July 26, 2021

In Colombia, Venezuelan migrant women forced into prostitution

On the outskirts of Mercedes-Abrego Square, in the center of the border town of Cucuta, four Venezuelans show off their tanned legs and their overly made-up faces. Among them, Riana. Asked about the reasons that led her to prostitute herself, she answers with a question: “And you, what do you choose between begging or seeing your kids go crazy?” “ The tone is more didactic than aggressive.

Riana arrived in Colombia with her four children, aged 3 to 12. “We slept on the street for five days, tells the young woman of 26 years. I promised myself I was going to get them out of there. And I did. I don’t sell my body, I work with it. ” Like more than 5 million of her compatriots, Riana fled the unprecedented crisis that has devastated her country since 2015. Like many of her migrant congeners, she made the choice of “Sex to survive”.

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“Sex to survive” : psychologist in a local association which works with the vulnerable population, Orfa Mora rejects this expression which, « en suggesting that women have freely chosen to prostitute themselves in order to survive, masks the reality of human trafficking and the violence that these women suffer ”.

Under the influence of a pimp or a network

Alejandra Vera is 33 years old and founded the association Femme, denonce et bouge-toi. She agrees with Orfa Mora: “Even women who say they have chosen prostitution freely end up under the influence of a pimp or a network. But they refuse to see themselves as victims. ” Worse, in her eyes, many migrant sex workers express satisfaction – “I live better since I prostitute myself”some say – and even express gratitude to the man or woman who pulled them out of despair. Supporter of the absolute prohibition of prostitution, Alejandra Veja would like to see all the pimps and all the customers in prison.

“The Venezuelans have brought down the prices of the pass. They sell for three cents “, comments, grumpy, a taxi driver, before lashing out “To all these migrants who steal the work of Colombians”. The price for twenty minutes of sex starts at 5,000 pesos, a little over a euro. “The price has nothing to do with nationality, s’indigne Emily, a Colombian prostitute. There is no such thing as cheap sex, there are men who take advantage of the unhappiness of women. “

“The closure of the border has increased the vulnerability of migrants,” admits Pilar Sanabria

The danger for migrant women begins as soon as they cross the border, which the majority pass near the town of Cucuta. Since the start of the pandemic, official bridges and border posts have been closed. Dozens of trails allow you to go from one country to another. They are controlled by armed groups. “The closure of the border has increased the vulnerability of migrant women and men”, recognizes Pilar Sanabria, civil servant at the departmental prefecture. In 2020, local organizations documented fifteen cases of women raped by smugglers, sometimes in front of their children.

“Since the beginning of the year, the number of cases has tripled”, says Orfa Mora; and no one doubts that this figure is grossly underestimated. “Women who cross the border illegally do not denounce the violence of which they are victims. Because they are in an illegal situation, they feel responsible for what happened to them, explains a UN official. On both sides of the border, the action of the military and police, who also occasionally hold migrants to ransom and rape women and adolescent girls, does not encourage confidence in institutions. “

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From a ruined country to a poor country

Authorities estimate that four hundred Venezuelans have smuggled the border every day since the start of the year, or 12,000 per month. They are fleeing a ruined country to come to a poor and unequal country with fragile institutions. The city of Cucuta has a record unemployment rate (20.1%) and 71% of the active population works in the informal sector, without any social protection.

“He asked me to send him pictures of myself, naked. I thought it would be easy, ”says Tais.

Shut up, she crossed the border knowingly, with a promise of work in a nightclub. “A friend told her boss about me. He asked me to send him pictures of myself, naked. I thought it would be easy says Tais. But I’ll tell you: the first night, you cry. The second, the third, the fourth, you cry too. And the tenth, you still cry. “ The bar closed due to the pandemic. Tais ended up in the street. She’s sending ” religiously ” half of what she earns from her mother.

The pandemic has indeed made the situation of Venezuelans living in Cucuta precarious and widened the sex market. “Webcam houses” now abound in the shady avenues of the city. “The images filmed here are consumed in the United States, Asia or Europe”, explains Fernando Garlin, doctoral student in ethnology. According to the testimonies collected, he estimates that there could be today in Cucuta between eight hundred and one thousand of these “houses”, in a city which counts 800,000 inhabitants.

A booming phenomenon

The authorities recognize that the phenomenon is booming, but they do not have any precise figures or diagnosis. “We are going to do it this year, thanks to American cooperation funds”, confirms Fernando Garlin. All local organizations denounce the absence of a “gendered” public policy to protect women – cisgender and trans – and deal with the development of prostitution in all its forms.

On a bare hill in the vicinity of Cucuta, the Alfonso-Gomez neighborhood welcomes many Venezuelan migrants and displaced Colombians. Edinira, who was a saleswoman in Caracas, lives there in a slum made of tin and plastic, with her four daughters. The eldest, who had just turned 15, ran away two months ago with a friend and a neighbor of her age. Edinira did not notify the police. ” What’s the point ? “, she sighs. Her daughter stormed in last week with new clothes and a bag full of groceries. Edinira accepted the provisions without asking for anything. ” What’s the point ? “

“The images of teenagers between 11 and 16 years old are the most requested, indignant Alejandra Vera. Masturbation, fellatio, sodomy, orgy… the client chooses. « Girls and women who work in “webcam houses” feel safer than in the streets. The camera prevents them from physical contact with customers and protects them from violence, explains Orfa Mora. But I have seen teenage girls arrive with their anus destroyed. “

Girls are also responsible for recruiting boys. “In the“ webcam houses ”that I was able to visit, there were as many girls as boys, and as many women as men”, says Fernando. Prostitution is not just for women. “But men and adolescents are even more reluctant than women to denounce the abuses and violence of which they may be victims”, says Mr.me Will see. Fernando found that “The men of the“ webcam houses ”define themselves as models”.

” More than half of women’s homes ”

Oriana Duran, 44, is a community leader from the Alfonso-Gomez neighborhood. She struggles to improve the situation of her compatriots. “Here, more than half of the households are supported by single women, she explains. Migration is hardship for everyone. The men do not hold out and leave, and the vast majority of women obviously refuse to prostitute themselves. I don’t want to judge anyone: a woman is capable of anything when her children are hungry. But I note that it is not always the poorest who take the plunge. ” Rich or poor, executives or unemployed, all Venezuelan migrant women complain about the label of “Picnic” and of “Whores” that sticks to their skin.

“In isolated rural areas, Vénezueliennes are completely on their own,” explains Iren Rojas.

The city of Cucuta does not have the exclusivity of prostitution, nor of its dramas. “Here, the UN, the international community and dozens of local organizations are trying to provide assistance to migrant women, explains Irene Rojas, university researcher. But in isolated rural areas, especially Catatumbo, which produces cocaine, the Vénezueliennes are completely on their own. They are recruited – like the men – to go and work in the coca fields under conditions of slavery. The prettiest become the mistresses of the guerrillas and drug traffickers who are rampant in the region. “

In the capital, Bogota, the tolerance district of Santafé is “Passed under Venezuelan control”, Emily says. “I was a sex worker in Chile. There were many Colombians in the brothels, continues the young woman. Migrant women everywhere are forced into sex in order to survive. My country should not forget that. “

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This article is produced as part of a partnership with the French Development Agency