Venezue­lan ex­iles turn to pros­ti­tu­tion to feed fam­i­lies

The Star Malaysia - - Focus - Pa­tri­cia check­ing her mo­bile phone as she rests af­ter work.

BACK in Venezuela, they were teach­ers, po­lice of­fi­cers and news­pa­per car­ri­ers, but were forced to flee their home­land in search of work and money to sur­vive.

But the women, with­out iden­tity pa­pers, ended up work­ing as pros­ti­tutes in sor­did bars in Colom­bia, sav­ing all they can to pro­vide for their fam­i­lies back home, still in the throes of eco­nomic cri­sis.

Mother-of-three Pa­tri­cia, 30, was beaten, raped and sodomised by a drunken client – but she keeps on work­ing in a brothel in Cala­mar, in the cen­tre of the coun­try.

”There are cus­tomers who treat you badly and that is hor­ri­ble,” she says. “Every day, I pray to God that they are good (to us).”

Ale­gria is a teacher of his­tory and ge­og­ra­phy but in a Venezuela gripped by chronic hy­per­in­fla­tion, she was earn­ing just 312,000 bo­li­vars a month: less than a dol­lar.

Her salary was not enough “even for a packet of pasta”, the 26-yearold mother of a four-year-old boy tells AFP.

In Fe­bru­ary, she crossed the bor­der into Colom­bia. She ini­tially worked for three months as a wait­ress in the east, a job that of­fered room and board, but Ale­gria was never paid, get­ting by on tips.

“I sent my tips home to my fam­ily,” she says. Six peo­ple, in­clud­ing her son, were re­ly­ing on her.

Even­tu­ally, even those were con­fis­cated, so Ale­gria made her way south to Cala­mar, which is lo­cated in an area scarred by decades of armed con­flict.

The re­gion is a hub for drug traf­fick­ing, and a bas­tion of dis­si­dent for­mer FARC guer­ril­las. With nine other women, Ale­gria – a pseu­do­nym she gave AFP for this story that means ‘hap­pi­ness’ – pros­ti­tutes her­self every night in a bar in the town of 3,000 peo­ple.

Each client pays be­tween 37,00050,000 pe­sos (RM45-RM67), of which 7,000 is kept by the es­tab­lish­ment’s man­ager. On a “good night,” Ale­gria can earn the equiv­a­lent of be­tween $30 and $100 (RM125-RM417).

”We never in­tended on pros­ti­tut­ing our­selves. We’re do­ing it be­cause of the cri­sis,” says Joli, her voice crack­ing.

This 35-year-old lost her job as a news­pa­per car­rier in 2016 be­cause “there was no more pa­per to print them”.

Af­ter four years of re­ces­sion and years of fi­nan­cial mis­man­age­ment, Venezuela’s cri­sis has seen poverty soar as ne­ces­si­ties such as food and medicine be­came scarce.

In­fla­tion is set to hit a stag­ger­ing 1.4 mil­lion per cent this year, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund, which says 2019 will see that fig­ure reach an as­tro­nom­i­cal 10 mil­lion per cent.

Joli left her three chil­dren with her mother be­fore trekking from town to town and job to job look­ing to make ends meet.

When she crossed the bor­der into Colom­bia with­out a pass­port, she had noth­ing but the clothes she was wear­ing.

Some 1.9 mil­lion Venezue­lans have fled the cri­sis-rid­den coun­try since 2015, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions.

Joli’s story is a painful one. She is di­vorced from the fa­ther of her chil­dren, but he died of re­nal fail­ure, deny­ing her the help she needed to raise them.

Then, she said, the man she was due to marry “died of a heart at­tack due to a lack of med­i­ca­tion”.

“My back was against the wall,” Joli said.

She said she couldn’t even find work as a cleaner be­cause of her Venezue­lan ac­cent so ended up in Cala­mar, so she turned to sex work. In June, her 19-year-old niece, Mi­la­gro, joined her at the brothel. “At first I felt ter­ri­ble,” said the teenager.

But she stuck to it, try­ing to help her sick mother, her broth­ers and a two-year-old child.

Her mother has since died. Be­side the fi­nan­cial hard­ships and ob­vi­ous un­pleas­ant­ness of the work, many women struggle with hid­ing the truth from their fam­i­lies.

“They don’t know what I do, even my mother,” ad­mits Ale­gria. “It would be too dif­fi­cult for her af­ter sac­ri­fic­ing five years of her life to pay for my stud­ies.”

She dreams of teach­ing in Colom­bia but with­out a pass­port, it’s im­pos­si­ble.

She tells her loved ones she works in a bak­ery but, sick of ly­ing, she fi­nally con­fessed the truth to an emer­gency team of medics from Doc­tors of the World (MDM) in Cala­mar.

Jhon Jaimes, an MDM psy­chol­o­gist, says the women suf­fer from “anx­i­ety, de­pres­sion, post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der”. Their fear of the armed men in the re­gion is very real.

On top of that, the trop­i­cal cli­mate ex­poses them to run-of-themill in­fec­tions as well as dengue and malaria, he adds.

Then there are sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases and un­wanted preg­nan­cies that re­sult when clients refuse to wear con­doms.

At the MDM hospi­tal, a doc­tor treats them, fits them with birth con­trol im­plants and of­fers ad­vice. Some break down in tears.

Around 60 Venezue­lans work as pros­ti­tutes in Cala­mar. MDM gives them food, hy­giene prod­ucts and con­tra­cep­tives.

Back at the bar, they emerge from their siesta into the steamy hu­mid­ity and start pre­par­ing for work: ap­ply­ing lip­stick, brush­ing their hair and squeez­ing into hot pants and tiny, re­veal­ing tops.

It’s an un­for­giv­ing life, but one not en­tirely with­out hope.

For­mer po­lice of­fi­cer Pamela, 20, went to San Jose del Guaviare, a three-hour drive from Cala­mar, for an abor­tion and man­aged to con­tinue on to the greater Bo­gota area.

She now works as a wait­ress for US$10 (RM42) a day – only 10% of what she could have in the brothel, but one she prefers over the one she started with in Cala­mar, where she was ba­si­cally her pimp’s prop­erty.

“This guy lied to us,” she says rue­fully.

Mi­la­gro has also found a way out, in the form of a pi­lot she is now dat­ing.

Mother-of-four Ale­jan­dra, 37, says she isn’t look­ing for a hus­band.

“One man isn’t enough. I need a lot to feed the lit­tle ones,” she says.

Her youngest child, just two months old, was fa­thered by a client. – AFP

Lim­ited op­tions:

Dream­ing of a bet­ter fu­ture: Venezue­lan women who fled their coun­try due to the cri­sis, turn to pros­ti­tu­tion in Colom­bia for the lack of op­por­tu­ni­ties to work in other trades. Pho­tos by AFP—

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