Archive for September 4th, 2012

Why waste your life working for a few shillings a week in a scullery, eighteen hours a day, when a woman could earn a decent wage by selling her body instead?  –  Emma Goldman

Though I originally intended to feature this story in last Saturday’s TW3 column, I found it so interesting and so illustrative of several important points that I really felt it needed a column of its own.  I’ve taken the liberty of moving one section to increase readability; it’s indicated by curved braces.

About one in seven residents of Madagascar’s main port city of Toamasina are sex workers.  In less than 20 years, the number of registered sex workers in the city of about 200,000 residents has climbed from 17,000 in 1993 to 29,000 in 2012.  The increase has been driven by rising poverty levels as well as the city’s proximity to the recently opened Ambatovy nickel mine.  Construction of the mine, coupled with recent improvements to the port, saw an influx of thousands of foreign workers.  The billion-dollar investments also resulted in an escalation in living costs and the collapse of traditional commercial activities like the collection and sale of cloves and coffee, pushing more young women into sex work.

If it weren’t for the fact that the numbers are based on an official registry and were provided by a sex worker organization, I would dismiss them as prohibitionist exaggeration along the lines of “300,000 child sex slaves” and “50 clients a night”.  Keep in mind that in the modern West only about 1 in 600 people (1 in 300 women) is a whore, and that even in most Roman cities the fraction never went above roughly 1 in 20 people (1 in 10 women), though I suspect the ratio of whores in early New Orleans and gold rush towns might have been proportionate to that of Toamasina.  This number may actually represent more than 30% of the city’s female population if there is a gender imbalance due to the preponderance of male miners and port workers.

“Girls come from the countryside to work as maids.  Then, when they have a problem with their employer, other girls from their region introduce them to prostitution,” [said] Germaine Razafindravao, the president of the local sex worker collective FIVEMITO (‘Fikambanaina Vehivavy Miavotena Toamasina’ or Women’s Future)…Toamasina’s growing number of sex workers is part of a nationwide trend, one attributed to an increase in poverty since the onset of a drawn-out political crisis in 2009…More than three quarters of the Malagasy population now live on less than US$1 a day, according to government figures, up from 68 percent before the crisis…

{…Nadine, 15, quit primary school in 2011 and left her home village…to join her 18-year-old sister…Both girls are now sex workers.  Nadine earns $15 for each client and said, even given the opportunity, she would not return to school.  Even though she has been engaged in this work for over a year, no one has told her she is too young for it.  “I’m not scared of the police.  They are my clients also,” she [said]…}

This is a perfect example of what sex worker advocates, anthropologists and others keep trying to explain to the “trafficking” fanatics:  when a country girl realizes how much more money she can make as a prostitute than she can as a maid or other menial laborer, and how much greater freedom it affords, there is no need to “coerce” her into the business; a similar statement applies to runaways.  The working classes have always been more sexually open than the middle classes; it has rightfully been said that the so-called “sexual revolution” was merely the bourgeoisie’s adoption of the sexual freedom that has always been enjoyed by the proletariat.  The decision to sell sex, which seems so extreme and shocking to prudish middle-class women, is for many working-class women not really that big a deal; this is especially true when other members of her peer group are already doing it and she can make fifteen times as much in one hour as most of her countrymen make in a day.

…Sex work is legal in Madagascar, and although HIV/AIDS prevalence is low compared to other southern African countries – with about 0.2 percent of people between the ages of 15 and 49 living with the virus, according to UNAIDS – the incidence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like syphilis is well above regional norms.  According to government figures, 4 percent of pregnant women are infected with syphilis, as are 12 percent of female sex workers…In recent years, commune governments have established an identity card system for sex workers, providing them with specialized health care and legal protections.

Angela, 30, from Antsohihy, turned to sex work after a divorce left her a single parent to two children.  She [said] she was applying for the ID card.  “I have a friend who already has a card.  When one of her clients refused to pay and hit her in the face, she went to the court and sued him.  She ended up receiving more money than the original amount they had agreed upon”…

While Swedish model countries implement asinine and reckless policies designed to drive sex workers underground (and therefore unreachable by health workers), this impoverished “third world” country gave them health care.  In the “advanced” United States, cops discourage condom use by claiming they represent “evidence of prostitution”, but in “backward” Madagascar hookers can sue bad clients and win.

The cards are only distributed to those who apply for them and only if they are over the age of 18.  While this system appears to be providing some protections to sex workers in Antsohihy, it was unsuccessful in Toamasina…[because] the police harassed sex workers lacking the cards, which were meant to serve as access to benefits rather than a license to work.  “Police used the system to abuse the sex workers.  If they found a prostitute without an ID, they would take her to the bureau and mistreat her there.  So we have now replaced the official cards with unofficial red books,” Razafindravao [said]…The association also runs discussion groups with the police in a bid to reduce prejudice.  “We tell them that these women do a job, just like the [police] officers do”…

Here’s the bottleneck effect I discussed yesterday.  Though the card was not a license, the police used it as a discriminator to separate the whores into two groups, those who knew their rights (as evidenced by the card) and those who didn’t (and could therefore be persecuted with impunity).  Every legalization scheme, and even a program like this one which only resembles such a scheme, has this same intrinsic flaw.

The article then goes on to discuss FIVEMITO’s  other programs, such as condom distribution and STI education; because underage sex work is a real problem here (a 2007 UNICEF survey estimated 30-50% of sex workers in Toamasina were younger than 18), it also does outreach to families to convince them to keep their daughters out of sex work.  Unfortunately, economic pressures make this largely a futile endeavor; as Razafindravao says, “…the problem is that I don’t have a solution. I can talk, but there’s no alternative.”  It wasn’t always that way; the organization used to run a vocational training center designed to get underage girls out of the trade by preparing them for jobs in the hospitality industry, but it was closed due to lack of funding.  Apparently Americans prefer to give their millions to groups that abduct and imprison sex workers instead of those which respect women’s agency and give them the tools to leave sex work on their own if they so wish.

Read Full Post »