ESMERALDAS, Ecuador (WOMENSENEWS)--The clients start filing in shortly after lunch. Beer flows. Women lead them into tiny rooms. A young woman sits to the side, forlorn, making no effort to get their attention.
"The hardest thing is when a drunken client comes in. They are rude and violent people," Jacklyn, who works in a brothel in Esmeraldas, told Women's eNews earlier this year.
Jacklyn said she is 22 years old, but doesn't look it. When pressed for her age, she admitted to entering the business at 15, but said a growing number in Esmeraldas are starting out as young as 12. That is three years younger than the national average age of minors who entered the sex industry in 2006.
This oil port, tourist destination and province bordering Colombia has a high concentration of formal and informal brothels.
It is one of the country's centers for the sexual exploitation of minors, according to a 2008 Organization of International Migration report. Three quarters of the teens and preteens trafficked in Ecuador pass through the brothels, bars, hotels and motels along this coastline, making the province a gateway for minors to join its sex industry.
Licensed centers of tolerance--a euphemism for brothels in Ecuador--conceal the trafficking and exploitation of minors for commercial sex. Local fishermen, migrant oil workers, police and military provide a steady clientele.
The age of consent is 14 in Ecuador and teenagers can start working age 15. But the country's new constitution, introduced last year, specifies that work for those under age 15 should not conflict with a child's right to education or put their development in danger. It explicitly calls for the protection of minors from sexual exploitation.
"The line between sex work and exploitation is blurred," Tania Moreno, a Quito-based sex crimes prosecutor told Women's eNews in February. "And teens are sadly the ones in highest demand in the sex market."
Reluctant Law Enforcers
In last year's report to the Organization of International Migration, Moreno detailed law enforcers' reluctance to interfere in brothels that hire or hide minors when the legal age to work is 15. He also noted the prevalent misconception that underage girls enter the sex industry out of enjoyment.
The reality, Moreno said in an interview, is that adolescent sex workers are children made vulnerable by their poverty. The majority leave school at 11 and often support entire families. Many, said Moreno, have a history of sexual abuse.
"'I was abused and not paid,' goes the logic," said Moreno. "So why not get paid?" The victim of sexual exploitation doesn't recognize herself as such because she has received money for the work she is doing so she doesn't see it as exploitation."
Jacklyn works at Las Hermanitas (The Little Sisters), one of two female-run brothels in Esmeraldas. It is sparse and overheated. Rooms offer three buckets instead of a sink for washing. Small corner shelves support personal belongings, ranging from vanity mirrors to condoms to nail polish.
She earns $500 per month, charging $6 for each 15 minutes of intercourse or "el punto." This is a high income compared to domestic worker wages. She pays a $1-per-client commission to the brothel owners and sends the balance to her sister-in-law who is caring for Jacklyn's two out-of-wedlock children. Jacklyn says the financial responsibilities of motherhood lock her into sex work.
"Girls do not enter this job because they like it," said Pavel Tenorio, a 22-year-old pimp working in Esmeraldas. "They do it out of need. This is a business that does not fail."
A 2008 survey of underage sex workers showed that the majority--42 percent--cited economic reason as a primary motivation for their activity. The second most common reason was fear of their partner, with 81 percent reporting a history of abuse. A quarter of underage sex workers hand over their income directly to the partner--often a chulo or pimp--who put them in the business.
One strategy pimps use is seducing a teenager and then forcing her into sex work.
Silvia Barragan is president of the shelter Foundation for our Young in Quito which offers shelter to victims of sexual exploitation or family violence from across the country.
"The hardest part of rehabilitating these girls is getting them to understand that they are victims, that these men do not love them and that they should not go back into the business," said Barragan.
In 37 percent of cases, the pimp or trafficker is a friend, classmate or boyfriend of the sex worker. The recruiter is a young adult, typically between the ages of 19 and 25, according to a summary of investigations in the first half of 2008, included in a database maintained by the shelter.
Brothel Owner Expresses Shock
"As a mother, I am shocked to see girls come in at 14," said Lucia Quinonez, owner of Las Hermanitas. "But their 'husbands,' boyfriends, pimps--assholes--get them false documents and put them to work. Authorities try to control it but can't overcome the mafias. And us owners, some close our eyes. Others open them."
Quinonez, age 46, said she runs a tight ship at Las Hermanitas and handpicks her workers to avoid minors. But Quinonez said brothel owners who try to work within the law are facing a surge of false documents and minors who lie about their age.
Quinonez said she can spot a minor. Shaking or trembling are two give-away signs of inexperience. She added the majority of these adolescents robotically repeat that they are over 20 when asked for their age and identification papers. A few cry, sigh, and finally break down, saying they came into the business because they were forced by a boyfriend or because they have a family to support.
Quinonez said she turns them away but admits that mistakes can be made.
In December, a young woman entered Las Canitas--a brothel run by Quinonez's sister-- wearing a blonde wig. Quinonez told Women's eNews that she suspected the girl was a minor but the young woman insisted she was 19.
Maruja, Quinonez's sister, hired her. She ended up in the emergency room, with her vagina ripped apart by her 22nd client.
Dominique Soguel is Women's eNews Arabic editor.
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