del Mar, that promotes a bill to protect the rights of sex workers. (Photo: Mujeres Orquídeas del Mar archive)
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