ONAEM : Organizacion Nacional de Activistas por la Emancipacion de la Mujer
Asesor Técnico Programático Nacional, Asesor técnico financiero nacional, Asesor legal
Fecha límite 4 de Marzo de 2014, 17:00 horas
From Evelia to Yessica and from Yessica to Evelia
From Evelia to Yessica and from Yessica to Evelia. A Short Autobiography of the National President of Sex Workers of Bolivia.
Translation from Spanish: Anna Styczynska
My name is Evelia Yucra Asillo. I was born on 16th February, 1975 in the province of Santa Cruz although my parents are from the north of Potosi: from Llallagua.
They migrated to Santa Cruz to look for better opportunities. They did not find them, though. They went to live to the countryside where we were born. There are six of us. Life for our family was not easy because where we lived there was not even public transport – the road was in such a pitiful condition. My parents did all they could to give us everything we needed.
All of us had to work with our parents, having responsibilities that depended on our age. As both of them worked, they would leave the smaller siblings to be looked after by the older ones.
One day my eldest sister had been boiling water for tea and my youngest sibling carelessly spilled the hot water all over herself burning her little leg. We had to take her in a wheelbarrow to the nearest First Aid Post which was about ten kilometres away. Fortunately nothing serious happened.
However, my other sister -yet to be born- did not have that luck. On the day of her birth something went wrong and we had to take her to the doctor, again in the wheelbarrow. I was only 5 or 6 years old back then and my elder sister was a year older than me. We were in charge and we did all we could. We ran as fast as we could, -as fast as our little legs let us- but when we got there, they told us there was nothing they could do. We lost her on the way.
I would see my parents cry as they could not provide for us, could not give us money to buy something during a break at school. I wanted sweets just like other children. Sometimes my sister and I snuck eggs from the henhouse to exchange them for sweets.
My family, too, was discriminated for being kollas (natives from the Andean part of Bolivia) in the land of cambas (natives from the oriental part of the country).
We grew up that way, in hardship but with a lot of parental love at the same time. I was happy to have my parents close but I was also sad as I could see they suffered because they could not give us what they would have liked to.
When I turned 14, I decided to run away from home to work as a domestic worker and help my family that way. They took me to a house in La Paz where I was being exploited and sexually harassed by the employer. I worked there for a year, a time for which I was not paid. They said they had bought me some clothes so I should have been pleased enough.
I escaped again, this time to Cochabamba. Here I found another job but it was the same story: I was sexually harassed. Still, I stayed there for some time before I eventually left. At that time I met some friends and I would go out dancing with them. We had chichita (a traditional Andean drink made of fermented maize). I did not wish to work as a domestic employee anymore because of all the harassment and exploitation that it implied.
I lived on the streets for a couple of months. The taxi drivers who would spot us on the squares would offer us five bolivianos to have sex with them. We did not take the offer. When we were sitting in public squares, men would pass by and say things to us and would insinuate themselves to us. At times they would bring us food, and as they say: ‘pussy pays the mouth that eats’ (sic). We acceded to have sex with them to compensate and it turned into a daily routine: if we wanted to have something to eat, we had to pay for it with our body, the only currency we owned.
One time we went to a party. All was going smoothly when the police showed up out of the blue and took us to prison without any apparent motive. There, behind bars, time goes by really slowly and one has to invent ways to make it go faster. There you can get to know the human soul in one of the most miserable ways possible, but also in a grand one. In a cell one talks about everything, good stuff, bad stuff; and if one pays enough attention, one learns useful things. Everybody talks about their lives, partly to pass the time, partly to get to know one another and socialise. There was a constant in those conversations: it became evident that we, poor daughters of Bolivia, endured a lack of opportunities and enormous inequality. That is how I met one of the sex workers who told me that she was getting paid for sex and that she was earning much more that any domestic employee ever did. The idea was not bad; after all we all had crossed certain lines exchanging sex for food.
I did not think twice about it. Once I got out of jail, I entered into sex work. I was 17. The day I became a sex worker, I started calling myself Yessica-that is the name that I have identified myself with since then. I have been a sex worker for 19 years now and the name Yessica was chosen to avoid any nuisance for my family and simply because I liked it. It seemed powerful in the soap operas on telly and that is what I needed to be: courageous and determined to be able to handle the life that was waiting for me out there. Over time I realised that many of the girls that were jailed with me had become sex workers too.
