Many Venezuelan Women Who Flee Crisis at Home Turn to Prostitution Abroad
By Karla Pesantes
It’s 8 pm on a Saturday in Guayaquil: time for work to start on Elias Muñoz Vicuña Avenue. A nightclub with painted false palms trees and a brothel—disguised as a dance club—just opened their doors.
“Sofía,” 25, wears a short black dress, red heels, and strawberry-colored lipstick: touches of red to suggest love, romance, and passion. She strolls up and down this central avenue in Guayaquil and stands just outside a construction warehouse. Guayaquil can be very hot during the winter, and this Saturday is no exception. Between the heat and the humidity, Sofia walks as though sliding on a runway. At times she stops and talks to the security guard or turns her back when a car blows its horn. Her first potential customer pulls up in a black pickup truck, but no luck. Sofia continues waiting; it could be 45 minutes before she lands her first client.
Sofía isn’t alone. Nearby works another young woman, 28-year-old “Reina.” Her heels, like her outfit, are orange, and she carries a cell phone. Darkness is her strategy: she doesn’t let anybody see her face, and lifts her head only when a car passes by.
Sofía and Reina are natives of Venezuela, and cannot risk using their real names because they are hoping to acquire legal status in Ecuador, where prostitution is illegal. They are ashamed because in Ecuador, prostitution is stigmatized as badly as mental illness or drug addiction.
They have fled a country plagued by a worsening economic and political crisis. More than 80 percent of Venezuelans live in poverty, according to an Encuesta Sobre Condiciones de Vida en Venezuela (ENCOVI) survey published in early 2017. An estimated 42,000 of its citizens have arrived in Ecuador. For most, this means a grueling journey: 29 hours in public buses in two separate legs. Once in Ecuador, these already destitute men and women can expect to earn perhaps $13 a day. Given this prospect, is it surprising that many of the women (and even some of the men) become sex workers?
Few Options for Many Venezuelan Migrants
Martha Cecilia Ruiz, PhD, knows women like Sofía and Reina all too well. A researcher at Flacso University (The Latin America Faculty of Social Sciences) in Quito, she has studied the relationship between migration and sexual commerce in Ecuador for over a decade. Having interviewed more than 80 prostitutes from different backgrounds, Dr. Ruiz is quick to point out that not all sex workers are victims of organized crime or modern sex slavery. Rather, she explains, “Inside of the impoverished world of these women, there are some levels of decision. They have to make a choice among very few opportunities: Either they work in low wages and precarious jobs or choose an informal job but get better paid. Some consider that sex work could provide them with a better life for their children or parents.”
This phenomenon spread to Ecuador starting in 2000, Ruiz says, at the same time that Ecuador adopted the US dollar as its currency. This switch gave many South Americans the impression that Ecuador was prosperous, which was an illusion. As of December 2017, Ecuador’s unemployment rate was 4.6%, according to the INEC, the Statistics Department in Ecuador—a rate the country’s citizens consider high. In addition, over 20 percent of the population works in insecure professions that lack benefits, such as street vending, freelancing, or independent sales.
Cultural factors compound the problem for women. In Ecuador, there is tendency to stigmatize physical features and gender. Venezuelan women are considered “hotter” and more beautiful than Ecuadoran women, explains Ruiz, because they have lighter skin. They are also thought to be more socially liberal. These stereotypes increase the demand for Venezuelan women and create the perception that they come to the country to be prostitutes.
Such was not the case with “Karol.” A former hotel receptionist, Karol fled Guaira, Venezuela, when she was 30. She remembers the exact date she arrived in Guayaquil: “It was September 4th of 2017, and I came with $10 in my hands.” Perhaps Karol remembers so vividly because she left behind a 3-year-old and a 13-year-old daughter.
Karol recalls, “In Venezuela the biggest problem we faced was lack of food. The showcases in the supermarkets were empty. I knew there were groups that trafficked in supplies before they got to the stores. They held the groceries and later resold them for 10 times the original price. My country was like a town without laws.”
Increasingly worried about her future, Karol started a relationship with a young man she met on social media, who promised her “the trip of a lifetime.” She sold her TV, bought a bus ticket to the Venezuelan border town of Cucuta, and then waited until her online friend sent her money for a ticket over the border. The money finally arrived, and after another 36 hours of travelling, Karol arrived in Guayaquil.
