As of Wednesday morning, Bolivia's "night workers" are on strike. Up to 35,000 prostitutes across the country have refused to report for the medical checkups required every 20 days to legally work the streets. By continuing to serve clients without ensuring they're disease-free, the sex workers' action raises the risk to public health. It comes in response to attacks in the city of El Alto last week in which citizens burned brothels and beat sex workers in protest against legal prostitution.
"We refuse to be STD-tested until we can work free from harassment," says Lily Cortez, president of the Night Workers of El Alto, the low-income city that borders La Paz, Bolivia's seat of government.
The rampage began after citizens demanded that brothels and bars be located at least 3,200 feet away from schools. Within 48 hours, angry mobs had taken matters into their own hands, burning more than 30 establishments. Hundreds of women and transvestites were forced to strip while their belongings were torched; dozens were beaten and mutilated as the police stood by and watched. "It was something we needed to do," says El Alto resident Roberta Quispe Mayta. "Now our husbands will behave better and the prostitutes will leave."
The municipal government responded by closing all brothels within 1,600 feet of schools, but took no action against those who had attacked the prostitutes. Left to work in the streets rather than in the relatively safety of the brothels, the sex workers have since become victims of police harassment, including physical abuse and arrest threats. The police have refused to comment on these actions.
The latest violence against Bolivia's sex workers is not surprising. Although the Supreme Court in 2001 legalized prostitution, which is widely practiced nationwide, the oldest profession has not gained the relative social acceptance it enjoys in some European countries. Instead, women and men in the sex industry have become scapegoats for everything from broken homes to the rising HIV-infection rate.
"We are Bolivia's unloved," says Yuly Perez, Vice-President of the National Organization for the Emancipation of Women in a State of Prostitution (ONAEM in its Spanish initials), the sex workers' union. "We are hated by a society that uses us regularly, and ignored by institutions obligated to protect us."
Indeed, the Supreme Court ruling requires that the Ministry of Health take full responsibility for the sex workers' safety and medical services. But the government has turned a blind eye to the recent events in El Alto, and has ignored the demands of the prostitutes. That, says the union, has left its members no option but to put their clients' health at risk until their security is guaranteed. Some sex workers have gone as far as mutilating themselves and sewing their lips together in order grab the nation's attention.
"We are mothers and breadwinners for our families," says Cortez. Like her co-workers, she earns less than two dollars per client. A "good night" can bring some 15 clients, but many nights aren't so profitable, and after kickbacks to brothel owners, the majority end up living day-to-day. "If we don't work, who's going to feed our kids?" she says.
The strikers see their action as part of a larger battle to make society understand that the sex workers are poor people struggling to survive, and not prostitution entrepreneurs. "People think the point of our organization is expand prostitution in Bolivia," says ONAEM's Perez. "In fact, we want the opposite. Our ideal world is one free of the economic desperation that forces women into this business." But in the meantime, her group "will fight tooth and nail for the rights we deserve."
The backlash against prostitution could escalate, however. El Alto officials are determined not to reopen any brothels within a 1,600-foot radius of schools, and there are rumors of similar citizen protests planned for the cities of Cochabamba and Sucre. The sex workers are hoping that the public health risk posed by their action forces the authorities to back down. But by refusing to undergo the medical checkups required to be able to work legally, it also potentially opens them to further police action.