Bolivian sex workers on hunger strike against hospital closures
A number of Bolivian sex workers reportedly started a hunger strike in the city of El Alto on Saturday, in protest against widespread hospital closures due to an ongoing doctors’ strike.
About a dozen of the striking sex workers, both female and male, protested in the lobby of a neighbourhood health clinic on Sunday. They vowed to continue their hunger strike until the authorities resolve the stand-off with doctors and health care provision returns to normal.
Sex workers in Bolivia – where prostitution is legal, but pimping and brothel ownership are not – are required by law to have weekly check-ups, which are provided free at public hospitals and clinics.
However, due to the doctors’ strike, “It’s been more than a month since we’ve been checked,” said Lilli Cortez, president of the Organisation of Night Workers.
“We hope this will be solved once and for all because they are playing with our lives, with our health,” said Jacqueline, one of the sex workers on hunger strike.
“You can’t play with health,” she said. “It’s a time bomb that is going to explode at any moment. The lives of the entire population are at stake here.”
Doctors, who are paid an average of US$200 a week and receive no benefits, pension or overtime pay, went on strike on March 28, following the passage of Supreme Decree 1126.
The decree mandates that public sector workers, including health care providers and teachers, face an increase in working hours from the previous six a day to eight a day, without a corresponding increase in salary.
Sex workers in the impoverished city, which is 12 km from the capital, La Paz, and home to about a million people, have resorted to hunger striking before.
In 2009, 10 women sex workers sewed their lips together with thread, and approximately 30 more went on hunger strike, to demand that the mayor reopen brothels and bars which were destroyed by El Alto residents who had stormed the red light district.
The current protest, however, is very different from that of 2007, in which up to 35,000 sex workers across Bolivia refused their regular check-ups, after a citizens’ rampage in El Alto in which brothels were burned and sex workers were beaten and forced to strip.
At that time, threatening public health with possible sexually transmitted infections was the sex workers’ only weapon against continued violence, harassment and intimidation by police.
Now, in an effort to force a resolution of the Bolivian hospital crisis, they are demanding the check-ups they once shunned; but, yet again, they are putting their own bodies at risk.