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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.

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These days, she says, she gives manicures and pedicures out of her home, and is taking computer classes at a nearby technical college. It's not as much money, she acknowledges, but she does not want to go back to her old life.

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"I'm not missing the money I used to have from sex work," she says. "I've never had the inspiration to go back. If I used to spend 1,000 pesos ($27), now I spend 500 ($13.50). Besides, I feel clean now. Before, I thought I was ugly, fat. Now I think I am the most beautiful woman in the world."

She grins and tosses her hair.

"I am a model," she says, and laughs.

In the upstairs beauty class, instructor Marcia Peña looks over the students at work.

"Beauty parlors will call and ask me, 'Who are your top students this year? Send them over,' " she says.

Those who don't get picked up by existing salons also make a good living by starting their own, she says. In the Dominican Republic, beauty and grooming are big businesses – in this image-obsessed culture, people from all socioeconomic levels will put aside money to pay for salon treatments.

Across the hall, the sewing class is learning how to hem pants. Downstairs, the baking class is rolling out dough for swan-shaped pastries. Hundreds of women have graduated from these professional training courses to start their own businesses, Noyola says, pointing out the graduation pictures in her office.

Broadening their reach

These days, not all of the women attending these classes are prostitutes. Although the center was built specifically for sex workers, women from the surrounding, impoverished, neighborhood would show up asking for education as well. Noyola says the nuns saw a chance to create solidarity between these women and the full-time sex workers. So they welcomed them into the center, with the stern warning that there was not to be any disparagement of the prostitutes.

"We tell them, 'We are all women,'" Noyola says. " 'You are no better than them. You are getting an opportunity they never had.' They learn solidarity."

Carina Luis Novo, a 25-year-old working in the bakery class, agrees. She has never had to turn to sex work, she says, but after spending so much time in class with prostitutes, she now has a different view on the women she sees working the streets in her neighborhood.

"They are normal people – like me, like the nuns," she says. "We can't judge."