BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (GPI)-- Elena Reynaga, a thin, olive-skinned woman, says she chose to become a sex worker at age 19. Today, Reynaga is 60 and retired. “My body can’t anymore,” she says with a smile. “I was retired.”
But as the founder and former secretary-general of Asociación de Mujeres Meretrices de Argentina Nación, an unofficial union of sex workers, she continues to fight for her former colleagues to legally and safely perform their work.
The association is currently finalizing the details of a bill that would legalize sex work, give sex workers rights and eliminate sexual exploitation. At a recent meeting on the bill, Reynaga shared her story with politicians, labor union representatives and fellow association members. “I still remember the first time that I was taken prisoner,” says Reynaga, her eyes full of tears. “How I cried! It was in the year 1976. It left me scarred.” As she speaks of her first police detention, Reynaga addresses the crowd informally. “They treated me like a delinquent,” she says. “They insulted me. I was a rag!” Years later, in 1994, Reynaga found herself back in jail. But this time, she was with a group of other sex workers who had also been arrested by the city police. The women began to brainstorm about how they could join together to defend their rights. They even set the prison cell on fire as a sign of protest. The following year, Reynaga and her fellow prisoners founded Asociación de Mujeres Meretrices de Argentina Nación, the initials of which are similar to the Spanish verb “amar,” which means “to love.” It is aligned with Central de Trabajadores Argentina, one of the country’s principal labor unions, which recognizes the women as a class of workers, though the government does not recognize the sex workers as an official union. The association has 5,000 members, with 93 percent reporting that they are the breadwinners of their families. Nearly two decades later, the group is preparing to finish a bill to solidify their rights. “This is a dream!” Reynaga says at the meeting. “Who was going to think that we were going to get here? We began to dream in a prison cell. We just wanted to join together so that the police wouldn’t bother us.” The faces of those around the room seem captivated by Reynaga, as if breathing in her passion as she speaks. Her fellow association members smile and nod their heads in approval of every word she utters. The government and labor union representatives invited to the meeting listen attentively with a certain curiosity. Lía Méndez, general director of institutional relations in the national Senate, was one attendee there in support of the bill. Carlos Monestes was also in attendance representing Central de Trabajadores Argentina, which has been helping the association to prepare the bill. They used the meeting to edit and add details to the bill in order to present it to the Argentine Congress soon. The anxiousness of the association, which has been working on the proposal for two years, is palpable at the Central de Trabajadores Argentina headquarters in Buenos Aires, the nation’s capital, where the meeting took place. Reynaga says she doesn’t understand why, even today, there is so much mistreatment of sex workers. For her and her fellow association members, sex work is a choice, a profitable profession. That’s why they are fighting for a law that would treat it as such. “The choice is like an exercise of freedom,” says Reynaga, who is the current executive president of the Red de Mujeres Trabajadoras Sexuales de Latinoamérica y el Caribe, an umbrella organization of sex workers from 15 countries in the region. “The human right is the freedom.”