Thursday, January 15, 2015

"O mito de Maria"

Um estudo brasileiro sobre o que os autores chamam o "mito de Maria", a história da rapariga brasileira a que é prometido um emprego na Europa e depois é obrigada a prostituir-se.

Cinderella deceived. Analyzing a Brazilian myth regarding trafficking in persons, por Ana Paula da Silva, Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette e Andressa Raylane Bento:

The Myth of Maria came into being as an exemplary tale promoted by moral entrepreneurs. It preceded formal research into trafficking phenomena in Brazil, informed certain studies to such a degree that it undermined their scientific worth and soldiers on today, long after many of its main precepts have been problematized by ethnographers. It has now become the central narrative for journalists, NGOs and politicians who seek to communicate to the Brazilian public a sense of urgency regarding trafficking in persons. The myth has also become central to the confection of material designed to educate the Brazilian public regarding trafficking, as we can see in the pamphlets produced in Rio de Janeiro by Projeto TRAMA and the story produced by the Bahian NGO CHAME, presented in Illustration 2. Finally, the Myth of Maria has now literally gone "prime time", becoming the central drama in Globo Network's late 2012 telenovela, Salve Jorge, where the main character is recruited to work overseas in the service industry, only to find herself being auctioned off as a sex slave in Turkey (...)

In its most basic form, the Myth of Maria recounts the story of a young, innocent Brazilian woman (almost always black or brown and always poor) who is recruited by an unscrupulous fraud (generally a white, blond, blue-eyed foreigner) for overseas work (usually as a maid or dancer). When she arrives at her destination, Maria is forced to work as a prostitute and can find no way out of her desperate situation. If the story has a happy ending, it usually involves Maria being saved by the police and "repatriated" back to Brazil. The story is "exemplary" in two senses. First, it is presented as a typical example of certain Brazilian women's experiences with overseas migration. Secondly, it is meant to impart a lesson to potential Marias: it is better for them to stay in Brazil than face the dangers of migration. (...)

In modern anti-trafficking narratives, the loss of one's passport has become such an iconic meme that it has been situated as a necessary and sufficient step for the enslavement of immigrants. Indeed, Brazil's first nationwide anti-trafficking campaign revolved around posters and pamphlets informing potential immigrants that traffickers "first take your passport, then take your freedom" (see Illustration 1).

Reflection regarding this meme quickly reveals its problems, however. Obviously, the loss of one's passport means relatively little in terms of one's ability to move about. New passports are routinely emitted to people who have lost theirs by consulates and embassies. Absent other forms of coercion, the retention of one's passport is nothing more than a nuisance: it means a delay of perhaps a week for international travel and no delay at all for local travel. Bus and train tickets can be purchased for travel within most western European nations (and the United States and Canada) without showing I.D.

The myth's insistence that the lack of a passport means effective imprisonment is thus factually incorrect and this is a point that several of our prostitute immigrant informants confirm. The persistence of this element in trafficking narratives is quite significant in symbolic terms, however. It reveals that the Myth is told from the point of view of the State and not from the point of view of immigrants themselves. A valid passport is, of course, necessary in order legally to cross most international frontiers and – referring back to Item #11 in Column Three – it is only this sort of movement which is of interest in constructing Maria's plight. Without her passport, she cannot immediately return to Brazil, which the myth naturalizes as her "proper" place in the world. In terms of the story's logic, Maria is in peril as long as she stays outside Brazil. This, then, is the true problem which the myth is discussing: the fact that a poor, black or brown Brazilian woman is out and about in the world without proper supervision. (...)

Who's met Maria?

It has been difficult to find confirmed cases of trafficking in persons in Brazil which parallel the Myth of Maria. This, paradoxically, has seemed to increase the Myth's acceptance as a "typical" report of trafficking. An incident which took place in November, 2012 during a discussion between federal anti-trafficking investigators and members of several NGOs engaged in combating trafficking in the state of Rio de Janeiro demonstrates the story's durability as a guiding narrative. Although this is one particular case, it is illustrative of a type of conversation that we've often had in our interactions with government officials and members of the anti-trafficking movement over the past several years.

