Destitute women wanting to "work the streets" find world of violent rivals

Crisis has forced many to look to prostitution as means to make ends meet

Sex workers on Montera street in downtown Madrid.
Sex workers on Montera street in downtown Madrid.LUIS SEVILLANO (EL PAÍS)

It was a Wednesday when two sisters got dressed up, did their make-up and fixed their hair in front of a mirror in a small apartment they share in central Madrid. They then walked to Capitán Haya Street, stopped at a corner, and waited for prospective male clients.

"I wouldn't be doing this if it were not for my three children," said one of the sisters, a 43-year-old who lost her job as a dental assistant. Her sister, 53, also lost her job as a cook in 2010.

But problems soon started for the women. A powerful rival showed up with about 20 Romanian prostitutes, telling them to leave the area because that was their territory.

"They had already told us that the street was theirs, but this time they went after us. They grabbed my hair and threw me to the ground, hitting me with their purses, kicking and scratching us," said the younger sister. "We had a small knife and by using that we were able to fight them off."

I wouldn't be doing this if it were not for my three children," says one sex worker

At that point the police came and, to their horror, the two sisters - both born in the Dominican Republic but with Spanish nationality - discovered the inequality that exists once you are in this business. Not all prostitutes are treated the same.

Eight Romanian women testified against them and the two sisters ended up at police headquarters charged with assault. They spent three days in jail, and afterwards claimed no one had informed their families, nor taken statements from them. Yet they were told they would have to go to court.

They described their experience as a nightmare, one that other women who have taken to the streets because of their own economic situations are also facing. Although there are no official figures, there are indicators that the problem is growing.

Between January and October 2012, the Concepción Arenal Center, which specializes in helping prostitutes, provided its services to 287 women; 90 percent of them foreign-born. In the past the median rate was about 197 for the same periods.

The new ones have to fight for their territory and for the right to stay"

The Spanish NGO Médicos del Mundo reported that the number of prostitutes it has helped grew by 5.83 percent in 2011 from the year before. Social workers all concur that the situation on the streets is difficult for these new arrivals because of extortion by mafia groups and the fights that occur as a result.

"The new ones have to fight for their territory and for the right to stay," explains Cristina, a worker at the Concepción Arenal Center. "It's an individualistic world: those who arrive later are attacked."

Traveling in a mobile unit, social workers comb the streets to try to talk to the girls, mostly in areas where prostitution flourishes: the Marconi neighborhood and the El Gato industrial area in Villaverde, in southern Madrid, and Vicálvaro, in the southeast.

"Prostitution is a violent business," says Isabel, another worker at the Concepción Arenal Center.

Police officials declined to respond to these complaints and concerns, "because prostitution is not a criminal offense"

Médicos del Mundo also warns about the health issues facing many of these women. Besides being exposed to sexually transmitted diseases, a lot of them are malnourished and do not sleep enough. Many also live with constant psychological fears that their loved ones will find out what they do.

"Those who finally leave the streets show similar symptoms to war veterans," explains Rocío de la Hoz, the equal opportunities director at Madrid City Hall.

Other experts bemoan the fact that many prostitutes are using the police to help prevent rivals from taking over their business by denouncing newcomers.

"Under these circumstances, who can seek help even if they need it?" asks Elisa Arenas of the Hetaira Association, which fights against abuse of prostitutes but also for the recognition of the fact that many sex workers take to the streets by choice. Hetaira officials believe that prostitutes should be allowed to work but zones and areas must be created so everyone can feel free to offer their services without causing any trouble from rivals.

Police officials declined to respond to these complaints and concerns. After EL PAÍS spent a week trying to get a comment, a spokesman said that the National Police could not offer any statements "because prostitution is not a criminal offense."

The spokesman added that the police would be able to discuss the issues officers are facing in dealing with male clients and trying to stop the practice. But not about the questions derived from prostitution "because it is not a problem within itself but instead about fights between two people for the right to sit on the same bench."

Last week, the Dominican-born sisters found out that prosecutors are going to take up their lawyer's arguments in the case and drop the assault charges. The women who reported the two sisters were never identified nor did they show up to give an official statement. At the same time, the so-called victims never sought medical attention.

In his report, the lawyer said that the plaintiffs "have effectively used the justice system to get rid of the competition."

The two sisters are still traumatized by the entire experience, and are even afraid to go out to shop. They had only worked the streets for three days.

"I never thought my life would turn out this way but when there are necessities you just don't think twice," she says.

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