Sewing makes a welcome change from sex for the 20 women who escaped years of forced prostitution to stitch together a new life in Spain’s second city.
Paid work – making clothes – is a path back to normality, they say, a way to feel useful, not used, and learn how to fit into society after being trafficked underground.
“Working here I feel empowered, relaxed and happy,” said Fer, a 42-year-old former prostitute from Brazil whose name has been changed as she wished to remain anonymous.
Fer said working alongside other trafficked women in a simple, white, inner-city workshop had helped her move on and put the past where it belonged.
The women busily cut patterns and stitch garments, chatting as they work. Outside is the commotion of the Raval district – a hive of Pakistani grocers, poor immigrant families and tourists who cram the narrow cobblestone streets and mediaeval squares.
Inside is a women-only sanctuary.
The Dona Kolors clothing brand was born in 2012 to help women like Fer regain confidence and start afresh.
The clothes are simple, boxy pieces in linen and cotton aimed at 30- and 40-something women.
It is a social enterprise – a business that aims to do good – that was set up by a local Catholic organisation, El Lloc de la Dona, Catalan for ‘Women’s Place’, which has for decades helped prostitutes in this crime-ridden corner of the city.
ON A MISSION
Women’s Place is far from alone in its mission.
Businesses that help socially excluded women are springing up in Spain and further afield, in part to help the rising number of girls and women tricked and trafficked into sex work.
U.S.-based skincare firm Thistle Farms employs victims of trafficking, prostitution and addiction, while a Madrid-based handbag brand, Evana & Tia, gives work to women prisoners.
Socially excluded women at Murcia-based A Puntadas make textiles for big-name clients such as Max Mara.
Experts say work is key to setting the women free.
“Vocational training and having a job are a crucial aspect of being able to definitively get out of the world of sexual and economic exploitation that is prostitution,” Maria Rosa Cobo Bedia, a sociology professor at the University of A Coruna, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Prostitution thrives in Spain, which bucks trends in many developing country by attaching little stigma to men who pay for sex, according to a 2013 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
An estimated 400,000 sex workers operate in Spain, according to Spanish government figures.
Public research carried out in 2008 found that one in four Spanish men had paid for heterosexual sex, the highest figure for any developed country, said Spain’s Health And Sexual Behaviour Survey Group.
All of which fuels demand for trafficked women, with the seamstresses lured from as far afield as Brazil and Nigeria.
Prostitution in Spain is not legal but is tolerated, Bedia said. While exploiting the prostitution of others is a crime, owning an establishment where prostitution takes place is not in itself illegal, according to a European Parliament report.
Women like Fer, who has worked at Dona Kolors for three years, need time to re-adjust after sex work, said Myriam Herrera Moreno, a law professor at the University of Seville.
It is a gradual process, she said, and the women must first stop seeing themselves as “weak, fragile, poor victims”.
Women´s Place, which is funded by the Spanish government, Barcelona City Hall and CaixaBank, is there to help the former prostitutes retrain, find jobs and sort out visas.
Most of the prostitutes are Nigerians who work on the fabled Las Ramblas boulevard or on Montjuic hill, site of the 1992 Olympic Games, said Nieves de Leon Reyes, the centre’s director.
A total of 354 women from 26 different countries sought help from Women’s Place last year, and about 20 of them are now working at or training with Dona Kolors, said Nieves.
Dona Kolors pays the women in line with a national industry standard, about 870 to 970 euros ($976 to $1,088) a month, which is low but tops the minimum wage, said Reyes.
And many struggle to win work post-training, as few speak fluent Spanish so must resort to casual work, such as cleaning. High unemployment in Spain only makes matters worse, she said. “They need a support system – it’s going to be very hard for them to get out of their situation by themselves,” she added.
STRUGGLE TO SURVIVE
But organisations like Dona Kolors can face their own problems when it comes to self sufficiency.
Last year, the brand, which has 10 permanent staff, made an income of 90,000 euros but its costs were double that.
“We haven’t yet started to sell enough so that the project can support itself without funding, so we need to make changes,” Reyes said.
It is hard to keep the brand sustainable – buying cotton in Europe, for instance – while also chasing profits, she said.
The clothes are sold online and in more than 30 stores in Barcelona, but e-commerce is tricky when people prefer to try stuff in stores, said Laura Ortiz, its communication manager.
“Now we have good quality, design and are producing seasonally, we want to expand, to keep growing,” she said.
For women like Fer, her journey, too, has just begun.
“I have learnt a trade but I want to continue working, perfecting and improving as a professional – and as a person.”
A Thomson Reuters Foundation report