“Innovative economic project provides exit opportunities for women exploited by the commercial sex industry”

Ashley Kibiger

Sanitary measures, social distancing, global shutdowns, and month-long quarantines have been the reality for the entire world due to COVID-19. In México City, the red-light districts were shut down, hotels closed, and the majority of women working in the sex industry left without income and housing. El Pozo de Vida (EPDV), a nonprofit based out of México City that works to eradicate human trafficking and exploitation, saw a window of opportunity to encourage these women to develop new skills and seek economic alternatives outside of prostitution. Based on our empirical experience, the majority of this population was trafficked at a young age and then remained trapped in prostitution due to lack of education and job experience. Because of quarantine measures, they were forced to seek alternative sources of income and in response to this need, EPDV provided a starter kit and individualized training in sewing and design to one woman, and since has expanded to incorporate ten.

The ten project participants are from two different red-light districts in México City. The demographic of each zone varies in socioeconomic factors, but both areas are marked by extreme poverty. All ten women had expressed a desire before COVID-19 for an alternative to work in the commercial sex industry, but had not found an option at that point. EPDV has also provided the women with additional resources such as grocery assistance during this time. All ten women have dependents living in the home.

This pilot project was intended to address one of the countless reasons why women in red-light districts struggle to leave exploitative situations: the need to provide for their families. When COVID-19 restrictions prohibited them from working, this reduced their options for work drastically as many of the women involved in the commercial sex industry in México City do not have extensive work experience nor education beyond primary school. EPDV decided to test this economic sewing project with a small group of women. Due to sanitary measure, it was key that the activities be sustainable on a remote basis, for their health and protection as well as those of the staff of the organization. The women are visited at a central location near their homes so that they are only minimally needing to travel in public transportation. Women are given feedback and required to meet deadlines as in any job as well as turn in quality material in order to receive full payment for their pieces. This promotes the long-term goal of the project which is to create a work environment that provides the structure and commitment required by traditional work environments, so that project participants can develop the skills necessary to take advantage of future employment opportunities. EPDV started the sewing project with making reusable cloth face mask in response to the shortage in México City, but have expanded into making reusable grocery bags as new legislation prohibits the use of plastic grocery bags. The bags are made by the participants of the project and sold by the organization. The women are aware of the product cost, the labor cost, and the sales price before accepting the payment per piece. They are involved in this process of setting the prices and calculating costs — skills which can be applied to their future economic endeavors.

Nine out of 10 of the women had never used a sewing machine prior to joining this project. This was one of the many challenges that were faced as the women didn’t believe that they could do something that they had never tried before. Some caught on quicker than others and began to assist in the training process. Each woman was offered a one-week trial with the starter kit before deciding if they wanted to stay. The idea is to put the choice in their hands to reestablish their sense of agency, as many have been prohibited from making their own personal choices while in trafficking and exploitation situations. Once signing on, EPDV has only had one woman choose to not continue with the project because of having small children and not feeling as though she could commit fully.

The short-term results of this pilot project include an increased ability in the women to communicate and in the quality of their work. They have begun to problem solve technical machine issues and find the materials that work best in different designs. They are bringing the next ideas for the project and making their own samples for their suggested ideas. One of the women expressed, “I am dreaming again at 45 years old. I haven’t dreamed since I started on the streets. I feel alive again.” Another expressed, “The streets are opening again and I cannot go back. This spot in the project is a privilege that I don’t want to give up.” This is the heart behind the project. EPDV believes that one of the key steps to overcoming the adverse effects of human trafficking and exploitation is for survivors to recover their ability to dream and plan for their future. One hundred percent of the participants have expressed their desire to permanently leave the commercial sex industry, demonstrating how COVID-19, while on many levels a global crisis, can also be an opportunity for change and empowerment of trafficking survivors.

Meet the Author

Ashley Kibiger

Ashley Kibiger is a Project Leader at El Pozo de Vida, a nonprofit based out of México City that works to eradicate human trafficking and exploitation.