Argentina's prostitutes – mothers first, sex workers second

Banksy-style ad campaign aims to show the reality of prostitution and highlight the need for laws to protect women in the sex trade

On a Buenos Aires street corner, a Banksy-style graffiti shows a scantily clad woman leaning provocatively towards the edge of the building. Round the corner, the woman's hands reach out to a pushchair carrying a toddler. This, says the Argentine Prostitutes' Association (Ammar), is the reality of the sex trade in Argentina, where 86% of sex workers are single mothers.

The graffiti is part of a campaign led by Ammar, the first de facto trade union for sex workers in Latin America. For the past 19 years the group has been fighting to change the way society looks upon prostitution and make sex workers aware of their rights.

Ammar helped draft a bill due to be presented in the senate that would class sex workers as self-employed. If it becomes law, it would enable them to register with labour authorities, pay tax and get a pension.

One of the adverts launched by Ammar
An advert showing a sex worker on one side of the wall and her tot on the other. Photograph: Ogilvy and Mather, Buenos Aires Photograph: Ogilvy and Mather, Buenos Aires/pr

"We wanted to show we are first of all women, mothers and breadwinners and then sex workers and that we need laws to protect us. Some of us chose this work and there should be a legal framework for it. We need it to end marginalisation and to empower us," Georgina Orellano, an Ammar activist and former sex worker said of the campaign.

Prostitution without pimps is legal in Argentina but Ammar activists believe the current legislation leaves sex workers exposed to police abuse because it does not establish any rights. Harassed by police officers at every corner, many women end up trapped by prostitution cartels that exploit them.

Given the growth of the illegal sex trade, Gustavo Vera, director of the Alameda Foundation, which campaigns against human trafficking, thinks such a law would be ineffective. In the past year, activists from his organisation have identified and closed down 140 brothels in Buenos Aires.

One of the adverts
Another of the graffiti-style ads. Photograph: Ogilvy & Mather, Buenos Aires Photograph: pr

"Maybe a law like this would work in Sweden or Holland, but this is Argentina. Human trafficking is a serious issue and cartels are extremely powerful. I don't think there can be such a thing as prostitution by choice here," Vera said. "[Ammar] says prostitution can be a choice but is it really when financial circumstances push you into it?"

Orellano defends the right to choose because she considers herself and other women in the trade to be typical workers.

"There's an entire class that doesn't get to really choose. Does the maid or construction worker choose that job? Sex workers are no different. To put it bluntly, they use their hands to work, we use our body but we are all workers. It's not an easy choice but it's what we have to do."

• This article was amended on 18 June. In Argentina 86% of sex workers are single mothers.


Roberta Radu in Buenos Aires

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Argentina set to become first major Latin American country to legalise abortion
President Alberto Fernández says he intends to put a bill before congress in next 10 days

Uki Goñi in Buenos Aires

01, Mar, 2020 @8:29 PM

Article image
French MPs vote to impose fines on prostitutes' customers
Legislation shifts criminal responsibility from prostitutes to clients, following Sweden's example

Kim Willsher in Paris

01, Dec, 2013 @2:23 PM

Article image
Latin America's former first ladies bid to break macho presidential mould

Supporters of female candidates in Guatemala, Honduras and Argentina hail successes but critics fear entrenched dynasties

Rory Carroll in Guatemala City

07, Jun, 2011 @5:50 PM

Article image
Rio prostitutes fret over facelift for World Cup and Olympics

Sex workers fear spending on Olympics and World Cup might drive them out of Rio's largest open-air red light zone

Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro

08, Aug, 2010 @4:20 PM

Article image
Why UK feminists should embrace sex worker rights | Kate Hardy
Sex workers are at the coalface of economic injustice. In Argentina, they are central to the feminist movement, says academic Kate Hardy

Kate Hardy

03, Jun, 2019 @1:47 PM

Argentina's prostitutes get militant
Prostitutes throughout Argentina are casting off police persecution and demanding the same rights as other workers.

Reed Lindsay in Buenos Aires

25, Jan, 2004 @1:19 AM

Article image
Girl, 11, gives birth to child of rapist after Argentina says no to abortion
Campaigners condemn authorities who ignored girl’s plea ‘to remove what the old man put inside me’

Uki Goñi in Buenos Aires

01, Mar, 2019 @7:42 AM

Article image
Latin America's fight to legalise abortion: the key battlegrounds
After Argentina rejected a bill to allow abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, hopes of reform now rest elsewhere

Annie Kelly

09, Aug, 2018 @2:01 PM

Article image
Argentina abortion defeat shows enduring power of Catholic church
Irish vote to legalise procedure was seen as blow to church’s authority, but its power has merely shifted south

Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent

09, Aug, 2018 @10:30 AM

Article image
Texas anti-abortion law shows ‘terrifying’ fragility of women’s rights, say activists
Campaigners fear ban emboldens anti-choice governments as more aggressive opposition, better organised and funded, spreads from US

Lizzy Davies

18, Sep, 2021 @7:00 AM