Gender and Health in Latin America: Personal Account, Prostitution (Mexico)
As a popular saying and historical reality suggest, prostitution is the world’s oldest profession. On one level, the topic of prostitution is connected to a set of moral-ethical considerations. On a different level, however, it is necessary to address prostitution from a health and human rights perspective. Female prostitutes in Latin America and other parts of the world often rely on prostitution as a means, and often as the last resort, to provide for one’s personal and family needs. Women are forced to work under unhealthy and dangerous conditions, are frequently subjected to violence, and almost always cope with a blatant absence of women’s rights and rights other professions may count on.
In this source, Claudia Colimoro, a feminist prostitute who was on the Revolutionary Workers’ Party (PRT) slate during the 1991 Mexican parliamentary and municipal elections, addresses the topic of prostitution based on her own personal experience with the profession, revealing her knowledge of occupational challenges and health risks. She was part of the Convención Nacional de Mujeres por la Democracia (National Women’s Convention For Democracy), which was the first organization in Mexico since the 1930s women’s suffrage campaign to create a women’s ticket in an election.
As part of her political campaign, Colimoro made central the fight against AIDS and the need for legal protection of prostitutes. She thereby connected two themes long addressed in public health and political discourse: the recognition of prostitutes’ rights, and the legalization of the profession. While Colimoro was never elected to public office, her campaign stirred up debates about the rights of women to make decisions about their own lives, including their sexuality.
This source is a part of the Gender and Health in Latin America, 1980-2010 teaching module.
Claudia Colimoro (Mexico)
A prostitute’s election campaign
I am 35 years old and have three children. I began working as a prostitute when I was a secretary in the social welfare office. At that time I was in financial straits because one of my children was ill. I worked over twelve hours a day in the office and also had to satisfy my boss’s sexual desires just to keep my job. I soon realised that I could earn considerably more money as a prostitute.
Four and a half years ago I got involved in the fight against AIDS. We needed to teach the other girls about the causes and consequences of this dreadful illness. It was very difficult work and we had no money and no support from official institutions. We founded the citizens’ alliance, CUILOTZIN, which fights for healthcare and civil rights for prostitutes of both sexes and street children. CUILOTZIN organises educational meetings about AIDS and protection against it. We work with the National Anti-AIDS Association (CONASIDA) which also gives us condoms for free distribution among the prostitutes. Now the girls refuse to go with a client who won’t use a condom. We’ve had very good results and as vice-president of CUILOTZIN, I was even visited by representatives of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Thanks to our efforts there is now a clinic which deals with the health problems of prostitutes and regularly examines them - not only to detect the AIDS virus as early as possible, but also Hepatitis B and other sexual diseases. The clinic carries out free gynecological and pregnancy examinations for prostitutes and free operations for them and their children. CUILOTZIN also cares for domestic servants who have been sexually molested or beaten by their employers.
We are fighting to gain recognition of prostitutes’ rights and the legalisation of their trade. The situation which forces them to break the law over and over again reflects society’s bigotry and double standards. It simply means the girls can be unscrupulously exploited and oppressed by officials. In Mexico prostitution is ’regulated’ by laws passed 56 years ago which are now completely out of date. Prostitution is illegal and pushed underground which means that prostitutes have no rights whatsoever. They would be in a much better position if their profession were legally recognised. Their individual earnings would appreciate by paying taxes because they would not have to surrender money unconditionally to corrupt officials and police. The legalisation of prostitution would also make it possible to control AIDS more effectively. Current AIDS legislation is really nothing more than the syphilis law passed in 1934 in which that word has simply been replaced with ’AIDS’. After the charges we brought, a law has now been passed whereby people who slander prostitutes and exploit them can be fined, fired or even sentenced to jail.
