Cries for justice rang out in the streets of the Honduran capital on June 2 as several dozen women of all ages, some with young children in tow, had gathered in a nearby park that morning in preparation for the march. Some donned masks, with multi-colored feathers waving in the air. All wore t-shirts with a message written clearly on the back in pink lettering: We demand the recognition of sex work.
Jackeline Lisseth Cruz is the vice-president of RedTraSex Honduras, a national women sex workers’ organization. Megaphone in hand, she led the march in a series of raucous chants along the busy downtown pedestrian street and through the central plaza, denouncing discrimination, police harassment, and murders.
“From September 2013 to January of this year, 15 of our compañeras were murdered – eight in San Pedro Sula, four in La Ceiba, and three in Tegucigalpa,” Cruz told Upside Down World in an interview next to the National Congress building, where the action was winding down. Another murder took place in April 2014.
The sex workers’ march in Tegucigalpa was part of worldwide actions marking International Sex Worker Day, established to commemorate the June 2, 1975 occupation of the Saint Nizier church in Lyon, France by some 100 sex workers protesting criminalization and police repression. Eight days later, police forces raided the church, sparking a national movement. The International Sex Worker Day is now celebrated on June 2 across Europe and around the world.
Rallies and actions took place in at least 10 Latin American countries this year. “Today, as every year, we demand the approval of a Sex Work Law that, just as our comrades in France demanded in 1975, respects our lives, our bodies and our work,” according to a statement by the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Women Sex Workers (RedTraSex). Founded in 1997, RedTraSex is comprised of autonomous sex workers’ organizations in 16 countries.
After dialogue and training with the regional RedTraSex secretariat in Argentina, a group of women working in the Honduran capital decided to form a national organization led by sex workers themselves in order to be the protagonists of their struggle for political change regarding health and human rights. They formed RedTraSex Honduras last year in Tegucigalpa and joined forces with the ‘United Women struggling for their rights’ sex workers’ organization, active since 2008 in La Ceiba, the main city along Honduras’ Caribbean coast.
“We were empowered by a network of sex workers from Argentina. That’s where the idea came from that we could fight for our rights,” said Cruz. For now, RedTraSex Honduras has a presence in Tegucigalpa and La Ceiba. Outreach and organizing in San Pedro Sula are planned for this year. “The vision of the organization is to cover all 18 departments and 299 municipalities,” said Cruz.
Sex work is legal in Honduras. That is, it’s not illegal. But there is no legal framework to regulate the trade or to protect sex workers, or even to differentiate autonomous sex work by consenting adults from human trafficking. The Police and Social Coexistence Law establishes that municipal authorities work with the Secretariats of Health and the Interior to establish regulations concerning sex work, maintaining “a broad respect for the dignity and human rights of the people who carry out this activity, and with the single aim of preserving health, order and security, without subjecting anyone to a log or search of any kind.”
In practice, sex workers in Tegucigalpa are often harassed by municipal and national police, who ask them for their identification or health documents. Sex workers are also detained and physically attacked by police, said participants in the June 2 action. “Sometimes they detain us, just because we’re sex workers. They detain us and they beat us,” said Martha Lidia Bonilla, a member of RedTraSex Honduras.
In 2013, RedTraSex examined sex workers’ health and human rights throughout Latin America, looking at relevant laws, statistics, and training sex workers to carry out street-based surveys with their colleagues. In Honduras, RedTraSex found that within the previous year, 30 percent of sex workers surveyed had visited a clinic specifically due to physical attacks or violence.
Police don’t take sex workers’ complaints and reports seriously, said Cruz. “When we’ve gone to file complaints in the local and regional police stations, we see the discrimination authorities have towards us. What they do is tear up our statements and reports and tell us that we don’t have rights because we’re whores,” she said.
The lack of protection for sex workers made headlines in December 2013. On December 13, four women sex workers were murdered in San Pedro Sula. On December 30, five sex workers were attacked in front of a downtown bar where they worked, also in San Pedro Sula. Four died as a result of their gunshot wounds. San Pedro Sula currently has the nefarious distinction of being the most dangerous city in the world, in a country with the highest per capita murder rate worldwide. State security forces in Honduras have long been tied to death squads involved in extrajudicial executions and disappearances.
San Pedro Sula is also infamous for murders of LGBTI community members. Honduran organizations documented well over 100 LGBTI murders from 2008 to 2013. Nearly half were transgender. On January 7, 2014, transgender sex worker Marco Noé López Castillo was abducted in San Pedro Sula by armed, masked men. Her body, bound and strangled, was found in a plastic bag, a method becoming increasingly common in urban murders of women, youth, and LGBTI people.
“Those who murder sex workers believe they can literally treat these human beings as garbage to be disposed of. Such violence takes place against the broader backdrop of widespread gender- and sexuality-based violence that imperils women and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) persons all through Honduras,” wrote Larry Ladutke in an Amnesty USA blog post. More than 600 women were murdered in Honduras in 2013.
The December massacres of sex workers and López Castillo’s murder in January prompted an urgent action from Amnesty International. “While sex workers make up a small portion of women and LGBT individuals, they are more likely to be targeted with violence and less likely to receive protection,” wrote Ladutke.
RedTraSex Honduras members traveled to San Pedro Sula after the December 2013 murders, and have sought help from the governmental National Human Rights Commission (CONADEH) to push for an in-depth investigation and justice. The police seem to be somewhat more responsive with regards to the murders, said Cruz. “They’re giving it a bit more attention now, partly because they see that we’re organized and that we’re going to fight for our compañeras’ rights,” she told Upside Down World.
As the June 2 action wound down, Cruz reminded the women participating that RedTraSex Honduras was hosting an afternoon medical brigade for sex workers in the organization’s office in Tegucigalpa. RedTraSex Honduras coordinates with clinics and doctors for non-discriminatory access to health care, and has also been working to lower the incidence of HIV in sex workers for their own protection and for that of their families and the general population. More than seventy percent of the Honduran sex workers surveyed for the 2013 RedTraSex report are raising their children.
The principal demand throughout the Latin American and Caribbean RedTraSex network remains the legal recognition of sex work in a way that respects sex workers’ lives, bodies, and work.
“We’re fighting for our rights. We have rights but authorities don’t respect them,” said Cruz. “We’re demanding the recognition of sex work in Honduras.”
Sandra Cuffe is a freelance journalist. Find her on twitter: @Sandra_Cuffe