Victims of sex trafficking gathered in Madrid on Tuesday to denounce prostitution as a crime and demand that society find the courage to help victims heal from what they described as a collective wound for all women.

Amelia Tiganus spoke in the name of women from all over the world who, like her, have suffered the atrocities of the sex industry and have now become human rights activists during a press conference marking the second day of the global conference "Advances and Future Challenges in the Fight Against Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls" being held in the Spanish capital.

"We need a society that embraces us, believes us and has the courage to look us in the eye and endure our stories," Tiganus – who describes herself as Romanian-Spanish-Basque – said. "If we've managed to survive all this torture, you need to become accomplices in our healing, because what we have is a collective wound that all women, as a gender, share."

Tiganus was sexually exploited for a period of five years in Spain and now works at Feminicidio.net, a civil society observatory that monitors violence against women.

She said that it was very difficult to leave the world of sex trafficking behind.

"In fact, I left it 12 years ago physically, but psychologically I still sometimes think I'm trying to leave, on the nights that I have nightmares," Tiganus explained. "Some part of me has remained there; maybe I need to learn how to live with it," she added.

"For every woman who is a sex worker, there are at least three, four or five johns who are our husbands, our brothers, our doctors, our teachers, who are police officers, prosecutors, businessmen and union leaders," Tiganus said.

She said these consumers of prostitution formed a sort of brotherhood because they believe that maintaining their privilege depends on the existence of spaces in which women are willing to be objectified time and again and transformed into disposable bodies.

Meanwhile, the director of the South African feminist human rights group Embrace Dignity, Mickey Meji, underscored that the main weapon available to sex-buyers was the silence of the oppressed and said that it was time to fight against a system that is constantly brutalizing women.

As did the rest of the victims at the conference, Meji rejected the idea that sex work was just another job.

"No one says 'I'm going to work,' women say 'I'm going to look for money to be able to feed my kids,'" she said.

Beatriz Rodríguez Rengifo, the founder and director of the Colombian women's association ASOMUPCAR, said she was a prostitute for 25 years.

"I never had the time to sit down and say 'today I'm leaving this behind,' it was my dynamic since I was 14 years old," Rodríguez said. "I had three children while in this situation and every day I had to become more and more involved, it was my only trade, the only thing I knew how to do to survive and support my family."

In 2002, a group of female prostitutes from the Amazonian Caquetá region of southwestern Colombia, including Rodríguez, banded together and learned how to make homemade chorizos, a savory local sausage variant.

"That chorizo became a social chorizo; now we are a social and economic platform that fights for social rights in Colombia," Rodríguez added.

Rachel Moran, the founder of the Ireland-based SPACE (Survivors of Prostitution Abuse Calling for Enlightenment) International and author of the bestseller "Paid For – My Journey Through Prostitution" said that it was necessary to be careful with language when talking about the sex industry.

"There is no work, we are talking about exploitation," Moran said. "It's a system of great brutality against vulnerable women."

She added that it was "impossible to pay for sex, what is being bought is sexual access, and there's a big difference."

Other speakers, such as Fiona Broadfoot (the United Kingdom), Cherie Jiménez (the United States), Myles Paredes (the Philippines) and Graciela Collante (Argentina), agreed that a change in language was needed and that prostitution should never be considered work.

By Teresa Díaz