A night in la Gatta: Migrant women prostitutes in Naples | Catherine Cornet
A night in la Gatta: Migrant women prostitutes in Naples Print
Catherine Cornet   
A night in la Gatta: Migrant women prostitutes in Naples | Catherine Cornet I arrive at la Gatta on a Vespa with the towering Carletto. Lilia, the Moldavian mediator, is already waiting for us in front of the little camper that is the physical incarnation of La Gatta (The Cat). After a number of interviews with the staff of the Dedalus collective, I’m going out with them tonight to trail the social cooperative’s cutting-edge project: the little camper with the black cat emblazoned on its side that has been roaming the streets of Neapolitan prostitution for the past seven years.

La Gatta goes out a few times a week to look for transsexuals, migrant women prostitutes, and minors. They pay special attention to Nigerian migrant women, who are from the largest and most fragile immigrant community. The Nigerian mediator, Fatima, arrives last, arms loaded with biscuits and hot tea. The internal competition between Fatima’s tea and Carletto’s coffee can now begin. But a larger problem presents itself tonight: there are no more condoms. Lilia is very annoyed. She makes a few calls, looks for them in every cupboard in the camper. This first hurdle is a clear indication of the colossal task the staff of la Gatta have undertaken. But the towering Carletto—who isn’t officially a mediator but has been a driver for la Gatta for the past seven years—reassures Lilia right away: “They all have them, and in all varieties. What’s more important to them is la Chiachera [conversation].”

The aims of la Gatta are “prevention, information, aid, and accompaniment.” But these words do little to convey the degree of friendship, comfort, and dignity that la Gatta staff deliver during the night alongside condoms and a hot drink.

With each ‘contact’ with the prostitutes they approach in the street, they of course fill out a form, count the new arrivals, and take note of who isn’t working that night, but in fact they know all the names by heart. They know each woman’s journey, each woman’s history. They know the big facts and the little ones—who has the violent brother, who has two children to take care of, who has recently lost weight or dyed her hair.

Mimi and Djemila
The first ‘contact’ is with Mimi, a young Albanian woman of about twenty, and Djemila, a much older Moroccan woman. It’s impressive to see them rush towards the camper, smiling broadly. They know the three staff members very well and speak good Italian. Everyone makes jokes, talks about money and a recent trip to Bordeaux.

“I was set to make 200 Euros for bringing a client up to my room!” says Mimi. “But the standard of living is another story with those French. Just for eating steak and potatoes they charge you 20 Euros!”

Djemila, the Moroccan, has a lot of family in France and she agrees with Mimi. “The country with the best food in Europe is Italy, and the city with the best food in Italy is Naples.”

Djemila is Muslim, but her children have always lived in Naples and this year, like every year, she will make them an Easter meal; she’s already bought the chocolate eggs. Lilia has known Mimi a long time. When things aren’t going well for her, she often climbs into la Gatta and starts to cry and confides everything. Tonight she’s excited, vivacious, and funny. Last year she wanted to stop and do a training with Dedalus, but a few months later she was back on the streets. “Why did she want to go back?” I ask, a bit ingenuously. What I’m told is that “she’s not very stable and it’s not always easy to understand exactly why.” In la Gatta, you’re asked to leave your certainties at the door.

When it’s time to leave, I hear for the first time a phrase that will become the night’s refrain: “Okay. We’ll leave you to your work and get back to ours.” The camper staff basically work in the street and neither their attitudes nor their words seem paternalistic or preachy. And these itinerant psychoanalysts certainly do know how to listen. A night in la Gatta: Migrant women prostitutes in Naples | Catherine Cornet

