Women give insight into illegal migration for sex work
The translator brings me to their apartment mid-week, mid-day. They're arranged like mega puzzle pieces on a mattress on the bedroom floor. Sapodilla to dark chocolate skins. Thin arches for eyebrows. Thick accents. I introduce myself awkwardly in Spanish.
One is nursing a newborn. The other wears a child's nightgown and a skeptical expression. The third hustles my Venezuelan go-between to the living room to list her reservations rapid-fire Latina-style. She's left the life. A client-cum-companion has gotten her an apartment. She doesn't want a reporter's indiscretion to get her deported.
No names, I promise. No photographs. And no distinguishing details. It takes about three hours for all three to warm into sharing something.
The apartment is spotless. Like a housewife's. There's rice and red beans for lunch. Ceremonial candles are set in one corner of the bedroom. A pack of Colombian cigars and yesterday's newspaper sit side by side on the living room table. The room is decorated with family photographs and children's toys in their original packages. (They share the home with another migrant sex worker and her two strikingly polite school-age children.)
"In Colombia there is a lot of unemployment. The men are very irresponsible and the women love their children," the first woman sweeps. They are all women who love their children. As girls they were not sexually abused, they say. And at home none of them worked as sex workers. One assures that she had a "normal job" with a company that went bankrupt. But with one TT dollar worth almost 350 pesos, they all agreed to be smuggled to Trinidad. The children were left with grandmothers.
No one had illusions.
"You were told that you could make more money but you have to prostitute yourself and hide from the police," said one while breast-feeding. A Trinidadian recruited them. They would repay the three million pesos (just over TT$8500) for the trip when they worked at his Chaguanas hotel. While it takes four to five hours from Venezuela, the Colombia journey lasts four to five days. It's a brutal boat ride: the sailors beat and rape the women if they refuse to have sex.
At the hotel they retained their passports but had little freedom. There were set rates-$400 an hour, $200 for half. The girls paid the hotel owner $50 for each half hour spent in a room. They also paid for their board, their condoms and their journey. If a customer got rough they could shout to a security guard for help. But there was no-one to call when the man in charge ordered a session. They claim that they were forced to have sex with police and immigration officers for free. Girls who refused were zapped with a stun gun.
One of them left the hotel when she became pregnant. She had a miscarriage but opted not to return. She makes more money, she says, working at the... (she points to a tile)
"Square?" I submit.
"Isn't that dangerous?"
"Possibly man killing me, man dumping me. I don't know," she says casually.
Now it's old hat. For the first three months, though, she cried. But she's learned to be all business. Although they've been here for a few years they speak just survivor's English: "Me don't like no talking. Only money."
They were not tested for HIV when they first arrived. And they have not been tested since. They say that they receive good service at public hospitals and clinics when they're accompanied by Trinidadians but don't know where they can go for sexually transmitted infection (STI) screening and sex education. No group has ever reached out to teach them how different STIs are spread or how to use condoms properly. Many men would rather go bareback. Some insist on two rubbers. Both options are dangerous.
One of the girls asks where she can get an HIV test and pap smear. She admits, blushingly, that she has had unprotected sex with clients a few times.
"What does a man say that convinces you not to use a condom?" I ask.
"They tell you they love you and all this."
"What do you say if you want to have safe sex and he doesn't?"
She's blunt: "You don't understand I f--ing everybody. Why you don't want condom?""
Caption: At the brothel where the sex workers stayed when they first came to Trinidad, women must pay and request permission to leave on Sundays. Credit: UNAIDS Caribbean