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Ava’s thousand and one scars

Women with intellectual disabilities are being recruited for prostitution, as they are easier to exploit and lack the resources to get out

Prostitution in Spain
One of thousands of brothels operating in Spain.Juan Serrano Corbella

Ava lived in a brothel. Her mother had been driven to prostitution and cocaine from a very young age; her grandmother too. The man who lived with them abused and beat all three. Ava used to receive lashings all over her body, and the pimp put out cigarettes and matches on her face. Her grandmother was the only one who showed compassion for the girl, taking her to a shelter when she had just turned six. It was there that María met her. She fell in love with this resilient little girl, adopted her and opened her heart and her Madrid home to her, with absolute generosity and dedication.

Ava arrived in Spain from her native Colombia with a suitcase full of horrors, brain damage from a violent birth and an emotional disorder derived from a traumatic development. When she was 17, she was recruited online by one of the most wanted Spanish pimps. After receiving a QR code, she took a bus north, to Palencia. There, as soon as she arrived at a duplex in front of the cathedral, the members of her “new family” took her phone and documents, forced her to dress in sexy lingerie and began to sexually exploit her.

Every day, more than 20 men paid not only for Ava, but also for the rest of the girls who lived there against their will. All of them of Spanish nationality, except one Dominican. There was also another minor, like Ava. After waking up at noon in the same beds where they had been violated, fondled and insulted at night, they barely had time to eat something before the cycle started again. The meal consisted of soup; then cocaine was distributed.

Drugs are a constant that is linked to sexual exploitation; both because men ask for them to last longer during sex and because sex and drugs make up a complete package of entertainment. In the case of women, pimps encourage their consumption because it makes it easier to exploit their victims, who become more docile. Furthermore, once they are hooked, they become more focused on their own consumption than in escaping.

Neither Ava nor any of her companions had the strength to leave that place of covert prostitution. Many of these young girls were drawn in like Ava, due to their extreme vulnerability. We are what we know since childhood; Ava, unknowingly, looked for the darkness she had known since she was little. Furthermore, the webs that pimps weave are made of steel, and they know very well whom to lure: women and minors who, like Ava, come from environments of extreme violence. They are born into places where there is so little love, and where the harm inflicted is so great, that their bodies and hearts become scarred in a thousand ways, some of which manifest as undiagnosed mental illnesses.

Women with intellectual disabilities are being recruited and exploited for prostitution. An intellectual disability shows no external signs and it makes things easier for the exploiters, because someone with these diseases will not have the resources to leave. Also, in many cases, because a woman with a disability is not even aware that she is being exploited.

Today, pimps are attracting young women through social media, and their victims often have some sort of intellectual disability. They socialize through these networks because it makes them equal to the rest, and criminals take advantage of this to deceive them. After all, these are women with whom violence probably will not be necessary. On the contrary: if they treat them marginally nice, they will never leave.

In Spain, there are no data on women and minors with intellectual disabilities who are sexually exploited. Despite this, both the National Police and the Civil Guard have specialized teams, and the associations for victims of trafficking increasingly help these women – albeit still with little training, as the resources are either for trafficking or for disabilities, not for both, which is what would really help them – including women rescued from places of covert prostitution who suffer from mental illnesses that are also a product of violence, exploitation, inhumanity and drug abuse. They see women with schizophrenia, split personality disorders and more.

Ava was able to leave that place of exploitation thanks to the tenacity of María, a courageous mother who did not give up in her efforts to find her daughter. Thanks to them and their denunciation, the pimp was arrested and is still in jail. Nevertheless, María and Ava live prisoners of fear and stigma.

This is a true story that I tell in my new short documentary, Ava, which will soon be featured in festivals both in Spain and around the world.

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