Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Canada and Nicaragua: Different worlds, but not for sex workers

     I’m still shaking my head after two and a half enlightening hours yesterday talking with the local sex workers’ organization here in Managua, RedTraSex (Red de Trabajadores Sexuales). I’m not sure whether to be delighted or shattered by how completely identical the issues are for sex workers in Nicaragua as they are back home in Canada.
     Had it not been for us talking in Spanish, I could have easily been back in Victoria talking to my pals at Peers Victoria. I fear my new friends at RedTraSex were a little discouraged to hear that everything they identified as problems were also problems for sex workers in Canada – stigma, judgment and misunderstanding at the top of that list.
The swag from my RedTraSex visit, including a
key chain designed to fit a condom. Can't wait to 
wear my "I always use a condom" t-shirt.
     Up until we met, the group believed that a country as developed as Canada would have surmounted some of the basic prejudices, misconceptions and petty harassments that make the life of a Nicaraguan sex worker more difficult. But no.
     Case in point: The RedTraSex pamphlets, one of which is about their campaign to reduce stigma facing sex workers when they seek health care, and another whose title translates to “Sex work and trafficking are not the same thing.” The book documenting the work of RedTraSex - a network of sex workers in 14 Latin American countries - is titled “Ni Puta ni Prostituta: Somos Trabajadores Sexuales.” (“Neither Whore Nor Prostitute: We Are Sex Workers.”)
     You could produce those same three publications in an English-language version and they would be totally relevant to Canadian sex workers.
     Discrimination against sex workers at hospitals and clinics is a huge problem in Canada, to the point that many sex workers refuse to disclose what they do for a living and thus don’t get the attention they need for their specific line of work. Here in Nicaragua, almost half of the sex workers that RedTraSex surveyed about health-care access reported that they don’t disclose their line of work to medical professionals for fear of being judged. More than a third of those who did disclose reported feeling an instant and negative change in the doctor’s attitude toward them, and repeated attempts to convince them to quit work.
     The presumption that all sex workers are working against their will and thus trafficked became a big political issue in 2014 in Nicaragua, and led to the passing of a new anti-trafficking law. Having heard nothing about the new law until the first media reports came out, RedTraSex had to launch a major advocacy campaign to push back against the government’s attempts to treat consensual sex work and trafficking as the same thing.
     How completely unsettling that that very same year, it also became a big issue in Canada, the U.S. and Europe as the anti-trafficking movement launched an aggressive campaign to convince the world that sex work and trafficking are one and the same.
     As for the stigmatized and offensive language we use when we talk about sex workers, well, that’s one of the most obvious signs that sex workers continue to occupy a sub-human position in the minds of the general public, because while we no longer tolerate any number of derogatory terms for all kinds of other populations, describing someone as a corporate whore or prostituting their principles remains an acceptable way of condemning someone as the lowest of the low.
     One of the major struggles for Nicaraguan sex workers is government apprehension of their children, the presumption being that if you’re a sex worker, you must be a bad mother. I can’t tell you how many times I witnessed that same problem playing out for women seeking Peers support. 
     Lordy, how is it that the plight of sex workers is the same all over the world?
     On the upside, I had one of the most engaging conversations with some of the most passionate, powerful women I've met since starting to work in Central America three years ago. Unpaid and largely unsupported other than through a little money from Worldfund that covers the rent for their office space and some promotional material, they are kicking serious butt with their ferocious advocacy on behalf of sex workers.
     Other similarities: The women complained of constantly being put under the microscope of researchers, visitors, do-gooders and others who ask deeply personal questions about how much they make, what their spouses and children think of them being sex workers, whether they were abused as children. They complained that any organization that comes with offers of financial support or scholarships also attaches a non-negotiable rider: That if the woman hopes to receive this support, she must “exit” sex work. They complained of the double morality that allows so many of their customers – preachers, police, politicians – to campaign against the rights of sex workers while buying sexual services in their off-hours.
     And they complained about the presumption that all of them have tragic life stories that explain why they work in the industry. The reality is that just like the Canadian sex workers I've met, they came to the work for many reasons, including the fact that a single mother who is a sex worker is able to work fewer hours for higher earnings than many other Nicaraguans.
     “If you ask any of us for the stories of why we came to be sex workers, it’s different for every one of us,” says Maria Elena Davila, the national co-ordinator for RedTraSex. “But we chose this work.”
     RedTraSex has sex worker volunteers in seven regions of Nicaragua, doing what they can with limited resources to reach out to the 15,000 adult women working in the industry (RedTraSex currently doesn’t work with male or trans sex workers). The volunteers work in an informal style reminiscent of the 12-step movement to step up with personal support for other sex workers at any time of the day or night that someone calls with a problem. Condom distribution is a priority. Maria Elena says what the women most appreciate is that the support comes from other sex workers, who can be counted on not to judge them.  
     As is the case in Canada, sex work in Nicaragua exists somewhere between legal and illegal, a shadowy space that leaves workers without basic human rights and vulnerable to police harassment. Maria Elena noted that when some Managua workers recently reported an underage girl on the stroll – who turned out to have been put out there by her parents – police responded by coming to the area and arresting everybody working there.
     “Whenever that happens, you end up at the police station for five or six hours, not making any money,” she says.
     She recounted the extremely difficult moment when she was preparing for a press conference on behalf of RedTraSex and realized that seeing as she was poised to go public as a sex worker, she’d first have to disclose that fact to her mom and her children. Here or in Canada, telling your family the truth is one of the most painful memories in any sex worker’s life, a stark reminder of just how stigmatized and judged this line of work is.
     I’m both honoured and aghast to have heard in the stories of the strong women of RedTraSex virtually a word-for-word retelling of the stories I've heard in Canada. I’m struggling to process the new knowledge that two countries that are worlds apart in so many other ways both treat their sex workers with the same contempt and disrespect, denying them the most basic of rights as workers and as citizens. If ever I needed one more argument to confirm my opinion that this issue is one of the most important human-rights battles of this era, yesterday's conversation was it.

1 comment:

Janice said...

Such a thorny issue. The Netherlands has been very progressive in this area but even there, solutions to problems seem to create other problems….like organized crime.