The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 4, 2004; Page A14

Where the Street Seems the Only Way

Thousands of Women in Argentina Turn to Selling Sex to Survive Recession

By Jon Jeter
Washington Post Foreign Service

BUENOS AIRES -- Sylvia Ozuna grabbed her Marlboros and was out the door, headed for the corner. It was 9:19 p.m., the first Friday in February, payday for most of her regular customers. The sky was clear. The air was warm. And Sylvia, who left a small town in Paraguay six years ago to find a better life in this gleaming city, was expecting things to go her way this evening.

"Should be a good night," she said, ducking into an all-night greasy spoon known as Charly's Bar to tear off her khakis, revealing a pair of hip-hugging, sheer white tights underneath.

This is her job, on the corner of Pavon and Santiago Del Estero, two one-way streets that go nowhere. In this broken neighborhood of rundown walk-ups, neon-lit hotels and thrift stores, the closest thing to a viable industry are the hundreds of lipsticked prostitutes who pace these streets day and night in cheap leather and fuchsia.

On this corner: the white women from small towns in Argentina, Paraguay and Peru. On another: the black women from the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Haiti. More seem to arrive each day. So many that Sylvia, grudgingly, said she had to lower her prices last year just to stay competitive.

"How much do you charge?" a merchant marine with sleepy eyes and a rumpled face asked Sylvia.

"Thirty pesos," Sylvia answered. She was standing under a street lamp, stroking her waist-long honey-blond hair. (It was about $10.)

"Plus 10 pesos for the hotel."

A nod and they were off for 15 minutes of sex on a lopsided king-sized bed in a dark flophouse where Sylvia said she demanded that at least the sheets be changed before she forked over the cash.

As unprecedented numbers of poor women cross borders and seas to find work, what awaits them on the other side are jobs like this, in a back-breaking low-wage service economy, say economists, sociologists and international relief workers.

Options Limited

"The whole nature of work has changed," said Marceline White, the global trade director for Women's Edge Coalition, a Washington-based organization that addresses trade and gender issues. "Families are relying on women for income more than ever but there are so few options for those women who are entering the workforce. If you can't land a low-paying job in a factory, then the options are pretty much working as a domestic, or prostitution."

No one knows how many prostitutes there are in Argentina, but academics, relief workers, advocates and prostitutes themselves agree that more and more immigrant women end their journey at Pavon and Santiago Del Estero, or a thousand similar street corners.

"There are a lot more women on the streets now than there were 10 years ago," said Cecilia Bordon, 47, an Argentine prostitute who has worked in this neighborhood known as Constitution since the early 1990s.

"To do this you don't even need a uniform," she said. "All you need is a short skirt."

"This is my job," Sylvia said as she sat on a plastic chair at a wobbly table in Charly's Bar, sipping coffee and puffing on her sixth Marlboro of the night. It was 12:44 a.m.

"That's how I have to look at it. I know some girls come here with the intention of being prostitutes. I didn't. But this is the only way I can feed my daughter, send money home to my father," she said.

She wanted to be a doctor. Now 27, a single mother with a slightly crooked smile and a June bug-size mole on her right cheek, Sylvia arrived in Buenos Aires in 1998, following two older sisters who had moved here from a small farming town in Misiones, about 120 miles east of Asuncion, Paraguay's capital.

Her father was a veterinarian but couldn't stretch his pension far enough to take care of Sylvia, a brother and four sisters who remained at home. He looked for another job but found none.

Sylvia decided she would have to get a job, but could not find work in Paraguay, where unemployment in 1998 had climbed to nearly 16 percent. Her older sisters found jobs as maids in Argentina, where the government's policy of pegging the peso to the dollar had attracted tens of thousands of immigrants.

She got on a bus for Buenos Aires, and for a while she made a go of it. She worked nights cleaning offices and attended day classes at the University of Buenos Aires. Tuition was free; she only had to pay for books. As the economy slid into recession, she worked fewer and fewer hours.

When Argentina plunged into a full-fledged financial crisis in 2001 and government officials devalued the country's currency by nearly a third, the nation's unemployment rate jumped to almost a quarter of the workforce. As a maid, Sylvia discovered that her earnings had plummeted to slightly more than $1 an hour.

She and a co-worker were mopping an office floor together one evening when Sylvia shared her concerns about money. Her co-worker told her that she earned extra money working as a prostitute.

"They're always looking for new faces," the co-worker said.

Global Unemployment

Sylvia was joined by 844,797 women who moved to Argentina in the 1990s from other Latin American and Caribbean countries, according to government statistics. Slightly more than 770,000 men migrated here over that period.

The number of unemployed workers worldwide has increased by nearly 35 million since 2000, according to a 2004 study by the International Labor Organization, which said the global jobless rate last year reached 6.2 percent.

Of the nearly 186 million people who were out of work last year, 78 million were women, according to the study. At the same time, employed workers found the value of their wages declining. In Latin America and the Caribbean, real wages for the poorest workers have declined by nearly a third since 1980, according to a 2002 study by the United Nations.

