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Trapped in sexual exploitation
3/3/2003
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Domestic violence and sexual abuse push young girls and adolescents into prostitution.

With its cobblestones and colonial-style streetlights, this narrow street in Quito has served as inspiration to the city’s most renowned painters and appears — especially in night scenes — on hundreds of postcards sold to tourists.

But the street also stinks of urine and fear. Guidebooks call it one of the great attractions of Quito’s colonial district, but a visit is not recommended, for it is nothing more than an empty shell, ornately decorated on the outside. "Behind that shell, everything can be bought and sold, including human beings," says Roberto Neil, a comedian who wanted to set up a theater program in the neighborhood in order to help steer kids away from drugs and sexual exploitation.

Sex workers who have grown old prematurely lounge on the street corners. They charge US$2, and their main clients are laborers and low-income workers. Pimps sit in nearby doorways, drinking beer and keeping an eye out for potential clients. They aren’t interested in the older women, however; they are waiting for men who are in search for young girls.

Soon a man approaches the older sex workers, speaks to them for a few moments, then goes to the corner to wait. At a nearly imperceptible signal, one of the pimps wanders over. The two talk, then the man follows the pimp through a doorway and down a dark corridor to a patio surrounded by six closed doors. In the patio is what the man was looking for: young girls and adolescents at $10 payable before choosing. That’s the value placed on girls living on the street, daughters of street vendors, even girls who take refuge at night in children’s homes or who want to get ahead by attending night school and selling candies or trinkets on buses.

A study by the Pro Human Rights Collective (PRO-DH) found 250 clandestine sex workers in Quito’s colonial downtown district, of whom 50 were minors. Most were sexually exploited in grimy rooms, behind the counters of secondhand shops or, or if the client is willing to pay an extra $3, in cheap hotel rooms. "Did the girl satisfy you, sir?" the hotel employee asks afterward, before opening the door, to avoid complaints or an altercation in the street with the pimp.

Although the Law on the Protection of Children and Adolescents defines the sexual exploitation of minors as a crime, lawyer Azucena Soledispa, former Pichincha health commissioner, said the activity is virtually uncontrollable. Not only is the exploitation done clandestinely, it is also impossible to determine the ages of teens who apply for work permits, pretending to be older than they are. In other cases, she said, it is impossible to deny the permit.

"Hotel owners and pimps help falsify the adolescents’ identity documents so they can obtain permits. When a false ID card is discovered, the permit is not issued. But there are cases when you realice that the ID is false, but the girls is a single mother and comes with one or two of her children. In those cases, I couldn’t turn her away, even though I knew she was trying to fool me," Soledispa said.

Eight of every 10 Ecuadorian families live below the poverty line; three of them are indigent. Girls in these families are often sexually abused because of overcrowding and are forced to work at a very early age. Their circumstances make them easy recruits for commercial sexual exploitation.

"I lived with six brothers and sisters. Counting me, there were seven — four girls and three boys. My brother was 15 when he raped me. I was 10. I told my mother, but she didn’t believe me. She told me not to think up such stupidities and said that I should go out and work like my brother, who at least was bringing home some money for food. So I went and sold combs downtown. When I was 12, I left home because I had a boyfriend who took me to work in a bar. He would loan me to his friends, saying he had to do business with them and needed to stay on good terms. I didn’t know he was charging them. That went on until I was 14. Then I got pregnant and he disappeared. I haven’t seen him since," says 16-year old María Victoria, or Mariví, as she prefers to call herself.

"After that I had to go to bed with the owner of the bar so he would let me work there to support my daughter. I wasn’t earning enough at the bar, though, so I started going to bed with some of the clients. When the owner found out, he told me I had to pay him something for each client if I wanted to keep working there. Since then, I’ve been doing that full time," she added.

Now 16, Mariví works in one of the clandestine places in Quito’s new red-light district. She charges $7 — $3 for the owner of the establishment, $2 for her new "husband" and $2 for her. With luck, if she works all day she may get 10 to 12 clients. Her only wish now is "not to get pregnant again."

The constant police raids on these underground nightspots and the rapid growth of cities has given rise to a new form of child sexual exploitation — bars that serve beer and feature adolescent waitresses. These "bar clubs" first appeared in the late 1990s in cities such as Lago Agrio in eastern Ecuador, the country’s main oil-producing area; the coastal export-agriculture centers of Quevedo and Machala; and Santo Domingo de los Colorados, the country’s fastest-growing city.