Brutal Attacks by the Right
We’ve also managed to organise crèches for prostitutes who work during the day. In November 1990, after a discussion between the prostitutes’ representatives and officials from the Ministry of Health, the Provida movement (right-wing upholders of morality) destroyed two crèches for prostitutes. They still exist inspite of these attacks, but in places which are only known to the prostitutes. At the moment we’re working on a project for street children. They have to survive by selling or trading little odds and ends and are particularly susceptible to prostitution and drugs. We don’t want them to end up in those barbarous children’s homes. We hope to set up canteens, an overnight shelter and free training for them so that they’ll find it easier to get normal jobs. We have a similar project for prostitutes. We want to teach them sewing, mending clothes and other skills to help them find well-paid work when they give up their current trade through age or fatigue. Women in Mexico work for starvation wages. In the border areas, for example, women in the maquiladoras (foreign-owned assembly plants) work 15 hours a day and still don’t earn enough to cover the cost of living. They have to work as prostitutes at the weekend. That’s true of about half of them. So long as they’re paid such low wages, without any proper social services or crèches, women will continue to turn to prostitution in order to feed themselves and their children. Ninety-five per cent of prostitutes are mothers.
As I’m also a feminist, I took part in the National Assembly of Women for Democracy. This united forty organisations, movements and women’s associations. The assembly proposed me as a candidate for the elections and began to look for a political party which would take me onto their slate. We suffered many setbacks but the PRT and the Socialist Election Front (FES) accepted immediately. It cost them votes and provoked violent attacks from the right, especially the ultra-conservative Party of National Action (PAN) and the Provida movement They reacted against my demands for the liberalisation of anti-abortion laws, quite apart from my calls for the legalisation of prostitution, a systematic campaign against AIDS and universal sex education. Provida churned out photos of a completely mangled, eight-month foetus and described me as an ‘abortionist’ along with other feminist candidates of the PRT, like Rosario Ibanra.
Working with the PRT was very important to me because, even though I’m not a member, I do agree with many points in their manifesto: self-determination as regards sexuality, the right to organise, the campaign against violence against women, democratic rights, legalisation of abortion and the return of the disappeared.
My election campaign was very difficult. At first the journalists treated me amicably and compared me affectionately to ’La Cicciolina’ . Later on they realised I was running a serious campaign and was quite determined to make myself heard, to commit myself to the legalisation of prostitution and break the power of the corrupt authorities. After that I was bitterly attacked because I said loud and clear that every woman on this planet could end up being a prostitute and that wealth and snow-white clothing only serve to veil the fact that a woman belongs to a man sexually.
During the election campaign I got a good overview of the situation and the needs of prostitutes throughout the country. Recently, for example, I protested against two police raids in Queretaro in which lots of girls and transvestites were arrested, undressed and smeared with paint. We make a stand against these repeated attacks by the authorities in red light districts. Prostitutes are citizens just like anyone else. In Mexicali prostitutes are taken to a health centre every fortnight where they get a massive dose of some kind of penicillin, even when they don’t have any infectious, sexually-transmitted diseases. That weakens their bodies’ resistance In the federal state of Sonora, the health authority insisted that for AIDS tests people had to give their name, address and date of birth, even though AIDS tests are supposed to be anonymous, secret and free. Only after a considerable struggle did we manage to stop this practice recently. When I went to a meeting in Baja California, in northwest Mexico, a conservative newspaper in Tijuana wrote that the PRT filled their ranks with prostitutes and AIDS-infested homosexuals.
This was the first time a prostitute had stood as a candidate in an election in Mexico and it’s obvious that I received a lot of votes from women. The election rigging by the ruling PRI, however, was so extreme that we failed to win any seats at all. At the polling station where my son and I cast our votes in front of some journalists, the PRT didn’t receive a single vote at the count... I wanted to win to put an end to the horror stories and the double standards in the media and to make ourselves heard. I am a voice for those who have none.
First printed in Inprekorr 241
Colimoro, Claudia. “A prostitute’s election campaign.” In Compañeras: Voices from the Latin American Women’s Movement. Edited by Gaby Keippers. Latin America Bureau; London, 1992.