New lives for sex workers in the Dominican Republic
In the Dominican Republic, nuns run an entrepreneurship program that builds on their success in 14 countries. They offer sex workers medical help and job training.
Haina, Dominican Republic
The pink-walled room is filled with the buzz of hair dryers and chatter, the women in their blue T-shirts alternately giggling and focusing intently at the beauty tasks at hand: setting curlers, painting nails, straightening a classmate's hair.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Today's class focuses on relaxers and other products that help tame the coarse hair that most women try to hide in this Caribbean nation, which shares a border with Haiti. But the overall lesson is the same as it is every day in the well-scrubbed Centro Nuestro Espiranza, a school and community center run by the Oblatas order of nuns in this port town outside the capital, Santo Domingo.
"We tell them that prostitution is not a job," says Angelica Segobiano Noyola, a Mexican nun who has been helping run the center for a year and half. "With training, they have other options for their lives."
Ms. Noyola and the other sisters of the Oblatas del Santisimo Redentor are trying to pave another path for Dominican women – following a pattern of intervention they have established in 14 other countries across the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world. For 16 years, they have worked quietly here, earning praise from local authorities and grass-roots organizations such as the United Movement of Women, an increasingly influential organization of former and current Dominican sex workers.
The nuns start out by going to the bars and brothels where the prostitutes work and talking with them about self-esteem and HIV. They bring supplies for jewelrymaking, and work on some craft projects. They offer to bring them for medical checkups and then encourage them to come to the center to take some of the many courses they offer: beauty, baking, sewing, candlemaking, basic literacy.
Every now and then, they convince someone to give it a try.
"The nuns are persistent!" exclaims Joseline Perez, who goes by "Cookie" in this part of the city.
Ms. Perez had been working as a prostitute for years when the nuns started visiting her brothel. At first, she says, she routinely promised to show up at the center for classes, but never came.
"I was thinking about the money I'd be losing," she says. If a regular customer called while she was at class, she worried, he'd never ask for her again – and she'd lose some of the income she depended upon to support her three children.
Eventually, though, something clicked, and Perez showed up at the center and asked to start beautician classes. She loved it, she says. She liked doing hair, she liked painting nails. And she started to think that she could quit prostitution and start her own salon instead.