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Prostitution in Panama, Sep/Oct 1998

Number 24, September/October 1998

Prostitution in Panama

by Ileana Golcher

The social causes of prostitution and the marginalization of the women who do this work require the attention of the community in order to guarantee these women their basic rights. "My work day begins at seven in the evening. I work in a well-known brothel in Rio Abajo. On the 'good days,' I see from ten to twelve clients. Each one pays me between ten and fifteen dollars, of which i pay three for the right to a room, another three if the client was referred to me by a taxi driver or someone else who works in the brothel. At times I have to have two and even three drinks or beers with the client, because that gets me a ten percent bonus. I feel like I'm turning into an alcoholic, because of the amount of liquor I drink daily. One of the greatest risks is when I leave work, between two and three in the morning, and I have to take a taxi home. I have been attacked, robbed, and the victim of attempted rape." These statements were made by Carmen González, a young woman who has practiced legal prostitution for five years.

A profession without statistics

According to a 1990 study by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, there are few statistics relating to this occupation, although the number of women working in prostitution has increased notably due to the worsening economic crisis beginning in 1980. At the same time, the typical age has decreased, even to the point of including girls in this activity. According to the same source, one of the international centers of prostitution is in Latin America, whose countries have high levels of unemployment, which combine with the presence of foreign military bases and a significant presence of tourists with disproportionate acquisitive power.

The new faces of prostitution

1994 statistics from the Panamanian Fiscal General and the Panamanian Institute of Tourism indicate that there are approximately 400 salons, clubs, cantinas, massage parlors, and discoteques officially registered in Panama City. This number excludes secret clandestine sites or places with two business identities. In addition, there are around 974 motels and other businesses that rent rooms, all of which represent potential workplaces for prostitutes. One network of high-level prostitution works in many area hotels, with employees that offer prostitution services mainly to tourists, according to the special interests of the clients. This chain is amplified by taxi drivers who have a direct connection to women who work as prostitutes occasionally or on weekends, charging daily rates of from fifty to two hundred dollars or more. Research indicates that in some brothels, the managers maintain up-to-date computerized databases which allow the client to see the face and general information of a virtually limitless number of women. According to paramedics from the city's health centers, most prostitutes are from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Panama.

Not only for money

Historically the problem of prostitution as a social phenomenon has often been explained as the result of the lack of sufficient income. However, a recent study by the Panamanian nurse Magali Díaz Aguirre points to social and psychological indicators for prostitution. The study found the following: • the typical age of prostitutes ranges from 18 to 29 years • 40.3% of those interviewed live in poor neighborhoods; none work from their homes • 44.7% of those interviewed had attended high school; however, 62.3% had not completed their studies • 'family disorganization' is a risk factor associated with the practice of prostutition; the study demonstrated that women who had only one parent, had poor communication, or were subject to constant conflicts at home had a much higher probability of entering prostitution than those with a stable family life • women who raise their children alone or with members of an extended family are 24 times more likely to enter into prostitution.

What do they think?

A series of prostitutes interviewed stated that their work was very difficult, particularly because a vast majority of them accept the conditions of their clients, who usually reject the use of condoms. In terms of protection at night, the women said they are beaten, insulted, and physically harassed by the majority of police. "They treat us like strange animals," said young Colombian women. "Our children are ashamed of us. Everyone rejects us, marginalizes us, mistreats us physically and verbally, they see us as undesirable parasites, without taking into account the fact that there is a large sector of society that lives off of us." "No one stops to think about the sacrifices required to tolerate bad-smelling, drunk, violent, and depraved men... it is money earned with too much sacrifice," explained the prostitutes attended in the health center of Santa Ana, and "with the great risk that we get a venereal disease or AIDS." Interviewed about their family lives, responses indicated the desire that their children get a profession and not learn about their double lives. According to them, they send more than fifty percent of their monthly earnings to their countries of origin or to the interior of the country.

A profession without organization

Just like domestic employees, prostitutes in Panama have not achieved any level of organization, in order to defend their [rights and] aspirations. Mexico is one of the few countries in Latin America with a chapter of the United Women and Men in Sex Work Union. Feminine arguments in favor of the right to organize relate to the necesity to protect themselves collectively from official abuses, and from employers that contract them verbally without the right to any type of social security, the need for better work conditions, among the reasons most often cited.