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Hannah Wallace Bowman – WNN Improve It
(WNN) Guatemala City, GUATEMALA, AMERICAS: Squat one-story buildings border an overgrown railway track, the shell of an old yellow Toyota rusting quietly in the battered shadows. Outside the shacks, a few men loiter, waiting and smoking; on the other side of the doors, women engage in the dangerous business of selling sex for money.
This is “La Linea” in Guatemala City.
La Linea, or “The Line” is the Central American capital’s most famous red-light district. On any given day, around 250 women occupy this stretch of apparent no-man’s-land, soliciting business from darkened rooms. The women – some of them girls – do not have pimps, but every few days, members of powerful local gangs go from room to room demanding they pay a “protection fee”. Those who cannot pay are likely to be strangled.
Although a police station is located in the same neighborhood, the authorities have turned their backs on the area, leaving these criminal networks to run the show, and is theirs whose presence weighs heavily in the air. Without any sort of regulation of the sex industry, these female sex workers are left to exist on the shadowy periphery of societal consciousness. This makes them extremely vulnerable.
To the media, they are part of an illicit world of their own construction, while the pólice regard them as sluts or “putas”: fair game for murderers and those who rape them. It is this stigma that denies them protection from the law, that grants the men who kill them impunity and which isolates them from family and friends.
While stamping over the sparsely weeded earth of La Linea, it feels like the dust kicked up falls upon a land forgotten. To assume that this is a place devoid of hope or strength would be a mistaken idea.
Indeed, in downtown Guate, only a few kilometres away from the city’s most infamous red light district, an unassuming building serves as a reminder that victimhood is not always readily definable. Set up in 2009, four years after two undergraduate students started a literacy program on La Linea itself, the MuJER Empowerment Center is home to a small grassroots organization and a handful of permanent staff. Over the course of now almost a decade, the NGO has been engaged with the slow process of building a relationship of the trust with sex workers across nine different districts across the city, providing vocational training and workshops on self-esteem, human rights and anti-violence. MuJER works not only with those who work out of fixed rooms, but also offers assistance to the streetwalkers or “ambulantes” that tread the streets of this unforgiving urban landscape.
Paula Hernandez used to make her living on La Linea as a prostitute. Now she works with MuJER full time, one of the four permanent staff, all of whom are Guatemalan. For her, the services the NGO offer far exceed education and literacy, “more than anything it is about raising self-esteem: we are women, we are valuable,” she says. “Through the project, I have grown as a person and I have grown in the way I think.”
She recognizes that many of those who are part of MuJER will not be able to leave sex work, herself quite candid in saying that there may come a time when “an emergency” pushes her back to the streets. Rather than undermining the necessity and efficacy of female empowerment in this context, her words and pragmatism seem to illustrate the often complex reality of women´s lives and how short-sighted considering “empowerment” as synonymous with economic or academic success can be.
According to an approach where women and girls are positioned as a savvy large-scale investment, who hold the potential to transform the reality of not only their own lives, but also the lives of entire communities, initiatives such as MuJER fall off the agenda: they simply do not offer the right type of results. But empowerment is not about a saleable quantity. If it were, a character like Daniela Suarez becomes completely one-dimensional.
Another regular at the empowerment center, Daniela was thirteen years old when she started as a prostitute, turning to sex work when her mother died. She spends her mornings making money on the streets, sometimes locally and other times travelling further afield to Escintla, a city south of the capital. During the afternoon, she is often to be found taking English or computer classes at MuJER, or simply chatting with the other women in an environment where she is safe and open to discuss her profession. As a single mother, the flexibility of this schedule allows her the time to look after her children and make enough money in order to do so. Now twenty-six, she has no plans at the moment to leave sex work.
As the rhetoric of campaigns such as The Girl Effect are propagated, smaller grass-roots initiatives that are engaged with personal and qualitative development are in danger of being marginalized. Surely, it is time to revisit what we mean when we discuss female empowerment within a developmental context, and reconfigure it away from a preoccupation with neoliberal markers of success and towards the often complex reality of women’s lives.
Development is not about rescuing people and, no matter how much the Nike Foundation would have you believe it, neither is it as simple as “giving a girl a cow”. Instead, MuJER seems to be approaching this issue from an obvious yet refreshing perspective. By starting from the individual, it is trying to provide the space for these women to change the way they understand themselves in the very personal context of their own future: even if that future lies on La Linea.
(*Some of the women’s names have been altered upon their request.)
Hannah is a British journalist currently based in Amsterdam, where she is completing her MA. An avid explorer and story-seeker, she researched this story when she was living in Guatemala, before moving to Denmark and then Chile as part of her studies. Alongside her work as a reporter, Hannah coordinates the communication strategy for “Love Matters,” a multimedia platform powered by Radio Netherlands Worldwide, promoting access to sexual rights and information on reproductive health across regions of India, Latin America, China, Africa and The Middle-East. You can find her on Twitter via @Hannah_Bowman
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