The city government and local vigilantes attacks on the sex workers of El Alto provoked a national campaign by Bolivian sex workers against discrimination and for legal reforms.
Sex workers strike for rights in El Alto, Bolivia
On 14 October 2007, citizens of El Alto, Bolivia demanded that all bars and brothels facilitating sex work be located at least 3,200 feet away from schools, because they believed that the establishments were facilitating crime in the area. They then began a three-day rampage of the bars and brothels in the impoverished red-lights district of El Alto. These El Alto citizens, primarily parents and students, burned or destroyed at least 50 brothels, burned sex workers’ belongings, and beat sex workers. The police monitored the events but did not take action to stop the violence or reprimand the citizens who had attacked the sex workers.
In response to the mobs, the El Alto Mayor Fanor Nava and the El Alto municipal government closed all brothels within 1,600 feet of schools. In the week following the closing of these brothels, prostitutes were forced to seek work on the streets rather than inside of establishments. On the streets, police harassed sex workers both physically and verbally, threatening to arrest them.
The El Alto Association of Night Workers led by Lily Cortéz demanded that the mayor reopen the closed brothels and bars. Starting on 17 October 2007 35,000 sex workers went on strike across the country of Bolivia by refusing to attend medical checkups. The strike began with a core group of about 30 sex workers in El Alto and then spread across the nation. The Bolivian government required prostitutes to report for these medical checkups every 20 days in order to legally perform their work. The sex workers continued their work without health certification, however, which raised public health risks for sexually transmitted diseases.
On 22 October 2007, over fifty sex workers occupied an alteño medical center and began a hunger strike to demand rights and respect for sex workers. On 24 October 2007, at least 10 prostitutes had sewn their lips together with thread to raise awareness of the hunger strike and the need to protect sex workers’ rights. They were successful in drawing the attention of multiple area news sources, including La Republica, as well as more widespread ones like Reuters, The New York Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, and the BBC.
Cortez and the sex workers of El Alto used the publicity to announce two more threats of action if the El Alto government did not re-open the brothels or allow sex workers more rights by the following day - marching nude down the streets of El Alto and burying themselves alive. “We are fighting for the right to work and for our families’ survival,” said Cortez. “Tomorrow we will bury ourselves alive if we are not immediately heard. The mayor will have his conscience to answer to if there are any grave consequences, such as the death of my comrades.”
On 27 October 2007 legislator Guillermo Mendoza intervened with the El Alto municipal government on behalf of the sex workers, and the sex workers suspended their strikes and the threats of further action. On 29 October 2007 the El Alto government agreed to work on legislation that would protect the rights of sex workers, forming a mediation committee committee on the issues in the El Alto House of Representatives. On 15 December 2008 the Federación Iboamericana del Ombudsman, a Latin American human rights defense organization, filed a report on Bolivian prostitution with the government in La Paz, further asking for specific reform in the Bolivian sex industry. No documentation showed that this report was received favorably by the La Paz government.
Influenced later Bolivian sex workers strikes for sex workers' rights.
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Vaca, Mart. 2007. “Huelga De Prostitutas y Bares En El Alto.” BBCMundo.com, October 24. Retrieved April 28, 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150428222130/http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/spanish/misc/newsid_7059000/7059798.stm).
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy:
Erica Janko 28/04/2015
Published for the Global Nonviolent Action Database