September 21, 2016
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — “Karla” was murdered on May 6. She was a sex worker, but she was also an activist. That’s why she was killed, her friends say.
Karla’s real name was Angélica Quintanilla. She was waiting to take the bus when a car drove past and shot her nine times.
INSIDE THE STORY: A GPJ reporter expected to see a group of sex workers weeping when they gathered for a meeting after the death of a colleague, but instead she found them inspired to bring change to how women in their industry are viewed and protected. Read the blog.
She died in El Salvador that night, where she lived and worked. An international consortium of sex workers known as RedTraSex, of which she was a member, discussed her story when they gathered in Argentina’s capital city in June. It was an example, they said, of why sex workers need to strengthen their security measures and build alliances with global agencies so they can evacuate threatened activist sex workers when needed.
Gatherings of Red de Mujeres Trabajadoras Sexuales de Latinoamérica y el Caribe (RedTraSex) awaken members’ passion to end abuse and murder of sex workers, says Elena Reynaga, the network’s executive secretary.
Sex workers and activists are resigned to a life of danger, because they are the public voice of opposition to that violence, RedTraSex members say.
“It hurts me a lot that indifference exists, because people don’t know what the girls live like in these countries,” Reynaga says. “They just can’t continue killing and murdering women.”
Alliances with global agencies are in the works, Reynaga says, but details, including which agencies, aren’t being made public until those agreements are formal.
RedTraSex also decided in June to create a phone monitoring system among the network’s members. Local point people now have members’ phone numbers and check in periodically.
Still, Reynaga says, the only lasting way to prevent violence against sex workers is to gain legal recognition. RedTraSex in June asked the Organization of American States to recognize sex work in Latin America as a profession, to recognize the violence, stigma and discrimination workers face, and to take an active role in developing legal frameworks that protect and guarantee certain rights, among others.
Sex work is assumed in that region to be something a woman is forced into, but that’s not always the case, says Carolina Justo Von Lurzer, a researcher at Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council.
Many women, including members of RedTraSex, choose sex worker as a profession, but they don’t enjoy the rights that people in other careers have, Justo Von Lurzer says. If this work were regulated and recognized, it could save the lives of many.
“It’s a fight that has to continue and that will finally bring it to the rights of sex workers being recognized,” she says.
RedTraSex was founded in 1997, and it now includes members representing 15 countries. Its primary focus is gaining legal recognition for sex workers and providing training for both sex workers and their communities, including sensitivity training for law enforcement and government officials.
Trainings have helped sex workers prepare for facing police, says Reynaga, who has been RedTraSex’s executive director since its founding. She says she personally understands that danger: The 62-year-old became a sex worker when she was 20. She is now retired.
Activism, at least within the realm of sex workers, means risking one’s life, she says.
“We are women who come from much exclusion, and sometimes we fall in love with the cause,” Reynaga says. “And, for falling in love, [society] ends up punishing us and taking away our lives.”
Violence against sex workers is common, and some of the violence is committed by police, says Gladys Murillo, 30, a RedTraSex member from Panama.
“[The police] are as corrupt as they come, because our peers are detained every day,” Murillo says. “In that process, they rob their money or they make them do sexual acts on them in exchange for letting them go. They’re discriminated against, they’re beaten. Many times our peers have returned with arms that are broken or cut.”
In Peru, police pose a primary threat for sex workers, says Karina Soto, a Peruvian sex worker and RedTraSex member. They abuse sex workers and discriminate against them, she says.
But RedTraSex’s sensitivity training has had an impact for some police officers.
W.B.C., a police officer in El Salvador, participated in RedTraSex training six years ago. His employer, the government, paid for it, he adds.
In the trainings, he learned how to have a dialogue with sex workers, and how to gain their trust with the aim of helping them, not punishing them, he says. He asked to be identified only by his initials to avoid any blowback from his colleagues for speaking publicly on the topic.
“Violence in our country happens frequently within and outside criminal networks, and sometimes from the police too,” W.B.C. said in a phone interview. “It’s shameful, because this shouldn’t happen, but there is so much violence, and sometimes it’s very difficult to control.”
For Reynaga, it’s important to raise awareness of sex worker-targeted violence in all sectors of society, from politicians to common citizens to police and judges.
“It seems to me that the world will have to scream about that problem,” she says.
Danielle Mackey, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.