Exploited by the bar owners, the teenage waitresses are really there to offer sexual services. The cost ranges from $25 to $30, but the girls keep only about 20 percent of the money. The rest goes to hotel owners, the bar owner or a pimp. The client agrees on a price over a beer. The girl asks for the money and goes to the counter for a "leave slip" — which means she give the owner $10. Another $5 is spent on the hotel room, and she splits the rest with her "husband." If the pimp does not get his share, the girl could be abandoned or blocked form working in the bar.

"These girls usually come from violent households. They are the victims of domestic violence and have been deceived by people who claim to love them. Because they lacked affection at home, they are very naive. In exchange for affection, they form extremely strong emotional ties links with men who exploit them. The affection isn’t real, though, because at the first sign of trouble — if a woman gets pregnant, for example — the men disappear," said lawyer Tatiana Cordero of the Women’s Communication Workshop, which has published as study of child sexual exploitation in Machala, Lago Agrio and Cuenca.

In Quito, these new nightspots, where beer is served and drugs are available illegally, are located near schools and universities and frequented by groups of young people. At two of the bars, Gabys and Vibración, the sexual exploitation is controlled by members of the victims’ peer group.

"If you go alone, it means you’re looking for sex. All you have to do is wait until one of them runs out of money, and someone will come up to you and tell you they have ‘somebody who likes you.’ You have to hand over $20. If you don’t have it, they’ll beat you up, because otherwise, why would you have gone there alone?" says Eduardo, a gang who frequents Vibración.

The center of the trade, however, is in north-central Quito, in neighborhoods like La Mariscal and El Ejido, where sex workers hand out cards advertising massage parlors and nightspots. Clients who ask for "little girls" are put in touch with pimps who cater to each client’s tastes. "Do you just want to touch them or do you want something more?" they ask. If it’s "just to touch," they offer 6- to 10-year-old girls for $100. For "something more," the price depends on the child’s age —the younger the girl, the higher the price.

The children are recruited outside schools and modeling academies, in cybercafes and in Internet chat rooms. But the factors that push these young girls into the net of child prostitution are always the same: domestic violence, broken homes, sexual abuse and teen pregnancy.

The girls are contacted by messages left on their cell phones, and they meet clients at hotels or private homes, always under the watchful eye of their "boyfriends." Fifteen-year-old Karla has a cell phone and works in a bar in La Mariscal along with several friends from school. When the phone rings, she reads the message and leaves for the hotel. She has an hour to return to the bar. She doesn’t know how much the man has paid for her or what awaits her.

"They pay for my body, for the usual. If they want me to do more, I tell them it costs more. I never say no, but they have to pay more. If they say it’s already been arranged, then I call and ask what the arrangement is and I do it. But if it hasn’t been arranged, I charge them, because I’ll also have to pay more. It’s better for me if the client wants everything and it hasn’t already been arranged, because that way I earn more. But if I go over the hour, they call my phone to tell me to tell the client he has to pay more. The phone might ring every 15 minutes, and that means I have to charge $50 more or they’ll beat me up later because I was cheating my ‘boyfriend,’" Karla said.

The exploitation is not stemmed by Article 50 of Ecuador’s Constitution, which guarantees "special protection for children against trafficking, prostitution, pornography and sexual exploitation," or Article 145 of the Juvenile Code, which defines child sexual exploitation as "a form of abuse and mistreatment" punishable by law.

"There is a significant legal loophole, first because minors between ages 14 and 18 are left unprotected, and second, because the clients go unpunished, and in the case of sexual exploitation, they’re part of the crime," according to the Women’s Communication Workshop study. Ecuador’s Criminal Code does not reflect the spirit of the Constitution in guaranteeing protection for children and adolescents. Sexual abuse is only considered a crime when the victim is under age 14 (Article 528). The code also fails to set a minimum age for sex workers; it merely sets health standards for the places where prostitution takes place.

The Ombudsman’s Office and other government agencies have neither spoken out on the issue nor made efforts to control the activity.

Impunity extends not only to the clients, but also to the pimps. "My parents used to drink a lot. They mistreated me so I left home and went to work in a bar," Karla said. "My parents went with people from a TV station to the bar where I was working, but I had already left with my boyfriend and was working as a prostitute. My parents found me and filed charges againt my boyfriend. They put him in jail, but he got out six months later and came looking for me. My parents had stopped drinking by then, but he said he was going to kill them so I had to leave again and come to Quito. Here, my new boyfriend put me in school and I only work in the afternoon using the cell phone," she said.

These girls face an uncertain future. They all dream of owning a house or apartment, of having children and of breaking out of the circle of exploitation. Most, however, will only end up in late-night bars. The older they get, the worse the conditions under which they will work. Many will find themselves on that colonial street where human lives are bought and sold at a glance, helping to maintain the vicious circle of abuse, their hopes and dreams long dead.


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