The Ochentas: the humanitarian crisis facing Venezuelan women

ochentas venezuelan women roraima To survive in Brazil, many Venezuelan women have turned to prostitution

Fleeing the economic collapse that has been destroying her country since 2015, Esmeralda, a 21-year-old Venezuelan, quit nursing school and left for Brazil with hopes of pursuing her education, finding a job, and providing for her family.

In her suitcase, Esmeralda packed her scrubs and books. Yet in Roraima, Brazil’s northernmost state, her work uniform became something different altogether: a short, tight dress and heels. Without many job opportunities, and facing discrimination from Brazilian employers, Esmeralda is one of the hundreds of Venezuelan women who have been pushed into sex work to make ends meet.

“My family doesn’t know I work like this, it would bring them shame. I didn’t study to have this life,” she says, after hopping out of a client’s vehicle. Shame – and fear – are common feelings among women like Esmeralda, especially when they have families waiting for them in their home country. To avoid exposing her identity, Esmeralda chose not to disclose her surname.

</p> <p>“I’m pregnant, and I don’t know what I’m going to do moving forward,” says Maria, a 36-year-old former hairdresser who declines to give her last name. “[The baby is] my husband’s,” she then explains, as if trying to set the record straight.</p> <p>Maria has mailed food to her three kids, who are 14, 18, and 21 years old, and her husband, all of whom are still living in Venezuela. She hasn’t told them how she earns the money to pay for the goods she sends them. Some of Maria’s income still stems from her former trade: in cities located on the outskirts of Boa Vista, she gives manicures and haircuts to her fellow sex workers.</p> <p>Since Venezuela’s economic collapse began in 2015, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan migrants have crossed the Brazilian border. According to data from the International Monetary Fund, Venezuela has the world’s worst economic growth. Inflation rates should spiral to 13,000 percent this year, and its currency has lost 99 percent of its value since 2012. As Matt O’Brien <a href="">wrote</a> for <em>The Independent</em> in 2016: “Venezuela is the answer to what would happen if an economically illiterate drug cartel took over a country.”</p> <p>Despite the migration free-flow that has been occurring for more than two years, it is only now that the Brazilian government has decided to act on the migration crisis in northern Brazil. President Michel Temer recently declared a “state of social calamity” and will send resources to help the state government deal with the situation. Justice Minister Raul Jungmann <a href="">announced</a> that 200 military troops will act on the border “not to forbid their entry in Brazil, but to give some order to this process.”</p> <h3>Risky business</h3> <p>In 2017 alone, more than 70,000 Venezuelan nationals have passed through Roraima – especially now that Colombia has imposed barriers at its border. Over the past 45 days, 18,000 Venezuelans have applied for a Brazilian visa.</p> <p>Around 40,000 of these refugees have stayed in Boa Vista, the state capital. Roraima is isolated from other states by vast stretches of treacherous rainforest. A plane ticket to São Paulo, for instance, usually costs over BRL 1,000 – more than the country’s minimum wage. The sheer lack of options forces many Venezuelans to settle in Boa Vista, and they now amount to over ten percent of the city’s population.</p> <p>But though it is a state capital, Boa Vista is by no means a dynamic urban center – and employment is lacking, with formal opportunities scarcer than many other cities in Brazil. <a href="">Unemployment</a> rates have surpassed 11 percent, the highest of the state’s history. The few available jobs often impose degrading work conditions. Aware of the desperation of migrants, many Brazilian employers offer salaries far below normal rates, and for long hours.</p> <p>The same happens in the sex work industry.</p> <p>Since the 1990s, when gold miners started to occupy the region, the Caimbé district has gained notoriety for its brothels and street prostitution. But since 2015, those activities have intensified. Previously, sexual services were sold in the Caimbé district of Boa Vista for an average of BRL 100 – that is, until the arrival of the Spanish-speaking call girls.</p> <p>As the numbers of foreign women working in the streets have surged, the average price has fallen to BRL 80 – a number that has become these women’s nickname: the <em>ochenta</em> (eighty, in Spanish). The epithet has turned into a song, <a href=""><em>Xote das Ochenta</em></a>, a ballad about a mean-spirited man bargaining to lower a Venezuelan sex worker’s rate.</p> <p>But in addition to payment problems, the <em>ochenta</em> are often forced to deal with violence. Several of them are controlled by pimps, who lurk around the women disguised as coffee or chocolate vendors. Whenever a man enquires about rates, the pimps approach to sell a treat – but they are actually controlling how much the woman is charging for her services. Last year, three men were arrested by the Federal Police for pimping and extorting women.</p> <p>Nor are the clients any less dangerous.</p> <p>Back in December, a Venezuelan woman was raped, stabbed and abandoned in a roadway outside of Boa Vista. Yet despite the severity of the attack, she survived – and told the police that the man attacked her after she refused to have sexual relations without a condom. The suspect was identified, but he has not been arrested.</p> <p>To avoid a similar fate, other girls have a security system. Whenever one of them hops into the car of a client, the others use a rock to write the car’s license plate on the wall. “If she’s away for too long, we call the cops,” explains Maria.</p> <div id="attachment_2706" style="width: 938px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-2706" loading="lazy" class="size-full wp-image-2706" src="" alt="ochenta venezuelan prostitutes brazil roraima" width="928" height="522" srcset=" 928w, 300w, 768w" sizes="(max-width: 928px) 100vw, 928px" /><p id="caption-attachment-2706" class="wp-caption-text">The security system developed by Venezuelan women. Photo: Charles Wellington</p></div> <p>For many of the <em>ochentas</em>, like Michele and Valencia, the daily routine starts as early as 7 a.m. The two 20-year-old friends arrived in Boa Vista two weeks ago, from the Venezuelan city of Maracay. Their clients start coming soon after, looking for sex before going off to work. They come back during lunchtime, and then again from 5 p.m. until the early hours of the next day.</p> <p>Michele, a former nurse, is nostalgic about her days in Venezuela. “I loved my work helping women to give birth. I had always dreamt of being a nurse,” she said as she headed towards her next client&#8217;s car.

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Eliane Rocha, in Boa Vista

Eliane is a Boa Vista-based journalist.

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