San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

They seemed content to exchange their weapons for cars.

The butterfly embroidered on María Rodríguez’s cloth tortilla holder means freedom, she said.

Freedom from a 16-year abusive relationship. Freedom from four years of prostitution. Freedom from her addiction to alcohol. Rodríguez sold her tortilla holder for $7 last week at a ceremony for 27 former prostitutes.

Decked in caps and gowns, they celebrated their graduation from the Rahab Foundation, which marked its 10th year helping sex workers find new jobs and rebuild self-esteem.

Rodríguez, who finished the program two years ago, is now making a living through her handiwork – pajamas, pants, curtains and kitchen accessories.

Rahab, an Evangelical Christian organization founded in 1997, offers weekly talks, individual therapy, and courses to current and former sex workers who pass an interview and are admitted to the 18-month program.

“Costa Rica has a worldwide reputation as a destination for sexual tourists,” foundation director Mariliana Morales said at the graduation ceremony last Thursday at the Legislative Assembly. “We have to change that.”

The are about 10,000 prostitutes in Costa Rica, and up to 10% of tourists who come here are looking to hire them, according to “Mongers in Heaven” by Jacobo Shifter, a professor emeritus of the NationalUniversity in Heredia, north of San José (TT, July 27).

Rahab said he intends to deflate the industry by training prostitutes in other work. The National Training Institute (INA) and the State University at a Distance (UNED) offer courses at the foundation in tailoring, baking, computers and sewing, among other things, said Adriana Rodríguez, a Rahab social worker.Women who take the classes get free lunch and transportation to the foundation, and they can bring their children to be looked after by Rahab staff.

Still, economic problems are an obstacle for women seeking to leave sex work behind, Rodríguez said.With help from the Embassy of Holland, the foundation gives women $12 a month per child. Rahab also helps the women apply for aid from state programs that help victims of violence, people taking training courses, and low-income students.

But the money often isn’t enough, and some women continue working as prostitutes while in the program.

About 50 % of women who enter the program drop out,Rodríguez said. The most common reasons are addiction to drugs or alcohol, a return to sex work, an unstable home life, or a long commute to the foundation.

Thirty-three year old Johanna Fernández, a smiley blonde who graduated from Rahab last week, said she thought often about returning to her five-year stint on the streets. She made about $400 in one weekend as a prostitute, compared to between $30 and $100 a week making clothes. But she has so far stuck to her handiwork, and she longs to open her own store.

“I’m happy because I’m making money that means something,” she said. “Really, (sex work) isn’t easy money. It’s just quick money.”

Fernández began working as a prostitute in her late 20s, when her father died. With a son and an aging mother to support, she started working the hotels and casinos. Later she looked for clients on the streets and in shady bars filled with drugs.

“You feel like you’re not worth anything, that no one cares about you,” she said. “The friends you make just want to take advantage of you.”

Rahab has a strong religi ous dimension. At graduation, Rahab gave each woman copy of the Bible, and “The Best of Joyce Meyer,” a Christian author and speaker.

The foundation holds monthly worship sessions for its members, and a sign posted at the headquarters that reads “Don’t be absent” raises questions about whether these meetings are truly voluntary.

Still, Fernández said the mood was more spiritual than evangelical, and she never felt pressured to become deeply religious.

Holding her diploma last week, surrounded by the other women and clearly happy, she wiped her teary eyes.

“I cry easily,” she said. “Before, I cried about other things.”


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