During the meeting, we related the results of our research among migrant prostitutes in Rio de Janeiro, pointing out that while many of our informants reported encountering human rights violations in Europe, these were mostly at the hands of police and immigration authorities. Furthermore, we reported that our informants claimed that fraud and coercion were generally not used in recruiting Brazilian women for sex work in Europe and that everyone we had talked to said they had migrated of their own free will and likewise freely worked as prostitutes.

At this point, a young woman from one of the most important and long-standing Carioca anti-trafficking organizations spoke up. The NGO that she works for has been central to the formulation of anti-trafficking educational campaigns in Rio de Janeiro for over 8 years and has been collecting and collating information regarding accusations of trafficking in the state during that period. The organization also makes abundant use of the Myth of Maria in the educational material it produces.

"Maybe the reason you're not finding women who've been forced or tricked into prostitution is due to the fact that you've been working with prostitutes," the intern said. "Our organization works mostly with non-prostitutes, so that's why we find all these cases of women who've been lied to and tricked or forced into prostitution overseas."

"That could very well be the case," we replied. "We are certainly open to that possibility. How many cases of women, tricked or forced into prostitution overseas has your organization discovered?"

The young woman admitted that she had been working with the NGO for a year or so and that the only trafficking case that she personally knew of involved a Guatemalan man who'd been tricked into coming to Rio for forced labor in the civil construction industry. She then passed the question on to her predecessor, who had worked for the NGO for most of the prior decade before leaving to take up a government position. This woman detailed the many educational campaigns and other activities the organization had developed during the last decade, but did not answer our question. So we put it to her again:

"But during this period, how many cases of women tricked or forced into overseas prostitution did you discover?"

"There was one case involving two women six or seven years ago..." the civil servant said, hesitating and nodding at the NGO's current president and indicating that he take up the story. This gentlemen couldn't remember the incident. After a back-and-forth that lasted five minutes, it was revealed that the only case anyone present could remember that approximated the story laid out in the Myth of Maria involved two women who had migrated to Spain, worked as dancers and later voluntarily decided to work as prostitutes because the money was better, only to become frightened by the possibility of coercion, returning to Brazil.

We pointed out that this was only one incident, not "many" and that while the women might indeed have encountered sexual exploitation, they weren't tricked or coerced into prostitution and hadn't migrated in function of it. It was thus problematic to classify it as "trafficking", according to the Palermo Protocol.

"Yes," the intern replied. "But just because we don't have any cases like this [the story related in the Myth of Maria] doesn't mean they don't exist."

"But by contrast," we pointed out, "we have found a half dozen cases of Brazilian sex workers who have gone overseas, were arrested by European police, labeled as trafficking victims, deported back to Brazil and who report that they were never enslaved, coerced, or forced into anything, other than leaving Europe against their will. We've also found dozens of cases of Brazilian sex workers who've voluntarily gone to Europe, encountered difficulties and even exploitation, but were unable to report these to the authorities because they knew they'd be immediately arrested and deported as irregular, sex-working immigrants. How is it that these stories, which are quite common among prostitutes in Rio and easy to document, have become of secondary importance when compared to a story, which is used in all of your organization's literature, and for which we have a hard time finding a documented example?"

No one in the room was able to answer our question.

This, then, illustrates the real damage caused by the Myth of Maria: by focusing attention on "innocent women, tricked into sexual slavery", it pushes the needs, demands and experiences of sex-workers and migrants into the background. Reforming laws and organizing support infrastructures for Brazilian migrants overseas and sex workers at home requires a certain degree of political consensus and this is much harder to create than emotional affect through the use of myths. As anthropologist and congressional researcher Maia Sprandel points out, during the same period in which Brazil signed and ratified the Palermo Protocol and instituted its national policy and first national plan to combat trafficking, long-standing juridical projects to modify the country's obsolete and incoherent migration and prostitution laws were repeatedly tabled in the Brazilian Congress: "In a context in which laws are produced and approved, taking into consideration the parameters stipulated by international treaties and conventions that the country has signed, the work of identifying the State's legislative categories has become tedious and arid" (Sprandel, 2012).

What are not tedious and arid, however, are alarming stories of young women in sexual bondage.

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