“Here I feel free,” she says. “Sometimes I get depressed because I’ve missed many important family occasions, but then I think that if I were in Venezuela with my kids, we wouldn’t have any food. My mom always tells me that thanks to God, I could leave the country and help them.”
Karol lives with four friends from Venezuela in a small apartment in Sauces III, a crowded working class neighborhood. Rent, which is $280 per month, and food are divided evenly.
When Karol arrived in Ecuador she looked for work as a hairdresser, waitress, and salesperson, with no luck. After a month she grew desperate and turned to prostitution. Unlike Sofía or Reina, Karol doesn’t find clients in the street but on the dating app Tinder. She works seven days a week from 2 PM to 1 AM, at the end of which she sends $20 or $25 home to her children and mother (an amount that, incredibly, would have taken her five months to earn as a receptionist back home). “I also usually help my child’s father and give my niece some money for her college education,” she adds. “In March I want to bring my sister to stay with me.”
In December and January Karol made a total of $1,800, and in her four short months in Guayaquil she has saved $250. This is as big a symbol as it is an accomplishment: $250 is the cost of a temporary work visa, and saving it is a goal that thousands of her fellow immigrants share.
Reflecting on her situation, Karol is practical. “This is temporal and it’s not something that I like or enjoy. With the money I make I can cover all the things I’m doing. If I had a normal job, the $13 they’d pay me daily wouldn’t be enough to help my family. My mom and two sisters are aware of what I do and understand me.”
The conversation ends with a sense of satisfaction. She laughs and reminisces about home. “Guaira is like a beach paradise,” she says. “One day I will go back there with all the friends I made in Ecuador.
Not every sex worker from Venezuela has the freedom that Karol professes. Some women can’t find enough clients on their own, so they go to work in brothels or, as they are called in Ecuador, “nightclubs.”
One of these nightclubs, El Imperio, is located in Duran, an industrial zone about 15 minutes by car from Guayaquil. Here in the middle of paper factories, plastics manufacturers, and shrimp packaging businesses are hundreds of motels, nightclubs, and “gentlemen’s clubs.” Some of them are openly known as brothels and others merely set aside certain rooms for prostitutes to satisfy demand.
At El Imperio we found “Rita.” She has long straight hair, perfectly painted lips, and long, skinny legs that are easy to see in her revealing dress. Rita offers a friendly greeting to four clients who arrive, and strikes up a conversation with a new john. She whispers into his ear, smiles, and after five minutes retrieves her small backpack from another room. She and the man then leave the building to conduct their date elsewhere. Rita will earn about $40. Had they stayed in the brothel, she would have had to pay a precious $10 for a room.
Searching for Solutions
Zaida Roviro considers this extortionate. A lawyer and women’s rights activist in Ecuador, she works as a coordinator for the Defensoría Del Pueblo, a public agency that provides legal help to vulnerable citizens. In Ecuador, cabarets and nightclubs are regulated by each city, but that doesn’t stop the owners from collecting rent for each room that can run as high as 70 percent of the sex worker’s fee. The same type of extortion takes place in myriad small-town motels throughout the country. Typically each room contains no more than a mattress on the floor and a toilet. So they can make even more money, some brothel owners even force the women to buy condoms from them.
While prostitution is illegal throughout the country (and so widespread it is considered a public health problem), violence against prostitutes is prosecuted by local district attorneys’ offices. Roviro has helped many Ecuadoran and immigrant sex workers file complaints of abuse, and she regularly counsels them throughout the process. However, due to their immigration status, many of the Venezuelan prostitutes don’t report the crimes. “There is still too much fear,” Roviro says. “They are afraid of being deported and don’t want to show their faces.”
The government of Ecuador fights prostitution on another front: it has created a specialized police unit dedicated to investigating international sex trafficking. Women rescued by the police from such rings do not face deportation; in fact, they are granted temporary visas. To Roviro, this is further evidence that prostitution needs to be decriminalized, that it needs to be considered a legitimate job. Until such time, she believes, victims of sex trafficking will continue to be viewed as “weak” and in need of saving while independent women such as Karol and Sofía—who are thought to be “strong” —will be reviled as “putas” (whores). And the focus on the source of prostitution, which is economic and social inequality and lack of opportunity for the world’s poor, will be lost.
All photos by: Franklin Navarro