This article originally appeared in the Metro Newspaper on the 29 November 2011.
‘I’m not ashamed. I’m truly proud of what I do,’ says Elena Reynaga. ‘Through my work, I created possibilities for my children, opportunities I didn’t have myself. My children went to school, got jobs. I have nothing to be ashamed of.’
Reynaga was a prostitute who spent the 30 years since she turned 19 working in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. She has now left the streets behind to lead Redtrasex (Latin American and Caribbean Sex Workers Network) and Ammar (Female Sex Workers’ Association of Argentina).
A non-profit organisation, Ammar is run as an unofficial trade union, helping women on issues such as health, education, safety and human rights.
Having sex for money is legal in Argentina but the group is preparing a bill to send to their parliament early next year calling for sex work to be classified as official work and for the organisation to be recognised as an official trade union.
‘We consider ourselves working people,’ says Reynaga. ‘We want to get all the rights that people who work enjoy: the right to have a pension, social security…’
Ammar was formed mainly to protect sex workers who, says Reynaga, were often arrested, blackmailed, beaten or abused by the police. But one of the main benefits of being an officially recognised ‘job’ would be regulation, she suggests. ‘We’re planning a special certificate to state a person has met certain requirements.
‘Sex workers would have to pass physical and psychological tests and the person doing the exam would also make sure the person doing this work is doing it because she really wants to, that she isn’t forced to do it and isn’t a minor.
‘This would reduce people trafficking,’ she claims.
As World Aids Day approaches on Thursday, Reynaga also sees official trade union status helping their work to combat HIV.
AMMAR’s education and health programmes have, claims Reynaga, been responsible for a drop in HIV rates among sex workers, from four per cent in 2000 to 1.9 per cent in 2008.
Sex worker Jorgelina Sosa, 42, an Ammar member, says: ‘Many of those infected didn’t get it through their jobs but through their partners.
‘We’re just like any other women – we put our hearts into our relationships and forget about prevention.’
She claims a trade union would help ‘empower’ members. ‘Traditionally, we have had no rights – we’ve been the bad guys,’ she says. There are women and men of all ages working as prostitutes in Argentina and around the world, caught in lives of abuse, degradation and suffering.
In Buenos Aires, girls of 18 and younger work the streets offering oral sex for 30 pesos (£4.48) and a ‘date’ (full sex) for 100 pesos (£14.90).
They often work in dangerous environments late at night, getting into strangers’ cars with no idea if they might be beaten or raped.
Ammar says an official trade union would help. But the idea is met with strong opposition from feminist groups.
Mark Wakeling, director of British organisation Beyond The Streets, said: ‘Instead of unionisation as a way of protecting individuals, challenging the assumption that prostitution has a place in modern society would help protect the vulnerable.’
In an ideal world, Reynaga concedes, there would be no need to do what they do.
But as long as prostitution exists, she believes trade unions are the best way to protect sex workers.
‘I’m not selling my body,’ she insists. ‘I’m selling a service.
‘My body is the only thing that belongs fully to me.
‘I don’t have to ask anybody for authorisation of what to do or not do with my body.’