Whenever I travel, I try to ensure I’m fitting in a little bit of time to learn about some of the social issues that impact a country I am visiting. Through my work as a social good blogger and advocate for various non-profit organizations, I have learned about many of the issues that negatively impact women and girls around the world. From poverty and hunger to lack of education, safe water and health care services, each issue has its unique set of challenges that keeps women and girls from thriving. Human sex trafficking is one of the darker topics I have touched upon, and sadly it is often one of the most tragic especially when it involves young girls.
Bolivia is a country that is notorious for prostitution as well as child labor. Child labor (children can work independently as young as ten) and prostitution are actually legal. Although it is not legal for girls under the age of 18 to be prostitutes, sadly the law is often overlooked and disregarded. As in most places around the world, a life as a prostitute is not one that most girls or women would choose and the majority of girls who end up in prostitution have been sexually abused as a child.
Despite being legal in Bolivia, it is often not very well-regulated and bribes are common ways to get anything done under the table. Women who are registered as prostitutes are required to have regular medical check-ups but it is easy to let it slide. Furthermore, there is much corruption within the prostitution industry. Women and girls are abused by their pimps and their customers, and are paid very little for the services they provide. The average “trick” is about $3 and in order to pay enough to cover rent at the brothel women must multiple tricks a night. It is not uncommon for some women to do up to 40 tricks a night.
On my first day in Bolivia, I met with SutiSana to learn about their amazing work in helping women leave prostitution and change their lives. Founded five years ago by the faith-based non-profit Word Made Flesh, SutiSana helps women in El Alto, Bolivia leave the lives of prostitution by providing them with training, support and guidance to become self-sufficient and gainfully employed.
The name SutiSana comes from Aymara and Spanish, the two languages that the women speak, and was chosen for its beautiful meaning. In Aymara, Suti means name. In Spanish, Sana means healthy or healed. As women leave prostitution, they often leave behind a name they used there and find a new identity – a Healed Name.
SutiSana opened their doors after spending some time on the streets of the Red Light District in El Alto where the founders met with prostitutes to get to know them and understand some of their unique challenges. All were poor. Most were uneducated. And 95% of the women had been sexually abused as a child, oftentimes by a family member. These women had worked the streets for years and as they reached the end of their profitability as a prostitute on the street (due to age), they moved to the degrading, deplorable brothels as a last resort. These are the women that SutiSana serves.
El Alto is in the heart of the Red Light District. It is the industrial and commercial hub located above La Paz and has experienced record growth in the number of migrants coming to the city from the countryside. Since El Alto officially became its own city in 1985, the population has grown from 95,000 to 825,000 inhabitants.* As more and more rural, indigenous women with little or no money or education came to the big city, jobs became scarce. Some women and girls resort to prostitution as their only means of survival.
Today, El Alto has the largest red light districts in La Paz, with over 3,000 prostitutes working in the brothels right outside SutiSana’s doorstep. It is the perfect location for SutiSana to open up their organization where they can meet new women, and offer support and training for those who desperately want to leave the brothels.
World Made Flesh Bolivia, who runs SutiSana, offers a variety of outreach services within the community. Once a week, a team visits the brothels to meet with the women and provide them with valuable health information. These women are invited to the center to attend different social services and activities such as sales for used clothing, classes on cooking and helping them learn how to leave abusive relationships. There is a play area for children as well as different rooms for one on one counseling. Women who want to leave prostitution are trained to sew and employed by SutiSana to make handicrafts such as purses and bags that are offered for sale online. These women come Monday through Friday, earning enough income to leave the life of prostitution behind. They also receive help learning how to balance their finances, literacy services, and emotional support. Currently six women are employed full-time at SutiSana and many more are benefiting from the program’s outreach services.
The mostly American staff at SutiSana is incredibly caring and compassionate. I could tell they cared deeply for these women and their work, and their love shined through. One of the Program Coordinators told me that sadly the fight against prostitution is an uphill battle as it is culturally seen as a necessary evil that will prevent rape. Furthermore, like most of Latin America, Bolivia has a strong culture of machismo and women’s status and rights are low. Despite the obstacles, SutiSana won’t stop fighting and trying to help these women regain their dignity and a new, healed name. I commend them for their relentless work at helping these often neglected women out of the darkness and into the light.
To learn more about SutiSana or to order products that support the women they serve, click here.
*Bolivia in Focus: A Guide to People, Politics, and Culture by Robert Werner (Interlink Books)
Following is a video produced by the VJ Movement, a collaboration of more than 150 professional video journalists from almost 100 countries who look for ways to tell the hidden truth. In this video, Cecilia Lanza uncovers children as young 13 as prostitutes. The video is in Spanish however if you click on “cc” you can select subtitles in English.
In Bolivia, where an estimated 800,000 children live on the streets, child prostitution is an all too common occurrence. Cecilia Lanza spoke to a number of young girls in the country’s capital La Paz and asked them about their lives.