By Dina Gonzalez
Global Press Institute
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – Elena Reynaga, a thin, olive-skinned woman, says she chose to become a sex worker at age 19. Today, Reynaga is 60 and retired.
“My body can’t anymore,” she says with a smile. “I was retired.”
But as the founder and former secretary-general of Asociación de Mujeres Meretrices de Argentina Nación, an unofficial union of sex workers, she continues to fight for her former colleagues to legally and safely perform their work.
The association is currently finalizing the details of a bill that would legalize sex work, give sex workers rights and eliminate sexual exploitation. At a recent meeting on the bill, Reynaga shared her story with politicians, labor union representatives and fellow association members.
“I still remember the first time that I was taken prisoner,” says Reynaga, her eyes full of tears. “How I cried! It was in the year 1976. It left me scarred.”
As she speaks of her first police detention, Reynaga addresses the crowd informally.
“They treated me like a delinquent,” she says. “They insulted me. I was a rag!”
Years later, in 1994, Reynaga found herself back in jail. But this time, she was with a group of other sex workers who had also been arrested by the city police. The women began to brainstorm about how they could join together to defend their rights. They even set the prison cell on fire as a sign of protest.
The following year, Reynaga and her fellow prisoners founded Asociación de Mujeres Meretrices de Argentina Nación, the initials of which are similar to the Spanish verb “amar,” which means “to love.” It is aligned with Central de Trabajadores Argentina, one of the country’s principal labor unions, which recognizes the women as a class of workers, though the government does not recognize the sex workers as an official union. The association has 5,000 members, with 93 percent reporting that they are the breadwinners of their families.
Nearly two decades later, the group is preparing to finish a bill to solidify their rights.
“This is a dream!” Reynaga says at the meeting. “Who was going to think that we were going to get here? We began to dream in a prison cell. We just wanted to join together so that the police wouldn’t bother us.”
The faces of those around the room seem captivated by Reynaga, as if breathing in her passion as she speaks. Her fellow association members smile and nod their heads in approval of every word she utters. The government and labor union representatives invited to the meeting listen attentively with a certain curiosity.
Lía Méndez, general director of institutional relations in the national Senate, was one attendee there in support of the bill. Carlos Monestes was also in attendance representing Central de Trabajadores Argentina, which has been helping the association to prepare the bill.
They used the meeting to edit and add details to the bill in order to present it to the Argentine Congress soon. The anxiousness of the association, which has been working on the proposal for two years, is palpable at the Central de Trabajadores Argentina headquarters in Buenos Aires, the nation’s capital, where the meeting took place.
Reynaga says she doesn’t understand why, even today, there is so much mistreatment of sex workers. For her and her fellow association members, sex work is a choice, a profitable profession. That’s why they are fighting for a law that would treat it as such.
“The choice is like an exercise of freedom,” says Reynaga, who is the current executive president of the Red de Mujeres Trabajadoras Sexuales de Latinoamérica y el Caribe, an umbrella organization of sex workers from 15 countries in the region. “The human right is the freedom.”
As Reynaga and the other women in her association work to finalize this bill, the concept of “sex work” is controversial among women who exchange sex for money here. While Reynaga’s association prefers the term to imply a chosen profession, women in another association here call themselves prostitutes. These women consider themselves to be victims of a system that lacks dignified alternatives for them to support themselves. Instead of a law to protect sex work, they are advocating for new public policies to help them leave what they say is a violent industry.
Reynaga says that Article 81 of the city Contravention Code attaches sanctions and monetary fines to the public offer or demand for sex. But there is no law regulating sex work or protecting sex workers from exploitation.
The bill that her association is finalizing asks the government to create a registry of authorized sex workers so that they can practice their profession legally. To obtain this authorization, workers would need to comply with certain requirements, such as complete trainings in social rights and health care, as well as pass a psycho-physical exam.
