Written July 30, 2007
Last week, I participated in my second outing with the mobile street unit team, also known as Unità di Strada (UdS). To read about my first experience with the team, talking to the migrant sex workers on the job, read my blog “One Person at a Time.” This time, instead of driving through an industrial neighborhood of Torino at night, we ventured outside Torino, to the little farm towns surrounding the city, in the middle of the afternoon. You can read about the other AP fellow in Torino Leslie’s experience talking to the migrant sex workers out “in the cornfields” in her blog “Working in the Cornfields: Juliet and Sylvia.”
What struck me as the first difference between going out during the day and driving through little country roads versus cruising down long, depressing streets of uniform cement structures was that I felt like I actually saw the offering and purchasing of services in front of my eyes. When I went out at night with UdS, I might have saw a few clients pull up and drive away with a girl after we had left. During the day, the clients don’t seem to feel the need to drive off with the girls, because, I think, of their relative isolation out in the country; there were actually times when we stopped next to an empty chair (belonging to the girl), nestled among the shade of cornrows and big trees on some dirt path, and an empty car or motorcycle (belonging to the client) was parked some meters away. We would wait until we saw the man exit from somewhere in the foliage and drive off; shortly after, the girl would exit from the same place and we would great her and begin our dialogue of who we are and of explaining various health issues and services.
Because Tampep’s central concern is the safety and health of the migrant sex workers, they do not interfere or talk with the clients, pimps, or madams. But look how close they get! The demand that drives prostitution and sex trafficking! While governments and international organizations have tried to address demand by discouraging sexual tourism in countries like Thailand, for example, I have not read much about street outreach to clients. I don’t know if it’s possible, or safe, or smart; for Tampep’s operations at the moment, I do not believe this type of outreach would be advisable within the same organization. It’s just interesting to think about how you would have to change your message and tactics to achieve the same goals – the health and safety of trafficking victims, targeting the opposite population… I have talked to some Tampep colleagues about projects on prevention, on addressing demand. They have expressed interest in, and also previously carried out, educational and informational projects. We’ll have to wait and see what this busy and ambitious organization comes up with in the future…
Another thing that I learned during my second outing with the UdS was that a hierarchy of control seems to exist among the sex workers, or at least among the Nigerian girls Tampep frequently encounters. Out in the country, we usually found the girls sitting in groups of two. One was usually shyer, the other more outgoing. Sometimes my colleague knew the more outspoken girl, but maybe not the quieter one. We would get back in the car and she would say “I think that girl controls the other girl.” At first, I thought that we were talking to the madams, who for some reason, for extra money maybe, also worked the streets. I asked for clarification and my colleague explained that while sometimes the madams might also work as prostitutes (often they are former sex workers themselves), when she says one girl controls another, it’s not because she is her madam, rather it’s because lower levels of control also seem to exist among the girls. The more experienced girls boss around the newer girls. Older girls might have the task of watching over the newer girl. Or, the more experienced girl will intimidate the newer girls and take the better-paying clients.
What does this mean for helping victims of trafficking and promoting the health of migrant sex workers? First, it demonstrates, like I have stated before, the extreme complexity of the phenomenon. Second, it brings to light why, in reintegration programs, whether in Italy or in Nigeria, the girls have such a hard time trusting each other when trying to put together, for example, a collective micro-credit enterprise. Not only, perhaps, have their families betrayed them by effectively selling them or offering them up to the sex trade, but their only companions on the street might also be manipulating them. Therefore, trusting co-nationals might become a problem. This would also be an issue should Tampep and other similar organizations try to work more with Nigerian diasporas, like I talked about in my previous blog “A Failed Exorcism.” In conclusion, this discussion on control and trust makes me realize, yet again, how important, intelligent, and amazing Tampep’s individual psychological assistance to those girls trying to decide whether to denounce their traffickers or to return to Nigeria is. To jump into a scary judicial process, or return to a country with a history of sex work, involves trusting not only the organizations like Tampep and others trying to assist you; it also often involves trying to rebuild relationships with people you might have lost faith in, like family members and friends. What is the hierarchical situation voluntarily repatriated girls might have to enter once returning to Nigeria? These are all factors that influence the successful reintegration of the victims and the avoidance of being re-trafficked.
Posted By Michelle Lanspa
Posted Aug 19th, 2009