In its eleventh edition, the International AWID Forum, held in Cape Town, South Africa, in November of 2008, has for the first time opened the space for the participation of sex workers and provided them with an opportunity to share their experiences not as subjects of research, but as agents of transformation. Elena Eva Reynaga, who is Argentinean, was engaged in the forum talk show entitled “Sex Workers on Public Transportation: Strategies to reverse stigmatization and discrimination toward sex workers.” Elena is no longer practicing sex work herself but is an activist for the rights of women, specifically women who are sex workers. She is head of the Association of Women Sex Workers of Argentina (AMMAR – Asociación de Mujeres Meretrices de la Argentina) and the Executive Secretary of the Sex Workers’ Network of Latin America and the Caribbean (RedTraSex – Red de Trabajadoras Sexuales de Latinoamérica y el Caribe), which, founded in 1997, encompasses seventeen national sex workers’ networks.
Elena talks about the experience of participating in the AWID Forum and the discrimination against and criminalization of sex work. She also assesses the feminist position in relation to the rights of sex workers.
SPW – How do you see your participation in the XI AWID Forum?
Elena – During the Forum in Cape Town we presented the talk show “Sex Workers on Public Transportation: Strategies to reverse stigmatization and discrimination toward sex workers,” in which we discussed the AMMAR strategy of advocacy that uses the public transportation system to sensitize people about health care and the use of condoms. We had a big audience and responded to many questions. There was great acceptance of our issues in Cape Town. We did not feel discriminated against when we talked about our experience. But we also have noticed that the voices of sex workers themselves are scarcely heard at international feminist meetings.
SPW – This was the first time that sex workers attended an AWID Forum and talked about themselves. How do you evaluate the participation of female sex workers in this space?
Elena – The work we presented was approved by the Forum program committee and that’s why we could be there. But the talk show happened because we, as sex workers, made it happen. During the Forum we noted that quite often academic feminists, who are not sex workers, speak “on our behalf.” These academic colleagues participated in panels, seminars and plenary sessions. Many feminists want to be “our guardians” and to “speak on our behalf.” But they have never done sex work and do not know what defines our realities and what constitute our needs. This is a problem. We, as sex workers, are political actors. We are activists and we able to organize ourselves. We are not the mere subject of research done by others, even if and when these researchers have good intentions.
SPW – How do you assess the recognition of sex workers by the feminist movement?
Elena – So far, our presence in the movement is null, and despite this first event in Cape Town it remains null. The feminist movement has still a lot of prejudice against us. Feminists underestimate us a lot and tend to blame us for the existence of prostitution, instead of seeing us as part of the solution. But, I want to tell you that the experience of AWID allowed us to identify a new generation of young feminists who are less biased, and more open-minded and willing to respectfully have an open dialogue with us — to know us better and to try to identify with our position. This openness creates an environment where it is possible to exchange different perspectives.
SPW – What are the main questions and challenges faced by sex workers in general? Are any of these specific to Latin America?
Elena – The major problems we face are related to laws criminalizing sex work all over the world, not only in Latin America. These laws make us totally vulnerable to police power and control. They are a product of a double morale, which encourages tremendous acts of violence: unresolved murders and frequent human rights violations. This is the same kind of violence exercised against many woman, but in our case it is exacerbated because we’re involved in sex work. We used to say that sex workers are subject to triple discrimination: because we are women, because we are poor and because we are sex workers. In addition, there are now anti-trafficking policies being implemented everywhere, which tend to collapse trafficking and sex work, creating much confusion, exacerbating police harassment and prosecution, and pushing sex workers toward greater illegality; this in turn makes us all the more vulnerable to pimps. To end the violation of sex workers’ rights, sex work must be recognized as labor, as autonomous labor, and sex workers must have their rights protected just as the rights of all workers are protected. This necessitates the abolition of laws that legitimate prosecution and a fight against stigma and discrimination.
For more information about AMMAR visit www.ammar.org.ar (Spanish only).
:: Posted in 01/26/2009::