Dr Kate Hardy, CERIC.
On a street corner a woman is pictured with a leg leaning against the wall, her body adorned in the classic signifiers of sex work – a short dress and impossibly high heels. With one arm raised above her head, the other stretches out laconically to the side. At first sight this is just another stereotypical image of street prostitution, highly sexualized images which rarely reflect its reality. On second sight, the hand that stretches out, stretches around the corner, where it meets the small hand of a young girl, in school uniform, accompanied by a younger boy, both with backpacks slung over their shoulders. Suddenly the image transforms to see that this is, in fact, a mother walking her children to school.
This is one image from the new campaign ‘Mamas de la Esquina’ (Corner Mothers) being led by AMMAR, the sex workers’ union of Argentina. The street art is being used to challenge images of sex workers and to emphasise the fact that 86% of sex workers are Mothers. It is part of a broader campaign for decriminalization in the country, in which AMMAR have already won the repeal of laws in two provinces. The argument goes that as women sell sex in order to support their families, just like any other worker, they therefore deserve protection and from the exploitation and police violence they face every day.
As informal workers, positioned outside the norms and institutions of traditional labour relations, AMMAR and other sex workers’ organisations often have to use innovative means to campaign for better working conditions in their industry. Where there are no employers and the workplace is the public space of the street, improving working conditions frequently relates to demanding protections from the state, namely from displacement and police brutality. Sex workers are routinely bribed by members of the police force and one branch secretary, Sandra Cabrera, was assassinated by a bullet to the neck, after publicly denouncing the role of the police in trafficking and indoor prostitution.
Despite such intense pressure from the police to stop, AMMAR have continued to organize since their inception in 1995. When they first came together, with little political knowledge, they simply asked not to be re-arrested within 24 hours of being released from a cell. Since then, they have established a primary school, a health clinic, won the repeal of laws repressing their work in two provinces and they now have a voice in government bodies, particularly in the arena of HIV prevention. Elena Reynaga, President of AMMAR, who was illiterate when she founded the organization, is now an influential member of the UN Rapporteur on HIV/AIDS.
One challenge that remains is changing public perceptions of the reasons that the sex industry exists and why women (as well as men and transgender people) choose to work in it. By emphasizing the socially reproductive work it supports, AMMAR hope that it will be recognized that in a context in which all but the independently wealthy must sell their labour for money, the reasons for participation in the sex industry are simply the same as that sold anywhere else. Challenging this stigma and educating people about the roots of labour in the sex industry is an important battle, not only to transform the material conditions of sex workers lives, but also for creating conditions in which women are more free to choose whether or not they enter the sex – or another – industry.
Kate Hardy wrote her doctoral thesis ‘Proletarian of the night: sex worker organizing in Argentina’ on AMMAR and has published work on the organization in a number of books and journals