Behind the headlines of the Secret Service prositution scandal lies a grim reality that is being ignored, Colombian women’s rights organizations argued Friday.
A joint statement responded angrily to the media outcry that has engulfed the U.S. since the discovery that a group of military and Secret Service personnel had hired prostitutes in Cartagena, days before President Barack Obama’s arrival for the Summit of the Americas.
“We reject the attitude of the Secret Service agents in taking advantage of their power and refusing to pay what was agreed with the workers, after taking their bodies and using their sexual services,” said the statement, written by the Human Life Corporation, the National Network of Women, Observatory of Gender Democracy and Human Rights, the League of Displaced Women and Women Who Believe.
The agents’ behavior “violated the labor rights of women working in prostitution,” they said.
The story broke when an argument over payment between one agent and a prostitute attracted attention at the upmarket hotel where the U.S. delegation was staying.
Dania Suarez, a 24-year-old single mother identified as the woman in question, told the New York Times she had agreed a price of $800 with the agent, but the next morning he only offered her $30.
“It should be made clear that our position is, without any room for doubt, supporting the struggle for the human rights of women sex workers,” said the women’s groups. They called on the U.S. Embassy in Colombia, the Foreign Ministry and Cartagena’s mayoral office to make public the results of investigations into the Secret Service agents’ actions.
Three Secret Service agents have left their jobs in the wake of the scandal, and up to three more may go. Twelve are now on administrative leave.
The causes and realities of prostitution were being completely ignored, said the organizations. “Prostitution (…) is caused by the inequality and poverty that exists in many of our cities,” they said, and in Cartagena the fundamental problem was the “exclusion and povery of most of the black population.”
Bolivar, the department in which Cartagena is located, is one of the five poorest in Colombia. It’s estimated that 60% of Cartagena’s population exists below the U.N. poverty level of $2 a day, which combined with a steady stream of wealthy foreign visitors creates the prime conditions for sex tourism.
The women’s groups called on local and national governments to take action. “The sexual exploitation of children, just like the persecution and murder of prostitutes, is a problem that has not been tackled by governments in a serious and responsible way,” said the statement.
Finally, they demanded “an advance in policies to eradicate gender violence, discrimination, trafficking in women and the sexual exploitation of children in the city.”