Finally I could help my family. But before that a lot of things happened. For example, as a minor I could not open a bank account so that I always had to carry all the money I was earning with me. More than once I got robbed by owners of brothels, by waiters and even by my own colleagues. I feared reporting them. When I was 18 I was finally able to open a bank account and that is when I was able to save some money and send it to my family. At first just a little bit, but with time I saved enough to buy a carriage and 2 horses so that my parents could take their products from the market garden and sell them more easily. After that I helped them build their house and buy a truck which improved their life quality and the sales of their products.
At the beginning, I never thought of becoming an activist, but when I saw so many of my companions being murdered, especially when it was us who had to wash the corpse -because we could not afford the mortuary services-, I felt enraged and impotent at the same time. Having to assist the autopsies I could see our lives did not mean anything to the authorities for the sheer reason of being sex workers.
I kept seeing so much abuse that I agreed to become part of the organization of sex workers where I have stayed until today fighting on behalf of my colleagues. This is how I discovered that only by speaking out publically and showing my face can we make ourselves be respected. In the process, Evelia had to be reborn again which was not at all easy. This is the name that I left out for almost 20 years and it is still somewhat difficult for me to identify myself with Evelia. However, today with my renewed dignity I am convinced it is worth recovering my identity to face society and my family as well as myself.
Currently I am the president of the National Organization of Activists for the Emancipation of Women as a way to demonstrate my solidarity with the rest of the sex workers in Bolivia.
I will continue fighting for the human rights of my companions with or without the organization. When I see abuse or injustice being committed against any woman wherever she is, I grow in indignation and I defend her. I have no fear.
I am not ashamed to be a sex worker: this is work which let me take care of my family and myself. I do not have kids but even today I keep helping my nephews and nieces so that they do not have to go through the hardships I have been through.
I am as decent as any other woman and I enjoy my life and my sexuality. I am not ashamed to recognise it. Enough of hypocrisy! If a man enjoys his sexuality, it is alright for him as it is macho. If, on the other hand, a woman does it freely, yet manages to keep it secret, society considers her ‘decent’, whereas if people find out, -and only then- they call her a ‘slut’.
Women, work and dreams, ONAEM political document
‘Women, work and dreams’, ONAEM political document, September, 2011
Translation from Spanish: Anna Styczynska
We, sex workers of Bolivia, - members of National Organization of Activists for the Emancipation of Women (ONAEM) and Latin-American Network of Sex Workers (RedTraSex), gathered in Cochabamba in Bolivia during 19th , 20th , 21st of September, 2011 and discussed our circumstances as female sex workers -, vindicate the following:
1. We identify ourselves as sex workers, but most importantly, as women. We pursue alliances with other organizations, above all women organizations and community groups that respect our self-definition and are sensitive to our problems.
2. We demand that we are recognized as an integral part of society and we urge them to support us to implement projects that enable our social integration. We no longer wish to be marginalized or isolated in what is called ‘red districts’. We too are citizens in full command of our rights and thus we demand the end to all forms of discrimination of sex workers and other social sectors which have been systematically oppressed.
3. We demand the recognition of our social contribution as generators of jobs and as economical support for a great number of Bolivians. Our role as promoters of the use of condom and as HIV& STI prevention activists is equally important.
4. We denounce shortages of condoms for our sector and the evasion of the State’s obligations to guarantee health for its citizens. We are aware that the Global Fund makes its contributions to match this need, yet we, sex workers, do not receive the required quantity.
The lack of condoms hampers our preventative efforts and leaves us exposed to using poor quality condoms, thus putting at risk our health as well as our client’s.
5. We dedicate ourselves to sex work because in countries like ours this is one of the very few options for poor females to make a living. We have had little access to education and with sex work we are able to face our obligations as single parent heads of household.
6. We demand that the State implement laws that recognize sex work as work. This would improve our quality of life in a considerable manner as well as prevent the human trafficking networks that take advantage of the legal loophole.
7. We, sex workers of Bolivia, do not have the access to the most fundamental human rights such as the right to health, the right to housing or the right to education.
8. We aspire to make a change in society. We dream of a society that is inclusive, much less discriminatory and the one that allows women to decide over their lives and bodies. We dream of a society that stops measuring female decency with sexual conduct. By recognizing and tolerating differences of each individual, dignity is affirmed. Consequently, those who currently deny us the quality of decent women will themselves grow in personal dignity when they recognize and value us as decent. We are decent because we are free; because we deserve respect; because we are able to make our choices; because we decide who we are and what our aspirations are. We are sex workers and we dream of society that is able to recognize us as such, and we dream of a State that can guarantee the prevalence of our rights.
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