Argentine Sex Workers Fight De-Humanizing Abuse with Legislation, Graffiti

Argentine sex worker union fights to change societal perceptions of prostitution and change laws that leave police harassment and brutality unchallenged.

Taken at the Dyke March in San Francisco, CA
Photo Credit: Caitlin Childs

On a Buenos Aires street corner, a Banksy-style graffiti shows a scantily clad woman leaning provocatively towards the edge of the building. Round the corner, the woman's hands reach out to a pushchair carrying a toddler. This, says the Argentine Prostitutes' Association (Ammar), is the reality of the sex trade in Argentina, where 87% of sex workers are single mothers.

The graffiti is part of a campaign led by Ammar, the first de facto trade union for sex workers in Latin America. For the past 19 years the group has been fighting to change the way society looks upon prostitution and make sex workers aware of their rights.

Ammar helped draft a bill due to be presented in the senate that would class sex workers as self-employed. If it becomes law, it would enable them to register with labour authorities, pay tax and get a pension.

"We wanted to show we are first of all women, mothers and breadwinners and then sex workers and that we need laws to protect us. Some of us chose this work and there should be a legal framework for it. We need it to end marginalisation and to empower us," Georgina Orellano, an Ammar activist and former sex worker said of the campaign.

Prostitution without pimps is legal in Argentina but Ammar activists believe the current legislation leaves sex workers exposed to police abuse because it does not establish any rights. Harassed by police officers at every corner, many women end up trapped by prostitution cartels that exploit them.

Given the growth of the illegal sex trade, Gustavo Vera, director of the Alameda Foundation, which campaigns against human trafficking, thinks such a law would be ineffective. In the past year, activists from his organisation have identified and closed down 140 brothels in Buenos Aires.

"Maybe a law like this would work in Sweden or Holland, but this is Argentina. Human trafficking is a serious issue and cartels are extremely powerful. I don't think there can be such a thing as prostitution by choice here," Vera said. "[Ammar] says prostitution can be a choice but is it really when financial circumstances push you into it?"

Orellano defends the right to choose because she considers herself and other women in the trade to be typical workers.

"There's an entire class that doesn't get to really choose. Does the maid or construction worker choose that job? Sex workers are no different. To put it bluntly, they use their hands to work, we use our body but we are all workers. It's not an easy choice but it's what we have to do."

Freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires. Follow her on Twitter.

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