SURREY, United Kingdom — Barbados is an island that entices tourists from across the globe to enjoy its tropical beaches, lively nightlife, and warm hospitality of the Bajan people. Yet within this idyllic tropical landscape, life is challenging for many Bajan people, especially for women.
Sex Workers in Barbados
Around one-fifth of the female population lives below the poverty line, and the child poverty rate doubles in households where women are the primary income earners
Living in poverty is a critical factor in why women will turn to sex work to support their families. In 2022 Bajan women were 17% more disadvantaged in comparison to men when participating in the economy. Many women facing poverty view sex work as one of the few accessible professions left for them, especially if they have had a limited education.
Criminalization of Sex Trade
Commercial sex work in Barbados is largely a criminal offense. Whilst the act of prostitution is legal, related acts like solicitation or brothel keeping are subject to criminal penalties. However, the buyer and the seller in a commercial sex transaction in Barbados are not treated equally under the eyes of the law.
Indeed, a person living “wholly or in part on the earnings of prostitution” or “solicits for an immoral purpose,” can be subject to a fine of $5,000 and/or up to five years in prison. Yet, if someone is caught buying sex from a consenting adult, they would not face any misdemeanor or criminal charges because there is nothing in the law that prohibits them from doing so. This unequal treatment is especially problematic when one acknowledges the gendered disparity in the transaction, that women sell sex and men buy it but only one party is guilty.
Unfair Treatment and Stigma
Even beyond the law’s blatantly unfair treatment of sex sellers compared to buyers, the impact of criminalization makes it extremely difficult for many women that are selling sex to attempt to mitigate their poverty. First, imposing post-conviction fines of up to $5,000 could perpetuate the cycle of poverty, a gross punishment when considering that many of these women were already challenged in meeting their basic needs prior to their arrest.
Second, a conviction for prostitution will result in a criminal record and reinforce the stigma against sex workers. This could hinder future employment prospects and narrow down their options for alternative employment, further exacerbating already vulnerable financial situations. The stigma towards sex workers in Barbados is in part due to the law’s influence upon conflating the criminality of sex work to the morality of the prosecuted, by perpetuating the notion that engaging in sex working is inherently deviant or immoral.
Jabez House Empowering Women
Former teacher Shamelle Rice founded the organization in July 2012. Since then, Jabez House has worked with over 500 female sex workers to help empower them to pursue other avenues of income opportunities that pose less risk to their safety.
To begin the journey of empowerment and rehabilitation, the organization first provides a foundation of care. From provisions for the women’s basic needs, the organization prioritizes the client’s health by enabling access to sexual and reproductive health care and organizing psycho-social support in the form of individual and group counseling.
Furthermore, clients can participate in autonomy-promoting training programs such as skills training, vocational education and entrepreneurship support. In addition, it provides conversational English lessons for migrant Spanish-speaking clients.
Its programs clearly have a positive impact, for example, since participating in the programs like the Go Getter Initiative sponsored by the Sandals Foundation, numerous women have since opened their own businesses or found gainful employment in the mainstream workforce.
Due to the invaluable efforts of Jabez House, over 500 women had a chance to transform their lives by making the brave choice to transition from sex work. Indeed, the Minister of People Empowerment and Elder Affairs commended the organization’s achievements in helping 48% of clients fully transition from sex work in Barbados with 65% of these women having found employment.
Within a context of Bajan women’s clear disadvantage in the country’s economy as well as the effect of the law upon stigma towards sex workers in Barbados, Jabez House has triumphed in being a “haven of hope” to inspire women to embrace a life free from the sex trade.
– Lucy Gebbie