San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Former Prostitutes Look Toward New Life

THE caps and gowns, diplomas andmusic resembled those of any graduationceremony, but the event that took placeearlier this month in the cafeteria of theColegio Monterrey, in eastern San José,was far from typical.The 16 women who filed down theaisle to receive their certificates were graduatingfrom an intensive two-year programoffered by the non-profit FundaciónRahab, which helps women leave prostitutionand make a fresh start for themselvesand their families.The organization, founded in 1997, hasa state-funded Limón branch that providesservices to underage victims of sexualexploitation. The San José branch focuseson adults – an often-overlooked populationin the world of social services for prostitutes,according to foundation ExecutiveDirector Mariliana Morales. Adult prostitutionis legal in Costa Rica.“NO one loves them,” said Morales, asociologist, at the Dec. 14 ceremony. “Noone is interested in the stories of exploitationthe adults have. But you can’t helpthe child without helping the mother first.”The 50 women in the program have anaverage of five children each, she said.Once women enroll in the program –which many find out about through advertisementsor word-of-mouth – they receivegroup and individual therapy, academicclasses and job training. Literacy is amajor focus of the academic portion,according to Morales.“Many of those who are graduatingtoday couldn’t read or write when they beganthe program. Now they can,” she said.After they graduate, the women are eligibleto receive loans to start their ownbusinesses. The foundation has also provided10 houses to its graduates in the pastand plans to give 10 more to graduateswho need them in a few months.Many of the women participate in theprogram without the knowledge of theirfamilies, according to Morales, since oftentheir husbands or other relatives do notknow they are former prostitutes.ONE tearful graduate, who asked toremain unnamed, told The Tico Times theprogram has changed her life completely.“The life I had was entirely bad,” saidthe 30-year-old woman, a mother of four.“I was very negative – I thought my lifewas over. Now I want to learn, to live. I’mstudying and moving forward.”She said she plans to continue her studiesin the future.She and other graduates may findthemselves in leadership roles within theorganization in the years to come, ifMorales’ plans to expand the organizationinternationally are successful.She hopes to have a branch in everyCentral American and Caribbean countrywithin five years, with the San José program’salumnae serving as role modelsfor women in other countries, she told thegraduates.THE San José branch is funded entirelythrough donations. For more informationon the Fundación Rahab,

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