The Culture of Prostitution in the Amazon

Nadia Shira Cohen wrote an article for the Virginia Quarterly Review called “River Women of Brasil.” It’s a fascinating read that highlights some very common themes in the discussion of human trafficking and how to empower women:

  • • Extreme poverty.
    • Cultural acceptance of prostitution and the use of sex as a commodity.
    • Romance as a element of control.
    • Duty to family.
    • Multigenerational participation in the sex trade.
    • Young age of entry into the sex trade.
    • Desire for modern amenities.
    • Acute need for education and culturally appropriate economic empowerment opportunities.

Here are some excerpts from the article:

The biggest prize for villagers is diesel oil. The cargo ships always carry an extra supply of it, which crews trade for money, food, and more recently, time alone with young girls who have little other opportunity than to offer their bodies in exchange for this coveted liquid.

Although practiced in public silence, the culture of sexual exchange in the Amazon has become somewhat culturally accepted, with many families of up to three generations of women “doing the program,” as it is commonly called.

Jessica said she hoped to break with the tradition of balseiras in her family. She goes to school. She badly needs glasses—which she can’t afford, and which she can’t seem to get from any of the medical charity boats that more often than not simply pass by Jararaca.

When I asked Professor Sarraf what would be the catalyst for change, his response was as expected: “The ribeirinha communities need to be assisted by social and government institutions, because the debt created by the lack of these institutions is historically immense. But more importantly, they need a job that values the ribeirinha culture—that is inclusive—to convince these communities into believing that a dignified life, as such, is possible. A different kind of education needs to be practiced. They need professional courses that guarantee earnings by utilizing the resources of the forest in a sustainable way.”

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Emily founded Stop Traffick Fashion in 2009. She’d been becoming more and more involved in the abolitionist movement, and she decided to start STF as an opportunity to bring together the best of all products made by survivors of trafficking. She hopes her response to trafficking will inspire others to take action, even in a small way. Emily lives in Bend, Oregon, enjoys traveling, and has visited Hagar International and StopStart in Cambodia.

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