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Giving Sex Workers the Tools for the Job

A dramatic increase of HIV-positive sex workers in Costa Rica has attracted enough attention to warrant a donation of $150,000 to help fight the problem, according to the promoters of three separate local projects aimed at the prevention of HIV/AIDS being financed this year by the World Bank.

Each project is based on the premise that information on HIV/AIDS is best passed on by sex workers themselves or others directly involved, creating a domino effect of HIV awareness and prevention throughout Costa Rica.

The National Commission for Holistic Attention to HIV/AIDS, which works with the Health Ministry, identified the projects to be funded, and the World Bank donated $50.000 to each for a one-year period which began Oct. 15, 2008.

La Sala (Association for Improving the Quality of Life for Sex Workers) is implementing a project for the education of sex workers in the zona roja (red light district) of San José and the port cities of Limón on the Atlantic and Puntarenas on the Pacific. Their objective is to teach sex trade workers how to protect both themselves and their rights, and in turn teach others, creating and perpetuating a chain of knowledge.

María Díaz, the coordinator of the Central American Integration System in Costa Rica, and Alvaro Carvajal, the vice president of La Sala, plan to select a group of 22 prostitutes who will be paid a small salary to learn the facts about HIV protection as well as how to enforce their right to make their clients wear a condom. This involves discussing scenarios – and excuses – that might arise with their clients.

“Men normally don’t want to use a condom,” said Grettel Quirós, who has been a prostitute since the age of 16. “They’ll give you every excuse in the book.”

The La Sala project plans to hire 12 prostitutes from San José, two of whom will travel between San José and the two ports, as well as five others in both Limón and Puntarenas.

One difficulty the project faces is the language barrier between sex workers and their clients. As most of the prostitutes only speak Spanish, conveying to foreigners the importance of using a condom might be difficult.

To counter this problem, the project will also provide visual aids.

The core group of 22 prostitutes each has the goal of educating 10 other prostitutes. If these in turn convince 10 more, then the project will reach its goal of informing as many sex workers as possible regarding HIV prevention.

These women also have a goal of convincing 110 men to wear condoms.

Ordoñez said that even though convincing the clients will be difficult, it will be just as complicated, if not more so, to convince other workers, especially “if they think it will bother their clients enough to go elsewhere.”

Cinthia Chacón Aguilar of the Costa Rican Demographic Association (ADC) heads a second project aimed at three groups: the border police, health ministry personnel and indigenous groups.

A project goal is to persuade the border police and health ministry personnel around the country to become more involved in community events to promote HIV awareness, such as presentations and debates in schools.

The project is also geared towards educating indigenous populations about HIV prevention by teaching individual members of these communities and encouraging them to educate the rest.

“I think they will be more willing to learn from one of their own,” said Chacón. “And they have the right to know.”

The indigenous initiative will begin in March in the southern canton of Coto Brus, near the border with Panamá.

The Costa Rican Sexual Diversity Culture Center (CIPAC) is developing a third project that focuses on the central Pacific area and on sex workers age 25 and younger. Gabriela Solano, one of the project’s coordinators, says the project is based on the assumption that a younger generation will be more willing to embrace new ideas and tactics.

The project is working with prostitutes, their clients and the community in general,

In October, work began on a comprehensive study of the project’s target sites on the Pacific: Puntarenas, Jacó, Quepos and Manuel Antonio. The resulting report contains disturbing findings, among them the fact that over 80 percent of prostitutes identified in the area are under 18 years of age.

The second phase of the project will involve visiting sex workers to demonstrate the importance of HIV prevention and teach them more about the virus.

Solano is one of two psychologists who will visit the areas weekly for one-on-one talks with sex workers. She hopes that if the project can make a change in one person, that person will pass along the knowledge.

“The idea is that if we can help someone, they will take it to heart and be a model for others,” said Solano. “But we have to deal with every person on a case by case basis. Everyone has a different story to tell, and you can’t just group them into one category.”

The projects’ coordinators will also be handing out condoms, as well as educational brochures in Spanish and English.



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