San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Prostitutes Allege Discrimination

Prostitutes and activists are accusing the Hotel Balmoral in downtown San José of discrimination after a hotel employee allegedly denied a group of former and current sex workers from holding an educational workshop there.

“It’s a form of discrimination. It’s hypocrisy,” said Elena Reynaga, a fiery, outspoken Argentine and the president of the international Sex Workers Network.

The network, founded by a group of sex worker advocates in Costa Rica a decade ago, was to celebrate its 10th anniversary and hold self-esteem workshops and group therapy for sex workers at the hotel this week. They promised not to engage in any sex work at the hotel.

The hotel’s manager Giovanni Garziano told The Tico Times yesterday that despite the hotel’s nondiscriminatory policy, there may have been a misunderstanding between a hotel sales assistant and a former sex worker who came to the hotel as part of the event’s planning.

The hotel management, however, welcomed the event.

“To say that the hotel discriminates is not fair and not right … it happens all the time that somebody in an organization might not be as cordial as they should be,” he said.

According to an e-mail from network member Carlos Mesa, the unnamed sales assistant told the sex worker that the hotel hadn’t accepted the event.

Garziano said he will look into exactly what happened, though he said employees at the hotel come and go.

Some prostitutes say they’ve entered the hotel with clients – and that the hotel charged the clients extra to bring in the prostitutes.

“I’ve been there with a client,” said sex worker Erica Ríos, adding that the Balmoral staff charged her client extra for bringing her.

Garziano said the hotel doesn’t promote or profit from prostitution, but charges based on occupancy. The hotel maintains a policy to allow any guests as long as they don’t disturb or inconvenience others.

“Of course there are prostitutes that visit the hotel,” he said.

He said the allegations “hurt” because Balmoral – which recently redesigned its façade and added a new open-air restaurant and conference rooms – is one of the hotels trying to recuperate downtown San José’s scruffy image and create jobs in the area.

“We’re in the heart of downtown, knowing there’s crime, prostitution and a lack of employment,” he said.

Though the run-in with Balmoral may have been a misunderstanding, discrimination is nothing new for sex workers in Costa Rica, despite the fact that prostitution is legal for adults over 18, Reynaga says.

When the network first assembled in Costa Rica, with the help of the Dutch foreign aid workers, some members of the Catholic Church protested their presence here.

Yet some experts have questioned the constitutionality of policies that hotels and other tourism businesses have instituted here to prohibit prostitution-related activities on their premises (TT, July 27).

Despite the run-in with the Balmoral, the network held the event anyway, at a dingy shelter for sex workers in downtown San José’s red zone known as the Sala.

A couple dozen women and a man sat in a large circle Monday defying the rule that Reynaga has observed in society that nobody talks about prostitution.

“It’s never discussed,” she said.

In the stripped building that was once a bottling factory, between noisy pauses in which deafening trucks roared by and rattled the building, they talked about what they want as a minority.

“We’re looked at as research subjects by some, but we’re not looked at as humans with rights under the law,” Reynaga said.“Nobody asks us what we want as a population.”

The idea behind the network is to create a community of sex workers who will eventually become a lobbying power to define public policies on prostitution, including related issues and crimes such as pimping and human trafficking, both of which are illegal in Costa Rica.

“There’s no legislation in the entire region,” said Reynaga, who represents Latin America and the Caribbean for the network.

In Costa Rica, the state has never had a solid policy on prostitution, though it is considered legal here.

Decades ago, the trade was more closely regulated by the Health Ministry and a nowdefunct rural police force. Sex workers were expected to carry with them a record of clinical exams that showed they were free of sexually transmitted diseases, according to Dr. José Rojas. Rojas helps run a clinic in south San José that attends some 160 sex workers a day who come for exams for sexually transmitted diseases and other health issues.

In 1998, Costa Rica’s health system saw reforms that put the Social Security System (Caja) in charge of AIDS clinics. Since then the sex industry hasn’t been regulated by the Health Ministry.

“They have more freedom and many don’t care for themselves,” Rojas said.

Megan Rivers-Moore, a graduate student from the University of Cambridge who is doing research at the Sala as part of her doctoral studies, says there was never a law regulating the sex workers’ health cards.

“It was a practice, but there was never a written policy,” she said.

As police have been occupied with a spike in crime in recent years, prostitution has become less of a concern. As the sex industry here has changed to cater more to sex tourism, Immigration has been taking on more of a role in regulating the industry with routine raids on popular prostitution friendly businesses like Hotel Del Rey, Rivers-Moore said.

Rivers-Moore stood in the Sala as nearly two dozen sex workers took a break from a Wednesday morning workshop led by the Sex Worker Network. During the workshops, which included sex education, violence counseling and group therapy, the participants used a 300-page manual titled “A High-heels Movement.” The manual is a compilation of workshops that the network has carried out throughout Central America.

The network has already set up organizations in 15 other countries throughout the region and is trying to solidify the loose group of sex workers who come to the 13-year-old shelter.

Compared to some of the other countries, Costa Rican prostitutes have a lot of organizing to do. In Reynaga’s native Argentina, for instance, there’s a union of sex workers.

“We should have the same rights that all workers have,” Reynaga said. “We should be able to work in conditions of dignity.”


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