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June 15, 2012

Sex for Diesel

For many impoverished young women who live in the remote villages of brazil's Amazon River, passing cargo ships are their only link to the outside world — and sex with the men who work on them, their only source of livelihood.

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woman and baby

Photo Credit: Nadia Shira Cohen and Paul Siqueira

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They're called ribeirinhas, or river people, those who live along the straits of the Amazon River in northern Brazil. For them, life has always been about survival. In the village of São Francisco da Jararaca, the only viable work disappeared with the closing of a wood-cutting factory years ago. Now many young women turn to cruising cargo ships to make a living.

Every day, women and girls row up and down the river in canoes, chasing the ships. Once they catch one, they climb aboard, offering the sailors items for sale: Some are peddling shrimp and fruit, but increasingly, many are selling themselves. But the women aren't having sex for money — they're out to earn diesel, the most coveted commodity in this area where electricity is scarce and those who can afford it use diesel-operated personal generators.

Few ribeirinhas see the work as prostitution, in part because many women frequent one sailor, creating a dynamic that resembles a committed relationship. Some families even have dreams that the sailors will become more than customers. "I hope my daughter will get together with a ship captain so she can get out of here," said villager Dona Raimunda, who has worked the straits for years. Otherwise, "she is going to end up living the same life as me, on these rivers, from one cargo ship to the next." Married women work the ships, too, while their husbands wait at home eagerly for their earnings. It's survival.


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