When Elena (not her real name) arrived in Malaga ten years ago for a holiday, taking a break from her Law studies in her native Bulgaria, she could never have imagined that it would end up as a one-way journey. A casual meeting with a childhood friend while she was here marked a before and after in her life and meant that her future would be very different from the one she had planned. She was persuaded that independence was desirable, and in pursuing it she destroyed all her dreams.
"My friend persuaded me to stay here. She was working as a live-in home help and told me life was much better in Spain," says Elena, who is now 37, "but I regretted it almost from the start." Even so, she found work as a cleaner and carer for elderly people until the economic crisis changed her life. "As it did for everyone," she says.
Even after things went wrong, going home was never an option for Elena, who had left her parents and sister back in Bulgaria. "I would have been so ashamed to go back with nothing," she admits. Her family has no idea what happened to her after the crisis began. Elena lived in Torremolinos, "where you get to know a lot of people," and things became very desperate for her financially. In the end, she decided her only option would be to sell her body.
Strangely, neither Elena nor the other girls who took part in this report used the word 'prostitution', although that was their common destiny. Elena refers to it as "doing that"; Gladys, beside her, only says that yes, she also used to hang out on the Guadalhorce industrial estate to make a living; and Cristina tells her story of real hardship but only refers to "the other."
But "the other" is what led these women to the Mujer Emancipada (Emancipated Woman) association in Malaga, which tries to help women who have become involved in prostitution on the industrial estate and have voluntarily taken the decision to change their lives. In other words, that is what the women want to do and the association gives them the tools to do so, as part of the 'Kapaces' project. The Arrabal association also plays an important role in this project.
The initiative, which was the idea of the Citizen Participation, Immigration and Cooperation for Development Department of Malaga City Hall, has been operative for three years and during that time it has assisted 45 girls. About 20 per cent of them have found work after taking part in this programme. That is a significant number, especially bearing in mind that most of the women who are incorporated into the 'Kapaces' project have little education - or at least their studies are not valid in Spain - and they have dependants and are immigrants. With almost everything going against them already, the crisis hit the most vulnerable collectives especially hard.
Elena is one of the 45 who has received assistance and is also one of the 20 per cent who have stopped doing "that". She took the step three years ago, when she realised that she could no longer continue to live that sort of life. Today, she smiles when she looks at how far she has come. She now works for a cleaning company in Malaga, lives a quiet life "with two dogs in a home of my own," has an employment contract and has even recently taken out a mortgage. "Now I would no longer be ashamed for my parents to come and see me," she says, happily.
Gladys (38) is hoping that she will soon be as lucky as her friend. Her dream is to find work as a kitchen assistant in a 'chiringuito' beach restaurant, because she has training to do that, and increase the 20 per cent of women who succeed in getting a job.
Her basic training was no use to her at all when she arrived from Nigeria with her younger sister in 2002. Finding all doors closed to her, Gladys discovered that the industrial estate, where she spent a year, was her only hope. She later found a temporary job cleaning in a restaurant, went to Huelva to pick strawberries, worked in a restaurant owned by somebody else from Nigeria.... and met her husband and had two children.
"I met him at that time, at someone's birthday celebration, and we have been together for 11 years," says Gladys. Her children are aged 10 and one, and she is hoping to find work again now the baby is a bit older. Thanks to 'Kapaces', Gladys has taken different courses, been able to work for a cleaning company and did work experience in a chiringuito, where she hopes to return in the near future to finish putting her life in order.
"I've cried so much"
Cristina hasn't thrown in the towel either, despite now being at home "waiting for them to call me" after finishing a one-year contract in a home-help company. "It's awful, all this waiting!" says this robust and spontaneous woman who was born in Nigeria but considers herself "Spanish" because she has been here since 2002.
Cristina tells us her story: "When a woman has three children and her husband hasn't had a job since 2005, just think what it is like....I've cried so much for my children. But if you are a woman you have a way of ensuring that your children survive; your children have to eat," she says.
"There isn't any work for Spanish women here, so imagine what it is like for us. Lots of women do it but they don't admit it out of shame, because their husbands and children don't know. That's how it is," says Cristina, who has lost count of how many doors she has knocked on for help: Cruz Roja, Cáritas, Mujer Emancipada...
"I have done several courses and I'm about to take my secondary school exams," she says. Maybe then she will be able to fulfil her dream of being a nursing auxiliary; at least she is now well on the way towards doing so.