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.
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.
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.
"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."