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The entrance to a brothel in La Paz, Bolivia. NGOs working with girls who have been sexually exploited fear that Bolivia is turning into a hub for predators. Image by Tracey Eaton. Bolivia, For the past eight years, Soliz has been working with the Munasim Kullakita Foundation, a nonprofit Catholic group that supports victims of sexual violence and human trafficking. The foundation also offers medical and psychological counseling, along with housing for several dozen girls at a shelter for survivors of sexual violence and trafficking.
Precise numbers are hard to find. Sex work is legal in Bolivia for women 18 and older, and at last count, in , there were more than 45, registered sex workers in the country. Every Thursday night, Giavarini and other foundation workers go into the streets looking to help exploited girls, including those forced into the sex trade. Ramirez says many of the girls come from Santa Cruz, Beni and other provinces.
Middlemen promise teenage girls jobs and other opportunities to convince them to visit El Alto. Once in the city, criminal groups take over, forcing the girls into the sex trade. Some stay in El Alto; others are trafficked to other cities in Bolivia and beyond. Weak law enforcement along with a growing social acceptance of legal sex work make it difficult to tackle the issue. Also making it harder is the fact that so few children in the industry seek help from the police. Some girls come from such dysfunctional and violent homes that even sex work is an improvement.
Back in La Ceja, the girls blend in easily with the nighttime crowd. Some girls walk through the market looking for clients. Others hang out at bars and cafes. Or they wait for clients outside rent-by-the-hour hotels. Gaining their trust is difficult and time-consuming, Elizabeth Soliz says. And there is always the chance of heartbreaking loss. Girls she knows have died of drug overdoses, AIDS or alcoholism.
But there are success stories, too. Six in 10 girls that the foundation takes off the streets do not return, foundation workers say. That gives Soliz reason for hope. It is better to give than to receive. That is something that I have learned.