Dominican women especially vulnerable
Reports say they fall into prostitution networks due to the difficulty in finding work
by Marcela Valente
Despite the enormous distance between the two countries, Argentina has become an increasingly frequent destination for migrants from the Dominican Republic, especially women, who are vulnerable to falling prey to sexual exploitation networks.
The immigration flow to Argentina from the Caribbean island nation is much smaller than the influx of Paraguayans, Bolivians, Peruvians and Uruguayans, who make up 80 percent of the foreign nationals who have come to this country since 2004.
But Dominicans stand out because of specific problems when it comes to insertion in the labour market.
Clarisa Rondó of the Association of Dominicans Living in Argentina said that the women come in search of better employment opportunities, but often fall into prostitution networks due to the difficulty in finding other work.
“Argentina is a country that takes us in, it makes us feel we are taking a step ahead,” she says. “It’s a big, generous country that offers possibilities.”
Rondó was 21 when she came here on her own in 1994. She has since married, had children, got divorced, and earned a teaching certificate in the arts.
“More women than men have always come, because men find it harder to break into the labour market,” she says. She clarifies that it is also difficult for women, but “they get involved in prostitution. Many of them are illiterate, they don’t find any other work, and they don’t have any alternative.”
The presence of Dominican women in Argentina becomes visible when the police raid places where prostitution is practiced, in Buenos Aires or in provinces like Córdoba, Misiones, La Pampa, Tierra del Fuego, Río Negro or San Luis.
Although there are no official statistics, Rondó estimates that there are some 40,000 Dominicans living in Argentina, a country of 40 million people. Most of them, some 15,000, live in the capital.
Sociologist Lucía Núñez Lodwick at the National University of San Martín explains that Dominicans, who traditionally migrated to the United States or Spain, began to come to Argentina in the mid-1990s.
Argentina’s rigid peg of the peso to the dollar in the 1990s drove the influx of immigrants from the rest of the region, who earned here in pesos and exchanged them for the same amount in dollars, to send back home as remittances, she points out.
That was one of the main reasons why Dominicans began to arrive, along with the common language Spanish and the demand in Argentina for people willing to do low-paid, low-skilled work as domestics, nannies, caregivers for the elderly, hairdressers or restaurant workers, she explains.
According to a study carried out by the Ecumenical Services for the Support and Orientation of Migrants and Refugees (CAREF) and commissioned by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), thousands of Dominicans came to Argentina in the 1990s.
The study, Migración, Prostitución y Trata de Mujeres Dominicanas en Argentina (Migration, Prostitution and Trafficking of Dominican Women in Argentina) states that 12,000 to 15,000 immigrants from the Dominican Republic reached Argentina between 1995 and 2002.
In recent years, although the exchange rate is no longer a lure, Dominicans have continued to come. “We have been arriving for years, and some have managed to gain a good position in society,” Rondó says.
The activist explains that in some cases, the women take out a mortgage on their homes to travel, in the hope of finding a job in domestic service. But when they arrive, they find it hard to get a job, start racking up a debt with those who financed part of their journey, and end up falling into the hands of trafficking or prostitution rings, she says.
Núñez Lodwick concurs: “They come to Argentina with promises of jobs that don’t turn out to be what they had expected, work that would give them a better standard of living than they had in their country.”
Once here, they find it difficult to get any other kind of work, says the sociologist, who wrote the paper Construyendo mapas: Cuerpos femeninos, espacio y jerarquización racial en la práctica de la prostitución en la Ciudad de Buenos Aires on prostitution and racism in Buenos Aires.
Núñez Lodwick says that when they leave their countries in search of work abroad, women are aware that prostitution is one of the possibilities, from things they have heard about, but “many think it won’t happen to them.”
The sociologist studied the link between street prostitution and female migration in the Argentine capital, focusing on women from the Dominican Republic, who are highly visible as they are black in a country where there are so few people of African descent they only began to be counted in the 2010 census.
In her study, Núñez Lodwick says black women in Argentina are often seen as highly sexual, much more so than white or indigenous women, and this makes them more vulnerable.
One Dominican woman working as a prostitute in Buenos Aires, who was interviewed by Núñez Lodwick for her study, said “maybe they like (Dominican women) because we have big breasts.”
Another Dominican immigrant working as a street prostitute told the sociologist that “My mom didn’t want me to come here. She told me what women did when they came here, and I didn’t believe her.”
To combat this phenomenon, the Argentine authorities announced in August 2012 that people from the Dominican Republic would need visas to enter the country. And for those who already live here, the authorities simplified the legalization process and streamlined the paperwork for gaining temporary residency for three years.
But Rondó believes that requiring visas is not a solution. The same view is shared in CAREF, as stated Gabriela Liguori, and in the Dominican Republic Embassy in Buenos Aires. They all agree that the new visa requirement won’t solve the problem.
“This just makes things worse,” says the activist. “Because it will be difficult, but they’ll find other ways to get here on land, illegally, and then the women will be less protected and more exposed to trafficking.”
But these sources do believe it is a good idea to cut the red tape needed to regularize the situation of those who came in as tourists and are now living here without the proper documents, because temporary residency status would make it easier for them to find a job.
The programme has assistance from the Dominican consulate, Argentina’s foreign ministry, and the justice ministry’s office to rescue and support victims of trafficking.
Undocumented immigrants from the Dominican Republic were given from January to July to apply for temporary residency permits. By March, 631 permits had been granted, according to the web site of the national migrations office.
“My idea is that people who come should be able to regularize their situation, study or work, because even if some do come for prostitution, they could at least have other alternatives. But without documents, they’re forced to become sex workers,” Rondó says.