Perla was born in the rural community of Achocalla in the Quispicanchi province of Cusco, a place where life expectancy at birth is sixty-one, per capita income is just 116 soles ($35) and average years of schooling are just 3.4 years.
Perla wants a better life for herself -an alternative to the one of her parents who work in the fields all day- but for a 16-year-old Quechuan speaking girl lacking a secondary education there are only two choices: stay where you are, or, like many other Quechuan speaking girls from the remote Andes, take up the promise of lucrative employment in a far away location in the jungle.
For girls in Perla’s position it is barely even a choice, any offer of employment is something that must be grasped. Sadly for Perla and many other vulnerable Andean girls profiled in a new study produced by international NGO Terre des Hommes, that dream of a better life will end up as a nightmare of sexual exploitation. The job of selling clothes or working in a restaurant turns often turns out to be just one of many ruses used to lure victims into working at one of the burgeoning “prosti-bars” springing up to cater for the growing number of illegal mining settlements populating the Amazon region.
As is detailed in the shocking report, the girls who arrive at these settlements are forced to work in unsanitary and poorly constructed buildings often doubling as bars, in order to pay off “debts” incurred for their lodgings and cost of travel.
Their Andean heritage -some not being able to speak Spanish- only heightens the exploitative nature of the “employment” relationship. Speaking to the authorities in places where their presence is already likely non-existent is impossible, while communication with medical practitioners has to be done through intermediaries. Many girls are not even told the name of the town into which they are brought which makes escape all the more difficult.
The girl’s ethnicity also exposes them to the brutal objectification of a sex market organised along racial lines. Andean girls, often labelled “ojotitas” are considered an inferior category of woman to the “A1” girls, whose upbringing and ethnic make up suggests coastal provenance and Mestizo or European ancestry.
The latter category can expect higher levels of remuneration for their services and a wealthy clientele -generally mine bosses- while girls from the sierra are considered very much the preserve of the ordinary laborers. Andean girls can expect not only far lower rates of pay but also a lower degree of respect meaning greater abuses -both physical and emotional- being levelled at them.
With the study finding that 75 percent of the girls involved in sex work in the Amazon region are from the Andes, it is clearly an issue that cannot be shrugged off by the Government as one of individual morality or family breakdown. It is a clear socio-economic phenomena rooted in economic disparities, rurality and structural inequalities which are in need of being addressed.
In order to do this effectively however more nuanced understanding and a shattering of some misconceptions surrounding the issue of sex trafficking is required.
One myth that the study dispels is that sex trafficking in Peru is an activity carried out predominantly by males or large criminal organizations. Far and away the biggest perpetrators are individual women, who in many cases are themselves from the Andes and have been involved in sex work.
Drawing upon their local knowledge, these women are able to inspire confidence in the young girls they meet and very effectively recruit them into their businesses which often consist of nothing more than makeshift buildings set up with a minimal amount of capital.
The study also draws attention to wider questions regarding the arrival of the physical and symbolic products of a hyper-sexualized and materialistic culture which increasingly permeates traditional rural communities and distorts conceptions of self-worth. Just one example is the rise in popularity of game shows featuring scantily clad men and female models competing for prizes.
“The game shows are well known, they are viewed every day both in the communities where the labor supply is generated as well as the mining camps. At the hour the show starts, the TV will be turned on with a light generator. There, through the television screen, the youth are inculcated with the consumption patterns and lifestyles of the middle and upper classes. Access to this urban lifestyle provides utilitarian and symbolic value, it represents belonging to a different social status more valued by society. The lack of access to resources associated with the city and a higher social status generates frustration and anxiety.”
As the study concedes, though there are many girls like Perla who are forced into sex work, some girls who willingly embrace it for the access to western style consumption that it provides and even a sense of validation that comes with being wanted, even though only in commodity form. These girls will often dissociate from, or perhaps do not even think of, the exploitative nature of their situation.
And so, the cycle of exploitation continues.