Jorgelina Sosa, the general secretary for the Women Sex Workers of Argentina, said that membership in her union had increased from 60 in 1994 to 1,700 now.

Women who moved here for jobs that paid in dollars -- or the equivalent -- soon found themselves either unemployed or with jobs that paid much less than before. "That's when you really saw this huge increase in the number of prostitutes working in neighborhoods like Constitution," said Sosa, 34, who worked as a prostitute for 15 years. "It was like opening the gates of hell."

Bruno Medina, the night waiter, cleared Sylvia's cup and she got up from the table. She said that her head hurt. It was 12:56 a.m. Her break over, she was headed back to work when another woman passed her in the doorway, sized her up, laughed.

"You look like a hooker," she said to Sylvia as she touched her on the shoulder.

Sylvia laughed. "You would know," she said to the woman, a friend. Sometimes, the two women work together.

Sylvia is all business. She usually arrives at work early and stays late. She is economical with her words and the other prostitutes who know her think of her as a bit aloof. They refer to her playfully as "That Paraguayan."

"I try to keep a low profile," she said. "I don't drink. I don't do drugs. I save."

Offering or soliciting sex for money is a crime in Buenos Aires, but police seldom enforce the law. When they do, according to relief workers, it is selectively -- targeting migrant sex workers.

The Constitution neighborhood is as synonymous with prostitution as it is with the train depot that was built more than 100 years ago to deliver Argentina's wealthy rural landowners and workers to the city.

A highway dissected the neighborhood in the 1970s, demolishing its commercial heart. Stores and warehouses closed. The neighborhood lost a third of its population. Housing prices plummeted and immigrants who began to pour in to the city in the 1990s found rent prices affordable.

"The neighborhood has been mutilated," said Emilion Vareso, 44, an architect and president of the neighborhood association. "There have always been prostitutes here. When I was a kid growing up, I might see 10 prostitutes in a day. Now, I can see that on one corner."

At 1:22 a.m., there are 10 women at the corner of Pavon and Santiago Del Estero: two sitting on a dark apartment stoop a few feet from where Sylvia is leaning against a tree, one on the corner adjacent to Sylvia, two more across the street and four in Charly's Bar.

"Bruno, what do you have to eat back there?" a woman asked as she bounded into the bar and kissed three women sitting at tables.

"All these women, they have a story," said Bruno, 60, a wiry retired factory worker with thinning white hair and eyes that seem never to fully open. He works five nights a week, serving up sausages, dry toast and coffee so black and so hot it could raise the dead, the women joke.

"They have children, or they have husbands who left them," he said.

"They do the best they can with what they have. They just don't have much to work with. Ask any one of them if they'd rather have a real job that paid decent money and they would say yes."

Sylvia walked in. She just had a customer, a married man she usually sees once a week. Most customers are married and it is a running joke among the women how it is a waste of time for wives to even try to keep tabs on their husbands. If they want to cheat, they will cheat. Exhibit A is one regular customer whose wife only allows him to leave the house without her for an hour each day to walk the dog.

 When the women see him -- leash in hand -- they call for his favorite girl. They lock the door in the bathroom for 30 minutes and he is on his way.

"Fidelity is a dream," Sylvia said as she stared out the window to the street. A single street lamp gave it a yellowish glow.

As she talked, a 6-year-old girl walked into the bar, wearing flip-flops and sucking an icicle. Without saying a word, she kissed Sylvia wetly on the cheek. Sylvia smiled, said hello and reached into her bra for a few coins to hand the girl.

The girl is the daughter of a cartonero, one of thousands of mostly unemployed factory workers who make a few dollars a day digging through garbage for recyclables to sell, perhaps the most visible symbol of this country's fallen economy.

"She's in here every night," Sylvia said. "Another one of my regulars."

Sylvia said she feels a camaraderie with the cartoneros, poor people like her whose work is foisted upon them as much as it is found. In both their business and hers, there is little dignity. She tells almost no one what she does for a living, not even the nanny from Paraguay who watches her daughter while she works only two blocks away. "I am sure she suspects something, but she doesn't know for sure and she won't ask," Sylvia said.

She feels dirty. She won't so much as touch her daughter without first taking a shower. But showers don't wash everything away. A Catholic, Sylvia won't take sacrament in Buenos Aires; she goes only when she is visiting her family in Paraguay.

During a visit to Misiones 21/2 years ago, her father asked how she managed to send home as much as $150 each month, three times what she usually sent home when she was working as a maid. "He knew," Sylvia said. "But I think he wanted to hear me tell him."

Sylvia says she started to leave the room, but then steadied herself, breathed deeply and blurted it out.

"I sell my body," she told him.

Dead silence followed, for what seemed like 40 days, she said, and to this day she is unsure if the worst heartache she ever endured was telling her father that she was a prostitute or realizing that he accepted it because he knew it was the best she could do.

"Please," she recalled him telling her, "promise me that you will quit the first chance you get."

Special correspondent Jimena Aracama contributed to this report.