Woman forced back into prostitution
By Anelise Infante
BBC News, Madrid
Migrants at the bottom of the economic pile have been particularly hard hit by the global recession.
Elsa, a 28-year-old Brazilian, was a victim of people trafficking, but managed to escape.
Now, the downturn has pushed her back into prostitution.
After leaving Goiania, in the heart of Brazil, for Madrid in Spain, freeing herself from an illegal prostitution ring and finding work as a manicurist, the lack of money left her without many options. As a result, she went back to prostitution.
"It wasn't my choice, it was the only way to survive," she explains.
As an illegal immigrant in Europe, Elsa, arrived in Spain in 2005 with the help of a criminal gang, knowing that she would work as a prostitute.
However, what she did not know was that her working conditions would be a form of slavery, that she would be guarded for 24 hours a day and threatened with death if she did not cooperate.
In 2007, she finally escaped with the help of a client. She was later sheltered and given psychological counselling by Apramp, a Spanish organisation that helps to rehabilitate prostitutes.
Apramp helped Elsa to find work as a manicurist and hairdresser at a beauty parlour.
But in February, her dream of rehabilitation ended abruptly. "The beauty parlour closed its doors. Without proper documents, I did not have much chance of finding another job," she says.
"I did what I could, but without a working visa, I had to go back to prostitution."
Elsa is emotional when she explains why she finally had to make a decision that she refers to as "moving backwards".
"I won't lie and tell you I have become a saint, because when I accepted the offer to come to Spain I knew what was expected of me in terms of work. My life was like hell," she says.
"In the beginning, I did not work for 15 days for the gang, because I could not stop crying and begging them to let me go back to Brazil."
"None of the clients wanted to go with me because of that. Then they threatened to kill me and to kill my whole family. It was so horrible that after that I lost my fear, I lost my dignity, I lost everything," she says.
After abandoning the prostitution, of which her family back in Goiania never knew, Elsa thought that she had closed a chapter in her life, until she was caught up in the financial crisis.
The 950 euros ($1,376; £832) per month she received for working 12 hours a day, 6 days per week in the modest beauty parlour in Madrid was still well above the Brazilian minimum wage (about £150 per month) that she used to earn as a personal assistant at a gas distributor in Goiania.
"Every migrant comes with the dream of earning enough money to buy a house, a car, to help their parents," she says.
"Going back without achieving that is hard not only for the migrant, but also for their family who stayed in their country of origin, waiting for so many things."
Elsa, whose family are devout Christians, has not visited Brazil since she migrated. She dreams of the day she will be able to go back there with enough money to buy a house and to help her father to open a business.
Now, working again as a prostitute in a house in a posh neighbourhood in Madrid, which she shares with 11 other immigrant women, she earns around 700 euros a week.
She could earn even more if she decided to work by herself on the streets of Madrid, but she is afraid of the police roundups carried out by the city government, which considers prostitution as "an offense to the dignity of women", in the words of Asunción Miúra, director-general of equality in the office of the mayor of Madrid.
Spanish law allows the practice of prostitution, but the exploitation of women and the presence of illegal immigrants are both crimes. If she was caught in the street, Elsa would face an immediate deportation order.
"This is a repressive policy. It is absurd and ridiculous", says Cristina Garaizábal, director of Hetaira, which defends the rights of prostitutes and asserts that only 5% of the women working as prostitutes in Spain are controlled by gangs.
According to Hetaira, women like Elsa would be in a better situation if they could be guaranteed workers' rights.
"She could be earning unemployment benefits now, instead of having to go back to prostitution, if she chose to", says Garaizábal.
Elsa considers the dream of having workers' rights as a utopia. Her main worry is that she will have a permanent black mark for having chosen to earn a living through prostitution.
"The worst of this job is not the sex. The worst now is the sensation of failure," she says.
"I know that I will overcome it, but this mark will never disappear from my life. I hope that I can earn enough money to go back to Brazil and start a new life afresh, but I know that I will not be able to erase this mark."