Sex workers mobilise in Córdoba, Argentina
Interview with María Eugenia Aravena, the Secretary General of AMMAR Córdoba (Asociación de Mujeres Meretrices Córdoba), a Red Umbrella Fund grantee. Eugenia has been an activist with this network since late 1999.
“I went to the first meeting of sex workers in Córdoba when I was 19 years old. We were protesting because the police were working with some nuns who were fighting against sex workers. AMMAR Buenos Aires came and spoke. They said sex work is not a crime and that we should organise.
It had a huge impact on me to hear that we were not criminals, and there was no reason to take us to jail. I had felt powerless. I always heard the older sex workers telling stories. They told about the cruelty and hardships they experienced in the street. Each of them had a story of abuses, beatings, and some had even been murdered. Then I heard AMMAR saying we are not criminals.
I thought: Why then did my elders face so many injustices? I knew I was a person with rights. Nobody was entitled to insult me, abuse me, take me to jail or take away my earnings. In Argentina there are misdemeanour codes in each province. Sex work is not criminalised in the Penal Code, but in the misdemeanour codes, engaging in prostitution in
public carries the heaviest punishment. The police can arrest you, and the police chief decides how many days you will spend in jail.
We have travelled a long way in our fight against the codes. We are taken seriously by the media. The government listens to us, even as it continues to embrace criminalisation policies. The public understands more that sex work is not a crime. We report harassment and mobilise in the streets to stop police repression. For many years in Córdoba City, sex workers have not gone to jail. But in 2013, some did because the government is becoming more repressive. Prohibitionist policies are becoming tougher all over the world. We need to unite with others and make our voices heard.
We sex workers are oppressed by abolitionist policies that confuse sex work with trafficking. Trafficking of people is about exploitation and lack of freedom. When sex work is confused with trafficking, the real victims of trafficking are often ignored. Considering the limited options available to working class women, sex work is a practice done by choice by women of legal age. Sex workers are diverse in terms of their education, socio-economic status and vulnerabilities. We are not all the same.
Our human rights are violated when the voices of those of us who choose to do sex work are not valued. As with all other workers in this capitalist system, we work for our subsistence. We demand respect for our right to work. All the poor are harassed when they organise. Alone we can achieve nothing. We need to join other movements and fight together. AMMAR Córdoba knows that when we fight with others, other movements come to support us, and we are stronger.
In our kindergarten, a sex worker can leave her kids for free. People from other movements – it is not just that they demonstrate with us, for instance – they also come to the kindergarten. The kindergarten is open to all the community, not only sex workers. Our struggle is not only for the recognition of sex workers, but also for the right to land, public transportation, education and health – for all the poor. And we are getting a response. We no longer feel so alone.”
AMMAR Córdoba is a provincial level, self-led network of 1,000 sex workers determined to support the health and well-being of sex workers and advocate for the recognition of sex workers’ labour rights. In 2013, AMMAR Córdoba strengthened its collaboration with other provincial networks of sex workers in Argentina for mutual support and more effective advocacy. The network also opened a centre offering sex worker friendly health services in the provincial capital.
Sex work is not illegal in Argentina, but it is also not protected under labour laws. Public stigma and police abuse are condoned and make sex workers vulnerable to exploitation. Sex workers experience prejudice from health service providers and their children are discriminated against in school.