The bill also sets up a system to tax the earnings of the sex workers. This system requires the workers to issue receipts for the services that they provide and to pay the state a set contribution per month in exchange for benefits such as medical coverage and retirement funds.
“We want to be recognized as workers,” Reynaga says. “We want to pay taxes and that these are returned to the society in public policies.”
At the same time, the bill establishes the right of sex workers to form cooperatives that enable them to join together to rent designated apartments where they can provide their sexual services. The workers themselves – not third parties – would manage the apartments, and authorities would conduct routine inspections.
Claudia Carranza, who took over from Reynaga as secretary-general of the association, says that this elimination of third parties is key to protecting sex workers. This would begin to reverse the exploitation that has crept into the industry during the past decade.
Twenty years ago, sex workers here used to work in nightclubs known as “wiskerías,” Carranza says. Nightclub owners disguised them in legal documents as waitresses or dancers. There, the sex workers found their clients, whose drink sales appeased the owner of the clubs. The women then took these clients out of the establishment to conduct their business, with no third party interfering in their earnings.
“What continued with the client after the drinks, they arranged it outside,” Carranza says. “It was ‘out-bed.’ It was their earning, and no one intervened.”
But she says this changed after the country’s economic crisis a decade ago.
“With the country’s economic problems that mounted in the year 2001, the owners arranged the ‘in-bed,’” she says. “And this implied that the women had to share their earnings. That’s how, for example, the exploitation occurs.”
Also part of the group of sex workers jailed in 2004, Carranza echoes Reynaga’s dream of a law that protects sex workers from exploitation. She talks about it with the same passion as Reynaga does.
Carranza says that she has learned a lot about her rights as a member of the organization – not only as a sex worker, but also as a woman. For example, the group has increased members’ access to basic rights such as education and health care.
Through an agreement with the national Ministry of Education, the association has opened primary and secondary schools for adults in the provinces of Mendoza, Córdoba and Buenos Aires. The schools are open to all community members but give preference to sex workers, even offering a day care for their children while they attend class.
These initiatives reflect one stream of thought among women involved in the industry here. For Reynaga and Carranza, the term “sex work” reflects their choice of profession.
“It is a choice, like the choice a miner has to work in the mines with its risks,” Reynaga says. “We are a working class. We choose this because the work is profitable. What we do is by choice. We are adults.”
But other women in the industry disagree. In 2002, the association suffered an internal division. The group that splintered off took on the name Asociación de Mujeres Meretrices de Argentina Capital, says its leader, Graciela Collantes, who was also part of the original group of women jailed in 2004.
Electing the term “prostitute,” she says that a woman involved in this industry is not a sex worker, but rather a victim.
“The prostitute is a victim of the system, of the absence of public policies that protect and incorporate the rights of women,” she says. “Sex work, no.”
Her group presented its own bill to the Argentine Congress two years ago, driven by Diana Helena Maffia, a former deputy in the city legislature who is now a researcher at the Instituto Interdisciplinario de Estudios de Género at the Universidad de Buenos Aires. This bill looks to promote public policies to support victims of prostitution.
Collantes says that it addresses central issues tied to prostitution, such as mental and physical health of prostitutes. It also considers economic subsidies for women in the sector in order to decrease their dependency on money earned from having sex.
María Elena Naddeo, a deputy in the city legislature, agrees with Collantes that prostitutes are victims of a violent system.
“I am philosophically, ethically and morally opposed to prostitution,” Naddeo says.
She also advocates for this bill to help women to stop using their bodies as merchandise. She recommends the development of programs that would shield victims from persecution and enable them to leave prostitution.
But Collantes says that the bill is stuck in a legislative committee, with little updates on its progress.
Méndez, who has participated in meetings on the other bill, says it’s necessary to advance a law that regulates sex work in order to achieve social recognition. Her view is to use the law to influence society.
“My point of view isn’t the sex work,” Méndez says. “My point of view is the human being.”
The story was originally published by Global Press Institute. (c) Global Press Institute 2012