ESMERALDAS, Ecuador (WOMENSENEWS)--Elizabeth Molina does not walk. She marches.
The word "comrade" follows each one of her greetings and remarks.
Molina is a sex worker. Eighteen thousand sex workers stand behind her. She is the head of RedTrabSex, Ecuador's national network of sex workers with headquarters in Quito. The labor union is divided into 15 organizations and is still growing.
So far, the group, which began mustering its ranks in 2005, has established organizations in 14 of the country's 24 total provinces. "We are halfway there," Molina told Women's eNews recently, sweeping her hand over a provincial map of Ecuador. "Keep in mind, 18,000 represents the women working in brothels. Our colleagues also reel in their clients on the streets, in the parks and by phone. We move around."
The Ministry of Health, Molina said, registered 25,000 sex workers in 2000. But she assumes the real figure is much higher, given that sex workers rarely stay more than a few weeks in one place. Health officials also only monitor licensed venues and clandestine brothels are numerous. Molina said the group has plenty of room to grow and could, within a few years, possibly triple its ranks.
In addition to recruitment, the network has been focusing on preventing sexually transmitted diseases among sex workers and promoting general public health measures.
Legal, Ethical Complications
But RedTrabSex--the name, an abbreviation for sex workers network in Spanish--faces legal and ethical complications in Ecuador, where sex work is neither legal nor illegal.
William Gonzalez is director of health in Esmeraldas, a border town whose brothels-- seven recognized and dozens unrecognized--offer a snapshot of sex workers' relationship with authorities. Gonzalez reflects a typical attitude toward sex work. "All we ask from sex workers is that they do not act as accomplices in the spread of STDs," Gonzalez said, referring to sexually transmitted diseases.
Currently, brothels derive their legitimacy not from the law but from a series of health and sanitation certificates from local health authorities that add up to "centers of tolerance," where prostitution is accepted.
These areas in Esmeraldas are subject to nightly police raids in search for minors and undocumented workers.
"You often find minors in subhuman conditions," said Roberto Paredes, police commissioner in Esmeraldas, a coastal town close to Colombia. "Rooms can be a meter by a meter. You wonder how the owners get the permit to operate."
The recovery of minors depends on police raiding brothels and checking documents, said Sayne Hurtado, police commissioner for women and family. Minors and undocumented workers are hidden or cut loose by brothel owners, she said, and then they turn to the streets looking for clients because they cannot be arrested for "walking."
"The majority of sex work is irregular," said Hurtado. "Out of 2,000 sex workers, I calculate 1,500 are underage or undocumented. They hide them, shoo them out the backdoor when they see the police coming."
Doll House Bust Exposed Abuse
A high-profile bust in Quito last December--dubbed the Doll House raid, after the name of the establishment--found nine undocumented sex workers allegedly captive, abused and working against their will.
The owners kept the women's identity papers and forced them to work back-to-back day and night shifts, using the drug known as ecstasy to help keep them awake.
"A ring of exploitation surrounds sex work," said Molina.
Some Colombian sex workers are drawn to Ecuador because it uses the U.S. dollar as its official currency, which means wages there are better than those paid in the more volatile Colombian peso, Molina said.
"The dollar tempts all of us," she said.
Human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation is a strong reality in Ecuador. In her fieldwork, Molina has found that a high percentage of Colombian sex workers in Ecuador arrived after being lured by pimping agents with promises of high-end retail and caretaker jobs only to end up in indentured servitude in brothels and bars.
She said many Ecuadorian minors are trafficked from small rural towns to commercial capitals across the country, particularly Quito and Guayaquil.
RedTrabSex is demanding that sex work and brothels be recognized as a legitimate, certified business by the Ministry of Labor to reduce illicit activities.
Brothel owners don't necessarily agree.
"I don't think prostitution should be legalized," Lucia Quiñonez Maldonados, manager of the 50-year-old brothel Las Cañitas (The Little Sugarcanes), told Women's eNews in January. "Girls here are already exploited enough. There would be a higher rate of sex work. If you loosen the laws, where would my daughters and granddaughters end up?"
Quiñonez, who has a teenage daughter, runs two of Esmeralda's historic brothels--Las Cañitas and Las Hermanitas--with her sister. She said minors and undocumented Colombian women--refugees from conflict areas who commonly have no sex-work experience--routinely approach her for work.
In pushing for increased legal rights for sex workers, union organizer Molina often focuses on the public health threat of HIV-AIDS.
Between 2004 and 2007 Ecuador's HIV-AIDS infection rate more than doubled to 2,358 cases from 1,108 cases, with 80 percent linked to heterosexual activity.
Molina argues that RedTrabSex is helping to curb the further spread of HIV-AIDS by encouraging brothel owners and sex workers to participate in monthly medical checkups.
To safeguard sex workers' health privacy, last year RedTrabSex lobbied and obtained a health card in which there is no photo to identify the patient and where the diagnosis of diseases is encrypted.
Only one case of HIV-AIDS in 2007 was tied to a female sex worker, according to a 2008 study by the Ministry of Health found in a review of 2007 HIV-AIDS data, broken down by employment categories.
The highest infection rates for women corresponded to those who identified themselves as blue collar workers or unemployed; about 27 percent and 19 percent respectively. Those who identified themselves as housewives were nearly 17 percent of all cases, the third-highest group.
Local branches of RedTrabSex use town hall meetings to distribute female condoms since clients often resist using male condoms. The network partnered with the Ministry of Health in 2008 to provide contraceptives and information pamphlets on HIV-AIDS.
The organization also promotes general public health messages to sex workers in anti-smoking pamphlets and brochures that promote exercise. These messages encourage them to comply with medications and to avoid high heels that can damage the spine.
"We take a comprehensive approach to health," said Molina. "Sex workers are more than their vaginas. They get the flu like everybody else."
Dominique Soguel is Women's eNews Arabic editor.