By Laura Martínez Apráez, Maria Adelaida Martinez, and Catalina Correa Salazar, guest bloggers
Laura Martínez Apráez, Maria Adelaida Martinez, and Catalina Correa Salazar, won “The Geneva Challenge on Women Empowerment.” This award was organized by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. This international contest challenged students globally to engage in an interdisciplinary effort to analyze a development issue and design innovative applicable contributions to empower women. Three hundred students from 100 universities around the world engaged in this challenge and after two rounds of jury evaluations, three groups were invited to Geneva to present their proposals. The prize was 10,000 CHF to implement the project.
Photo: Kofi Annan presents Maria, Catalina, and Laura with the Geneva Challenge prize for their project “Empowering Female Sex Workers in the City of Bogotá: From Stigma to a Health Rights Approach” (Photo credit: IHEID)
The project “Empowering Female Sex Workers in the City of Bogotá: A Health Rights Approach” was birthed while working alongside and developing professional and personal networks with the female sex worker community. Using participatory research methods, my colleagues and I found health barriers for female sex workers (FSWs) and their children are among the main issues decreasing their well-being. Moreover, the institutional stigma associated with sex work is a major public health issue, limiting both basic human rights for FSWs and reinforcing gender inequalities present in Colombian society.
Gender inequalities motivated us to examine the issue of FSWs from a new perspective. Women’s lack of power and access to social resources stems from their gender, and accordingly it is necessary to reconceptualize work, sex and women’s means of survival. Colombia is a heteronormative Catholic and Christian society with a colonial past. This produces power imbalances between men and women within the home, workplace, school, and other public and private environments.
Despite the increase of women in the labor force, women still experience inequalities vis-à-vis men in the areas of work shift duration, level of education, income and unemployment. For the first quarter of 2012, men’s wages were 20 percent higher than women’s, and the latter had an unemployment rate 7.1 percent higher than men, reaching a 15.6 percent unemployment rate (one of the highest women’s unemployment rates in Latin America). In a male-dominated capitalist society, women within all social categories occupy disadvantaged social and economic positions and seek ways to secure income within these gendered-limited circumstances.
The media representations of FSWs perpetuate stigma toward them. Colombian journalism focuses on shocking scenes of FSWs suffering to produce compassion in the audience. Compassion can be a positive engine for change, but these representation methods conceal colonial features, create distance between the observer and the FSW, and portray the observed FSW as engaging in shameful acts. The audience becomes apathetic because they interpret the situation of FSWs as one-dimensional and unalterable.
Although sex work is legal in Colombia, women involved in prostitution do not have guaranteed legal and human rights. Furthermore, sex workers belong to extremely vulnerable social groups such as migrants fleeing rural areas, ethnic and/or racial minorities, women experiencing armed conflict, transgender women, young women, and women escaping domestic violence and abuse.
The most recent census (2007) conducted in the city of Bogotá found 1,122 sex work establishments and 467 prostitution houses. Approximately 56 percent of the population belongs to the lower economic level in the city. Eighty-five percent have an education level lower than secondary school and 45 percent work on the street. The average age of female sex workers was between 18 and 25-years-old. The majority of these women have been involved in sex work since they were under 18-years-old due to a lack of income and formal employment opportunities. Most of the women come from rural areas, largely due to forced displacement caused by the armed conflict or conditions of extreme poverty. Along with the stigma associated with FSWs’ line of work, socio-economic conditions further impede their access to basic human rights, health services, and additional social protective systems.
In our project we proposed to give the camera to the ‘represented’ – ours was a participative audiovisual project spread across social networks. By exploring experiences of FSWs through photographs and video, we built a political, ethics, social and psychological dialogue between the FSWs and the observers of these photographs. The goal was to counteract the negative effects of stigma and minimize the oppressive effects that problematic representations can cause.
This audiovisual record acknowledges and represents who FSW are, the troubles they encounter, and the health rights violation they and their children have to bear because of discrimination and structural stigma. These are realities often ignored by social and government institutions. Our project is an innovative, respectful and creative way to empower FSWs and enable a dialogue between the observer and the observed. The project will make increase identification between diverse social groups and humanize people who have been the objects of social cleansing discourse, discrimination and stigma.