On Tuesday 2nd June, Women with Rights and Dignity (WRD), an organization of sex workers in Panama, commemorated International Sex Workers’ Day with the theatrical show ‘The Voice of Orchids’, directed by Carlos Montúfar Talavera.
Sadness, joy and hope were combined in Legislative Park in Panama City in an artistic expression that told the stories of the day-to-day lives of female sex workers. With the slogan “Because Sex Work is Work”, they called for their fundamental rights to be respected.
In Panama sex work is not illegal, but neither is it regulated. There is only one Ministry of Health regulation that grants sex workers a “good health” card, to “visible” workers, as in those who work in bars, clubs etc. Street sex workers cannot access the card and suffer daily persecutions at the hands of the national and municipal police when the police carry out their “social cleansing” operations.
During these operations sex workers are arrested, often sprayed with pepper spray and taken to police stations. In order to escape sanctions, harsh fines are often imposed, meaning that they are detained for several days on end, suffering abuse by the police.
The organised groups of sex workers in the country, linked to regional network REDTRASEX, have pushed for political and public advocacy with decision makers, so that all workers can access the health card and attend health centres once a week; but so far the groups have not achieved their objective.
In 2014, with support from the Global Fund, the Ministry of Health opened the first Friendly Clinic for Most-at-Risk Populations (MARP). With this initiative “underground” sex workers (those who work on the street) benefit from a health check once a week; in these clinics they are given an HIV test, a PAP test and a series of routine checks at very affordable prices, as well as any medication that they require.
Despite this small step, it is important to note that until sex work is regulated by the Ministry of Health, it will remain a taboo and workers will remain hidden, being subject to abuse by the public security authorities.
Gladys Murillo, coordinator of the Panama branch of the Network of Sex Workers, said that often sex workers suffer from discrimination and the violation of their human rights, and because of this they are asking the authorities to create a law that takes them into account.
According to Murillo, the sanctions have ceased thanks to a working group set up in the Ombudsman Office; however, it is known that the operations continue and so the group continues to fight for the release of detainees for the following day. Some police take away what little money the women have with them, which is often the only financial support they have for themselves and their families.
At present Women with Rights and Dignity (WRD) does not have formal recognition from the Ministry of Government and Justice, which prevents them from accessing funds to carry out work on behalf of sex workers in the country.
Despite the challenging reality, women armed themselves with dignity and motivation to commemorate the day. “Come on, girls, you are beautiful and dignified,” were the words of encouragement with which Murillo addressed her companions before starting the performance in Legislative Park in commemoration of International Sex Worker Day.