Sex workers face multiple violations in the midst of the wave of violence in El Salvador

Latin America Regional Correspondent
Source (institute/publication)

El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, but also the most densely populated. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world, and is also considered an epicentre of a gang crisis, along with Guatemala and Honduras, which it borders. Every day between 200 and 300 people are forced to migrate from El Salvador. Some do it to improve their economic situation, but many others are forced to leave under threat of death.

NSWP member Asociación de Mujeres trabajadoras sexuales Liquidambar told us that although all the inhabitants of El Salvador experience violence, sex workers face very specific kinds of it. The Coordinator of Liquidambar shares some experiences of the current wave of violence in El Salvador.

Sex workers in El Salvador have long protested the violence which sex workers face in the country, including that from gangs that operate in the country. Liquidambar report that the gangs force sex workers to pay 60 dollars to let them work, and if they don’t pay, they beat them or even kill them. There have also been reports that bar owners force sex workers to have sex with them or with their clients without payment, and force them into debt by buying clothes, lingerie, or perfumes on credit knowing they won’t be able to pay.

“The former director of Liquidambar was murdered on the orders of one of these bar owners”, says the current coordinator, "the same bar owners monitor the sex workers so they cannot leave the venues freely. This is not only a violation of their rights, but also an obstacle to attend the health services when they need to". 

"This is particularly complex for sex workers living with HIV. Very few women who identified as sex workers and as living with HIV are attending to receive their treatment."

Liquidambar’s Coordinator said that there are already barriers to sex workers accessing the medical services they need as El Salvador is organised with a ‘zones’ structure, each with an understanding by local gangs that people shouldn’t enter a zone they don’t belong to. Most of the time, the health services are located in a zone outside of where people live, so they are afraid of going there, even if it is for medical appointments.

Liquidambar makes great efforts to bring medical units to sex work zones, so they don’t have to risk their safety by entering zones where they are unwelcome. But it is not easy: nightclub owners and managers often don’t let the sex workers attend freely. “Some of them take them by themselves in their own cars to take clinical analysis, but not to all of them. They just take 5 or 6 women, when there are 40 or 50 working in each nightclub. And they stay there as bodyguards, watching over what they say,” Liquidambar told us.

 “They also do not allow us to give them informative talks. Only if we take the Body of Metropolitan Agents or the Civil National Police [with us]. But the Police is not an ally in most of the districts of San Salvador [the capital of El Salvador]”.

Some sex workers’ economic situation is extremely critical, with some sex workers saying they even used to wash condoms to reuse them. Liquidambar works hard to inform them about the risks, and strengthening self-confidence, self-esteem, and securing access to free condoms, so they can be safe without a financial burden.  

In the midst of this wave of violence, the coordinator of Liquidambar remains firm, clear, and even optimistic: “We have done many things despite the fact that some sex workers are disappearing. Even though they extort us and kill us, not everything is negative. There are good things, like our sex work club where they receive talks and condoms, and our 2 committees for the prevention of violence and citizen coexistence with sex workers.”