OTRASEX – an abbreviation for Organización de Trabajadoras Sexuales – is committed to the human rights of female sex workers. These rights are violated every day, says OTRASEX chairperson Miriam Gonzalez. “We are facing so much violence and discrimination. The main perpetrators are military and police officers. They arrest us all the time for no reason. Or they try to bribe us, saying they will leave us alone if we pay them. Sex work is not legal in the Dominican Republic but it is allowed, so they have no right to treat us the way they do. We founded OTRASEX to collectively stand up against this kind of abuse. We want to be the voice of all our colleagues and end all human rights violations against sex workers.”  

In 2012, a group of sex workers, including Gonzalez, came together to discuss the issues they faced in their work. The trigger was the arbitrary arrest of one of them. “We already knew then that we have to unite and fight against this.” However it wasn’t until 2016 that OTRASEX was officially established. Treasurer Soranyi Martinez explains, “We organised a meet-up and decided to go to the national police headquarters with more than 70 colleagues. There we demonstrated against the violations we all suffer and against the detainment of a colleague. We made it clear that if you arrest one of us, you will have to deal with all of us. That had an effect, because they released her.”  

Now OTRASEX regularly provides workshops for police and security officials. Martinez says, “We have already trained over 1,000 police officers, teaching them about our rights and how we want to be treated.” She adds with a laugh: “Obviously, we often have to invent a pretext to get in to see them, given the prejudices. We pretend we’re just a club coming to talk about human rights. It’s only when we’re standing in front of them do we tell them that we are sex workers. The surprised faces we get! We see that our workshops lead to change. But then there are new police officers who start again with terrible attitudes towards sex workers. This is ongoing and long-term work”, says Gonzalez. 

“We are also trying to gain a foothold among health professionals. When sex workers go to the hospital, they are often treated very rudely by the doormen and nursing staff. They isolate us and treat us as if we carry a contagious disease. So we regularly go to health centers with a group of sex workers and ask to meet with all staff members to advocate for proper care for everyone.”  

OTRASEX also organises weekly workshops for sex workers in various districts in the Dominican Republic. “It is so important that sex workers become more aware of their rights. Self-care, human rights, sexual and reproductive health issues, gender-based violence, mental health: each workshop we focus on a different topic. The continuity of this work in sex worker communities is crucial, because of course new sex workers get started all the time. Often new young colleagues put up with a lot, for fear of the police or of damaging their relationship with clients. They endure being beaten up or sprayed with pepper spray by the police, and they think they have to handle it on their own. But of course they should file a report and come to us for support.” Gonzalez adds, “It is a lot of work to convince new colleagues that we should report violence and claim our rights. It is super important that police and customers do not get away with violence, because if they do, then they will feel invincible and untouchable, and the violence will only get worse.”  

The collective now has more than 2,000 members. Martinez shares, “We are in the process of becoming officially recognised as a trade union. We are working with the national confederation of trade unions, which has provided several workshops to support us in the process. Our statutes are ready and soon our application for union approval will be submitted to the Ministry of Labour. It is a bit nerve-wracking, because the government and politicians in the Dominican Republic are very sexist and conservative. They are not supportive of sex work or sex workers uniting. But we remain hopeful. With the support of Mama Cash, who believed in us from the very beginning, we will succeed!”