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In Postquake Haiti, an Influx of Dominican Prostitutes

5 minute read
Jessica Desvarieux / Port-au-Prince

On any given Friday night, as you pass the gated nightclubs of the Port-au-Prince suburb of Pétionville, you will hear reggaeton and bachata — musical styles from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic respectively — blasting out into the streets. Inside the gentlemen-only clubs, cross-border commerce is taking place, but the trade is not in music but human flesh. The clients of these clubs — members of Haiti’s elite and businessmen both local and foreign — can pay for sex with women from the country on the other side of the island of Hispaniola.

Sex workers have always traveled to Haiti from the Dominican Republic, but the astonishing thing is that even after Haiti’s devastating Jan. 12 earthquake, the network of prostitution continued to grow, according to a recent U.N. report. In fact, its expansion may have been encouraged by all the reports of overseas aid raised to help with disaster relief in Haiti. (In March, for example, an aid conference announced pledges totaling more than $5 billion.) Juanita, 22 (her name has been changed to protect her identity), says she decided to take a two-month contract to work in Port-au-Prince, leaving her hometown of Santiago de los Caballeros. A friend had convinced Juanita that she could make a sizable income because of the influx of foreigners and the huge amount of financial assistance headed toward Haiti. A June 2010 “Trafficking in Persons Report” by the U.S. State Department found forced prostitution of Dominican women in brothels in Haiti allegedly frequented by peacekeeprs in the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti. The U.N. forbids peacekeepers from patronizing brothels and is currently investigating the cases.

(See a TIME cover story on the global sex trade.)

Meanwhile, although Haitian prostitution does exist, Dominican prostitutes have a certain cultural cachet, supposedly because of their more racially mixed appearance — a factor that makes them more desirable to Haitian men who are willing to pay more for their services.

“But there wasn’t a lot of money,” Juanita says of her experience. (Indeed, in the larger perspective, of the billions of dollars pledged by donors, perhaps only 2% has actually reached Haiti.) Customers ordinarily pay $150 a night. She (and her pimp) would keep two-thirds, with the rest going to the club owner. However, after room and board, Juanita says she rarely has enough to send back to her 2-year-old son in the Dominican Republic. She also says the living conditions are cramped, with 25 women sharing one room. She says she often has to sleep with three women in a single bed. “More and more keep coming to the club every day.”

(See why human trafficking rises during recessions.)

Juanita says when she first arrived she had thought of running away since she felt unsafe and overworked by her Haitian pimp. She says he would take her at night to stake out casinos and restaurants, and on the weekend go to the beach to find customers. She says she was tempted to leave, especially after a few of the girls she crossed the border with found a way back home.

Many of the Dominican women in the same situation feel trapped. Maribel, 25 (her name has also been changed to protect her identity), says when she arrived in Haiti her employers “told me I would work at a bar as a waitress, not that I would be doing this kind of work. I don’t like it here, and I miss home. But I don’t have a choice.” Often, Dominican women’s passports are confiscated by their employers when they arrive in Haiti. Maribel says she was told that she wouldn’t be able to return until she finished at least a month of her contract. And then there is the threat of violence, says Luis CdeBaca, the U.S. State Department ambassador at large with the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, referring to reports of women threatened by pimps to make them work and incidents of physical abuse.

CdeBaca adds that although prostitution is illegal in Haiti, it’s often difficult to prosecute offenders. “Haiti doesn’t have a law to prosecute people. That’s a big gap in the penal code,” says CdeBaca. He recommends tighter control of the Dominican-Haitian border on both sides as a solution.

Dominican women rank fourth in the world — behind women from Thailand, Brazil and the Philippines — in the number of prostitutes working abroad, according to a report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Zoe Stopak-Behr, an IOM operations official in the Dominican Republic, says the typical trafficked Dominican woman is under the age of 25 with a low level of education and low socioeconomic status yet carrying the economic burden of her family. “In many cases the victims have been lured by attractive offers of high-income employment and find themselves in a trafficking situation upon arrival,” says Stopak-Behr.

Maribel made her way back to the Dominican Republic with the help of a benefactor who paid the rest of her contract. But Juanita says she’s looking to stay until her contract expires in a month. She feels that she knows how to leave if she decides to: “Many of the girls don’t realize that they could just go to the [Dominican] embassy and leave.” “No one in my family knows I’m here,” Juanita says. “I hope I can save enough money to give my son a better life.”

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