Because of Spain’s ambiguous prostitution laws, it has earned the reputation of being “the Brothel of Europe,” leading it to become a major destination for trafficked women. Treated as a reusable commodity, women are often forced to work for years in sexual servitude. Some are minors, some are in their 40s, many have children. Before being trafficked into Spain, they were mothers, sisters, and daughters. Now, they are collectively known as “whores.”
In downtown Madrid, there are several areas that are informally known to be designated pick-up zones. Men unabashedly approach women who are clad in next-to-nothing and negotiate prices, as if it were just a daily facet of standard weekday commerce. In an area known as Sol, the dissonance between families eating lunch, and women standing against shops in 6-inch stilettos, is jarring. When I asked friends about this open solicitation taking place under the eyes of police agents smoking cigarettes a few feet away, I was told, “yes, it’s so sad… but it’s part of our culture.”
According to a recent article in The New York Times, 40% of Spanish men admitted having had sex with prostitutes. What these men do not realize however is that 90% of sex workers in Spain had been victims of sex trafficking. Coquettish glances are not of their own accord, but rather accessories worn under threats to their safety and the safety of their families back home. Many come from Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. Back in their countries of origin, organized crime networks deceived them with promises of lucrative jobs, a top-notch education, or simply “a better life’, but the reality of what awaits them in Spain is far different. Forced to “work” to pay off debts, they are constantly under the watchful eyes of their traffickers. Some are beaten, whipped, or chained to walls. All are raped. Even after a successful escape or a police raid, many women must take a lifetime of treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV. A daily reminder of a dark past.
During my experience as a volunteer at a shelter of rehabilitation of trafficked women, I came to acknowledge they are not mere statistics, but friends. They tell me about their children back home – in places like Romania, Nigeria, or the Congo – about the suffering they have experienced, about their fear of testifying against their traffickers. Will they be able to find legal jobs here in Spain? Will they ever be able to achieve their dreams? Will they ever feel whole again?
Before I began my volunteer position, I had erroneously thought that someone who could be so easily deceived into becoming a modern day sex slave most likely had some type of character flaw. I had seen plenty of movies about the naive girl who wants to be a model or the desperate single-mother who falls in love with a scheming mafia figure. Surely, I thought, this was the reason why they ended up like this. While some of the women I know had been in less than ideal family situations and had no basic education, others come from backgrounds very similar to my own, or even better. The other day, I was talking to a young woman who was telling me about her goals for the future. She had a degree in economics, worked as a secretary for a reputable firm in her home country, spoke several languages, and had even begun writing a book prior to being trafficked. Despite all that she has been through, she was generous, kind, and had the wisdom of someone three times her age. Now in rehabilitation, she finally had the opportunity to complete her manuscript. Her mantra, “Do today, for tomorrow,” is a testament to her positive nature and her driven will to overcome the wrongs that have been done to her. She was not a victim; she was a fighter.
A few months ago, some of the women from the shelter, a social worker and I attended a community event. It was a family-centered program, and a good opportunity for those women to experience a sense of belonging to something better than oppression. Together we laughed, held hands, and felt strong. Upon leaving the event, our group split up for a few minutes. Two women from the group who came Sub-Saharan Africa exited and waited for the rest of us outside. When I and the rest of the group left the building, I saw the two women, now frightened, being accosted by an elderly Spanish man. The social worker and I approached him and asked if there was a problem. Cane in hand, he said that he just wanted to pay for sex. Why did he think these women were prostitutes? Because they were black He told us. I can only imagine what it was like for them to hear that. They are abducted, countlessly raped for years, laughed at and called prostitutes on the street; and when they find safety again, a machista callously remind them of the past that was robbed from them. Infuriating.
Creating awareness around human trafficking in Spain is an arduous process. In 2010, Spain finally recognized trafficking as something separate from illegal migration. While prostitution is rampant across the country, the majority of people do not know the sad reality behind what they see. They do not know about my friend who had been a singer in her church choir, or about the woman who had concerns about her children’s school fees, about the girl who aspired to study computer science, or the lady who loved rock and roll. What they see is only the cover story: boots, short skirts, and heavy make-up. The bruises, the pain, and the deception, they do not see. But they are not so different, those women, they are just like you or me.
Samantha Smith is a teaching fellow in Madrid, Spain who is also a volunteer with an organization that combats human trafficking. She has a Master’s degree in International Policy Studies from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and will begin her doctoral studies this fall in women’s rights.