October 2015

ONAEM: Finding a Voice

Contrary to what her profession might suggest, Eva Flores is a very hard woman to reach. I could perhaps read this as an indicator of the cloak of secrecy that women in her line of work are forced to hide behind, or it may just be that her phone was on silent; but regardless, one would not naturally assimilate Eva and the concept of timidity. She stands proudly on the corner of the square clad head to toe in intense and floral purple and greets me with a warm smile, ‘I’m sorry I am late; I had to drop my children at school.’

By: Charles Conchie
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Cornwall - United Kingdom

Interview with president of ONAEM
Photo: Ximena Noya

She is a Cochabambina, a native of the city, and there is therefore perhaps added authority to her role as spokesperson for its sex industry. I must be the first to admit my English ignorance to the legitimacy of this industry and of ONAEM in Bolivia, but it is immediately evident from the sheer amount of literature that Eva provides me with that this is not merely a section of the shadow economy. She has given me a sort of ONAEM ‘starter pack,’ one that is given to all members of the organization on their joining, which informs the recipient of everything from STD checks, to the latest goings-on in the Latin American sex workers union, RedTraSex. It doesn’t take a genius to quickly realize that this not a loosely affiliated group of women, but a proud and efficiently organized union of workers.

However, despite the legal recognition of ONAEM as a workers’ union in 2009, the events that dominate the headlines, whether they be the perpetuation of outdated stereotypes or reports of attacks by the public, are nearly always negative ones. In a society dictated by strict Catholic morality, it seems an unfortunate inevitability that the sex industry will naturally attract a pretty damning stigma. ‘When people find out you are a sex worker, they start to talk.’ she tells me, ‘They create their own ideas as to what you’re doing and spread rumors in your neighborhood. But we are just trying to raise our children and provide for them.’ And that is the sad truth behind this work that much of the population chooses to ignore; sex work is more often than not a necessity, a last resort to support their family - it is no coincidence that 90% of ONAEM’s 50,000 members have at least one child.

Yuly Perez, was quoted as saying, “People think the purpose of our organization is to expand prostitution in Bolivia. Our ideal world is one free of the economic desperation that forces women into this business.

Photo: Ximena Noya

Eva herself escaped the industry when she was married but tragically was forced to return after being widowed. Rather than accept the industry for what it was, she has committed herself to creating an environment in which sex workers may feel safe and respected in their work. ONAEM reaches its tenth anniversary in December of this year and the incidents that stick in one’s mind are unfortunately the ones that indicate this industry has still not gained the acceptance that ONAEM campaigns so tirelessly worked for. The 2007 El Alto attacks were perhaps the most severe in this period, and the most shocking element of them is the fact that none of the attackers faced any sort of justice; instead, the government bowed to their demands. Eva seems to slightly dance around this topic, and instead answers with a retort that seems deliberately antagonistic to her abusers – ‘we are not ashamed, we choose to work in this industry.’ I must admit, the statement seems to contradict most material available on the ONAEM; in the wake of the El Alto attacks, the organization’s leader, Yuly Perez, was quoted as saying, “People think the purpose of our organization is to expand prostitution in Bolivia. Our ideal world is one free of the economic desperation that forces women into this business.’ I feel Eva’s comments may be best taken as a sign of the growing confidence that ONAEM is giving Bolivia’s sex workers, for there certainly does not seem to be any trace of fear in her declaration.

Her admirable bravado seems unshaken by the haunting reality of the last two years - in 2014, there were 12 deaths of sex workers in Bolivia; and in Cochabamba a sex worker was raped by several policemen. ‘The police think they have a right to do what they want. We used to be catalogued as criminals and they still treat us as such, but we are no longer submissive, we have empowered ourselves through the platform of ONAEM. When this rape happened, we started to protest and demand justice.’ Eva’s confidence may stem from the aftermath of this attack, arguably the most promising moment in ONAEM’s short history, as they marched in solidarity with women’s charities from all over Bolivia to demand that the perpetrators do not escape judgment as they did in 2007; ‘this was not a sex worker that was raped’ she says defiantly, ‘it was a woman.’

We are just trying to raise our children and provide for them.’

And here is the promising advancement towards ONAEM’s ultimate goal; to achieve an identity that transcends their line of work and establishes them for what they are: women. The 2014 rape shows that they are still a long way from achieving the respect they demand, but it is clear from Eva’s confidence that ONAEM is beginning to give these women a sense of identity impervious to the actions of their abusers.

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