In Nicaragua, Can Sex Work be Separated from Organized Crime?

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A new NGO in Nicaragua aims to protect the rights of women who voluntarily work in the sex trade, raising the question of whether sex work should be seen as a legitimate job, or should be treated as a component of organized crime that is inherently linked to problems like human trafficking.

Girasoles de Nicaragua is the first NGO created to protect the rights of sex workers in the Central American country. The group, which is backed by USAID, formed in 2007 to fight “stigma, discrimination and violence” associated with the sex trade, according to its mission statement. Its application for legal status was approved by the National Assembly on March 22, and the organization has already deployed 25 employees across the country, reportedly providing some 500 women with health aid, literacy training, and legal support. It plans to partner with the police in investigating crimes related to the sex trade, and form alliances with other international organizations that promote sex workers’ rights, including Argentina-based network RedTraSex.

The group argues that sex work should be recognized as a respectable form of self-employment, one that allows women to support themselves and their families. Nicaraguan law allows the exchange of sex for money, but brothels and the promotion of prostitution are illegal.

It will be a long road. Many of the Central American countries where prostitution is legal, including Nicaragua, have long been listed as Tier 2 countries on the US State Department’s human trafficking watchlist, meaning the government does not do enough to enforce its anti-trafficking laws, including those related to the sex trade.

“Nicaraguan women and children are subjected to sex trafficking within the country as well as in neighboring countries, most often to Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and the United States,” the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIPs) for 2011 reads. “Trafficking victims are recruited in rural areas for work in urban centers, particularly Managua, Granada, and San Juan del Sur, and subsequently coerced into prostitution.”

Transferring activism into real protection remains elusive. Some 11,000 women in Nicaragua are thought to engage in sex work as a living. Even for those who voluntarily enter the trade, the business is heavily stigmatized and filled with violence, with few protections from authorities. Although the State Department in its 2011 TIP report acknowledges that the Nicaraguan government has made improvements in the law and created a dedicated unit to enforce these laws, it “made limited efforts to protect the victims.”

According to Davila, seven prostitutes working with the Girasoles were killed in 2011, and there are hundreds of other attacks against sex workers which go unreported. As El Nuevo Herald reports, personal testimonies about life in Nicaragua’s sex trade include stories of assaults, rape, clients who refuse to pay and intimidation and exploitation by the police.

Some aspects of the NGO’s mission also appear confused. Davila told El Nuevo Heraldo that the NGO will only support women who “voluntarily” become sex workers, excluding those who prostitute themselves in order to pay for an alcohol or drug addiction. Not only does this appear to gloss over some of the harsher realities of the industry, but it also ignores the fact that many women initially agree to perform sex work, but are then tricked or coerced into continuing to do so against their will, often in order to pay off “debts” they have racked up with those who recruited them into the business.

The group’s core mission — ensuring that prostitutes can work without stigma, and enjoy the full protection of Nicaragua’s laws, especially those related to violence — is a worthy one. But it raises the fundamental question of whether sex work should be seen as a legitimate job, or whether it should be treated as a component of organized crime, with inherent links to problems like human trafficking.

Like Nicaragua, countries across Central America — including Costa Rica, Panama, and Guatemala — have penalized the purchase of sex work, but not the sex work itself. This creates a confused situation in which prostitution is legal but workers are still exposed to abuses by their partners, clients, and even the police themselves. This partial criminalization of sex work drives the trade underground, making it more likely that criminal networks will step in and control the trade.

The question raised by organizations like the Girasoles, who say that the sex trade should not be stigmatized, is fundamentally about what is the best way to protect its workers: criminalizing the business, or legalizing it? In Central America, it seems like the halfway solution of partial legalization has done little either to protect prostitutes, or reduce networks trafficking women across the region.

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