Tita

La Gatta’s second contact tonight is a young Romanian girl. She is ‘for Lilia,’ who is Moldovan and so speaks the same language. The others stay in the camper. Tita is curled up on a vegetable crate and seems completely exhausted. She is pregnant, but she is already too far along to abort and so the baby will have to be abandoned. Lilia listens and murmurs quiet words of encouragement with unqualified kindness. According to a Dedalus study, “Maria, Lola e le altre per strada” (‘Maria, Lola and the others in the street’), which was coordinated by Andrea Morniroli, the project’s director, Albanians wind up as prostitutes via particularly violent paths: “They generally make contact with the men who bring them to Italy through family or friends, and the relationship between prostitute and procurer is often affective and emotional. It’s a peculiarity of Albanians. The link is often based on a love-hate relationship.” The study also notes that even if the woman is subjected to severe violence, she hopes that one day her man “will take her off the streets and bring her back to Albania to be a lady.” In this case, experience shows that it is more important to insist on the fact that he might “leave with someone else” than to highlight the physical violence. “Emotional treason is often what allows the woman finally to see reason and allows her to take the first step on the journey to freedom and to escape the cycle of prostitution.”

In other cases, Albanian women are abducted into prostitution. First, the girls are locked in a room and for weeks subjected to constant violence and rape, until they become completely submissive and dependent and any sense of dignity and self-worth has been destroyed.

The clients wait until we finish our conversation with Tita. They too don’t seem particularly bothered by this strange camper.

The Nigerians
This time, it’s Fatima’s turn to get out. Under the highway overpass, a group of six Nigerian prostitutes are warming themselves around a large fire. For Fatima, however, the work is more difficult and the contact harder to make. The girls may be cheerful and also rush smiling towards la Gatta, but they drink their tea quickly and don’t stay; they don’t share their feelings and they soon return to their place of work. The Nigerian prostitutes represent the largest community in Campania, but also the most difficult to reintegrate because of low literacy and education levels. And while the new arrivals may be getting ever younger, the reasons they left their country haven’t changed for a decade. According to Nunzia, one of the directors of la Gatta, these include “being rejected by the community (adulteresses, divorcées), marginalization and poverty (widows with many children to care for), or the will to flee physical and psychological violence within the family. The Nigerians are much less strictly guarded than the Albanians. The reins of control are usually held by a ‘Madam’ who controls the women through the debt they acquired to come to a rich European country—a debt that can rise up to 50,000 Euros—and especially through voodoo as spiritual blackmail, an example of real coercion. (See the interview with Nunzia Cipolla.)

A night in la Gatta: Migrant women prostitutes in Naples | Catherine Cornet Betta
Each new contact topples prejudices one after the other. Numbers and origins say so little about the women’s faces and characters, their preoccupations, their completely unique journeys. Betta is particularly moving. She has been working in front of the same gas station for seven years. Her mother and brothers all left Romania to live in Rome. She has a tender smile and assures us that she’s two people: She has just had two tattoos done, she says, and her mother is furious and thinks they’re “vulgar, in bad taste.” Her brother wouldn’t “let her go out like that”—the way she’s dressed for work—for a ‘regular evening.’ She tells us she’s very shy in real life. “I had my tattoos done at a friend’s,” she says. “I saw a girl who had had a rose tattooed on her buttocks, and I liked that rose so much! But there, with my friend, who has a wife and children, I was too ashamed to take off my clothes. So I had one done on my calf and I wrote my daughter’s name on my arm. When I work, I’m a devil. But in real life, I’m really very, very shy.”

A no man’s land between welfare and police state
The space occupied by la Gatta balances precisely between these different realities: the welfare state, the police state, and the women. After a night in la Gatta, it’s clear that an intermediary like this is vital. When I ask Lilia how she manages to carry on and not collapse sometimes beneath the weight of so much misery, she explains, “We’re not there to intervene or to help or to save. We come by and we say, ‘If you need us, we’re here.’ And of course if they come looking for us, we’re always there.”

But as staff of the streets, they can also be forced to confront some big disillusionments. “Do you remember when Bibi called us on the mobile’s green line? We were so excited! When we went to pick her up with her bags we were so happy! After that, it’s sometimes hard to see them go back to the streets after months of work and training.”

After this time with la Gatta, I felt as though I was riding on a fragile nutshell floating on an ocean of wounds, women’s bodies, money, big and small stakes, friendships, smiles. It was also an incredibly frustrating journey because of the limited resources, the difficulty of knowing that it’s impossible to save all the girls. But this journey made one thing abundantly clear: the teams of la Gatta are doing absolutely crucial work, night after night after night.

Catherine Cornet
(22/06/2007)