On the streets of Port-au-Prince, women in the sex trade discuss the devastation of the 2010 quake – and remember the influx of clients who would offer five times what a local could
Natasha stands alone on an unlit trash-strewn pavement at the side of the road to Pétion-Ville, the upmarket hillside suburb in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. “I’m here every night,” she says, eyeing SUVs as they speed past on a sticky February evening. “I want to do something else, but there isn’t anything … this is my only choice.”
The 31-year-old mother of three has been a sex worker in the city for nine years. Like almost everyone here, she lost relatives in the catastrophic earthquake that devastated the capital in January 2010. “My sister, nephew and cousin were all crushed by their own houses,” she says, with a dead-eyed stare. “I was living in a different house, that’s why me and my kids are still alive.”
The disaster killed between 200,000 and 300,000 people and initially displaced 2.3 million. Homes were buried in rubble, while markets and government buildings were completely destroyed, in a country already ranked the poorest in the western hemisphere. Natasha bottled up her grief and began working again later that week.
“I didn’t have a choice,” she says. “It’s the only way I could make any money.”
Aid workers from around the world arrived in their thousands to assist with the recovery. Natasha could earn big money. She says a foreigner would give her at least $100 (£72), more than five times the price a local would pay.
“They have more money but like everyone there are good guys and bad guys,” Natasha says, recalling an instance shortly after the earthquake when two aid workers picked her up.
“One of the guys wanted to have anal sex but he wouldn’t wear a condom. When I said no he got really aggressive and his friend had to stop him from hitting me. He had his arm raised already.”
Natasha adds that she always insists that the man wears a condom, which would occasionally spark altercations.
Earlier this month, Oxfam apologised to Haiti’s government over allegations of sexual exploitation. The International Committee of the Red Cross and Plan International UK, among other international NGOs, have also promised to take action against employees who paid for sex.
A number of British NGOs signed an open letter last week published in the Huffington Post, announcing new measures to protect people in the places in which they work. “There can be no tolerance for the abuse of power, privilege or trust within our organisations or in our work,” the letter read.
News of the scandal has not reached the streets where Natasha works, though she says she’s not surprised by it. “They do what they want,” she says. “After the earthquake you would see [foreign workers] asking to have sex in exchange for supplies. I never did it, but I saw some people who did.”
Though sex work is illegal in Haiti, carrying a sentence of up to 15 years for those who knowingly use the services of a trafficked sex worker, the law is seldom enforced. It is not known how many women and girls work in Haiti’s sex industry, but experts suggest it is in the thousands.
Many sex workers find clients on the streets, while others are based in high-end bars and clubs in affluent neighbourhoods.
During the day, the verdant Pétion-Ville neighbourhood bustles with life. Pickup trucks emblazoned with NGO logos manoeuvre through the winding streets, passing heavily armed officers wearing blue helmets from the UN policing mission. Supermarkets sell imported goods from the US at prices no average Haitian can afford. The minimum wage is little over $2 a day.
At night, there is a desolate feel to the place. Fearing street crime, pedestrians stay indoors. Every restaurant or bar sits behind gates and barbed wire, protected by shotgun-carrying security guards. On the street corners, sex workers varying in age wait around for clients, huddled in groups of about five.
Magdala, 25, has been working the streets for a year and spends almost everything she earns on feeding her one-year-old son. She lives with her parents in a neighbouring slum, who think she has found work in one of Pétion-Ville’s upscale bars.
“When a car pulls up, everyone is hoping it’s a foreigner because they pay so much more,” she says. “Sometimes we fight over who gets to the car window first.”
One night in December, a client pulled a gun on Magdala and stole her phone after having sex with her, leaving her stranded in an unknown part of the city. “It was terrifying, but I didn’t tell anybody,” she says, clenching a fist. “I mean who could I tell? It’s not like the police would do anything.”
All of the sex workers in Port-au-Prince who spoke to the Guardian fear reporting incidents to the police, worrying that they will be arrested themselves or dismissed as liars.
There are reports that some children have been recruited as sex workers in orphanages across the country, according to Jasper House, a women’s refuge in the Haitian town Jacmel.
“If any of these individual aid workers committed crimes, we must throw the full weight of the law against them,” says Jean Renel Senatus, a senator and former prosecutor. “Not only must they abide by the codes of their organisations, but they must also abide by the law.”
Other officials in Port-au-Prince have been similarly critical of NGOs such as Oxfam, among them the city’s mayor Ralph Youri Chevry. “I can’t say this whole scandal is a surprise,” he told the Guardian. “[Aid workers] have been doing as they please for years.”
Many women see few alternatives to sex work.
“I know that God will protect me if no one else does,” says Manushka, 21, who has been a sex worker for a year. Manushka hopes to leave Haiti one day, taking her toddler son with her. “I don’t care where – the US or Chile perhaps, because staying here means doing this forever.”
Natasha, sipping a soda while hollering at passersby, is also desperate for a way out. “I cry a lot and I pray,” she says. “I don’t have help from anyone, but my children have dreams and I want to make them real.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010