Brazil is welcoming an influx of visitors as it hosts this week's Rio+20 summit on sustainable development. More tourists will descend on the country for the 2014 World Cup, and more still are expected in 2016, when Rio de Janeiro will host the Summer Olympics. These events will mean a boom for Brazil's tourism industry – and an increase in demand for its sex workers.
Prostitution has been legal for more than 60 years in Brazil, yet those who actually work in the field are frequently denied their basic rights, ostracised by society and unable to push for change. What can be done? Some other countries in the region may be able to offer some hints on the best way forward.
Sex in the city
The International Union of Sex Workers has the tagline "Only rights stop the wrongs". Nowhere does that truth matter more than on the streets of Brazil's cities – among the world's most popular destinations for sexual tourism.
The exchange of money for sex has been legal in Brazil since 1949, although pimping and brothels are prohibited. Partly because of that, the vast majority of prostitution takes place underground; and it's estimated that at least 250,000 children work in the industry.
The ministry of employment has listed sex work as a legitimate profession for many years. But because Brazil's union federations have insisted on defining them as “non-workers”, prostitutes are excluded from most basic labour rights and have limited access to health services.
These are the very people who most need access to healthcare: women in the sex industry are 14 times more likely to be infected with HIV than the rest of the female population.
In recent years, activists have tried to create a trade union for sex workers, calling for regulation of the industry under the penal code and monitors to stop abuses. But government policy hasn't budged.
Other Latin American countries, including Ecuador, Bolivia and Uruguay, have begun to unionise their sex sectors. GlobalPost highlights the case of Bolivia, where more than 45,000 sex workers have been formally registered with the government. They get free weekly check-ups and health examinations; and in what is surely a sign of new confidence and solidarity, when check-ups were disrupted by a month-long doctors' strike, sex workers organised their own hunger strike.
Brazil's 65,000 sex workers would benefit hugely from the same kind of protections. It's high time for Brazil, widely feted as a strong economic powerhouse, to learn a lesson from its "poorer" regional neighbour, Bolivia, and begin to protect some of the most vulnerable members of its workforce.
Read more: The Global Network of Sex Work projects has released an exhaustive report on how countries across the world can make sex work safe.