Prostitution and Trafficking

Ecuador Sex Workers Target HIV-AIDS Prevention

Friday, April 10, 2009

Sex workers in Ecuador are building a national labor network and trying to curb HIV-AIDS, while dealing with the growing presence of minors and undocumented workers in brothels. The first of six stories on Ecuador's sex industry.

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Elizabeth Molina

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.

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