A sex-worker cum volunteer isn’t sure when she’ll stop selling sex
As a girl she never fantasised about becoming a teacher or seamstress or lawyer.
“I never thought about that,” Miriam rattles, sunburned arms folded across her chest. “I don’t remember at any time thinking about what I wanted to be while I was a small child. My life was spent from day to day. I wasn’t brought up with the idea of thinking of the future.”
Miriam is from the Dominican Republic. She is short, shapely and spectacled. And during the hour I spend together with her she answers every question except the one about her age. Since the oldest of her three children is 25, I raise the issue of retirement.
“You don’t retire in this job,” she tells me. Then she reconsiders. She’d like to make her exit this year. Or maybe the next.
“I hope to put money aside and be gone,” she announces. But neither her plans nor her expectations are concrete. It’s always been like that. She was yanked out of school before she could finish her primary education. Over the years she’s considered returning to the classroom. But life got in the way.
“I wanted to study but then I would say the money I spend on studying could be spent on my children,” she says.
Her commitment to family stems from a difficult childhood. She felt unwanted by her father. She was bounced from one extended family to another. And she was shifted from school to school until she was no longer sent. As a preteen she repeatedly asked for new clothes until she realised she’d have to get them herself.
Maybe Miriam could have worked in finance. By 14 she was making money through neighbourhood lotteries and the interest earned from a community savings scheme. But when she became pregnant and was put out a downward spiral was set in motion. She became depressed. She attempted suicide. She ran into the arms of an abusive man for whom she bore two more children. Then she left.
Struggling with low self esteem and low earning power, she tried working in a bar as a young woman. But Miriam was fired within months. She didn’t realise that she was supposed to serve both drinks and sex.
Eventually she resolved to become a sex worker, operating from a nearby disco and paying the owner a commission.
“I was frightened,” she admits of her first encounters. “I had to get drunk just to do it.” Though sex with strangers scared her, she was oblivious to the threat of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). When a fellow sex worker and volunteer from Centro de Orientación e Investigación Integral (COIN) began sensitising her about HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea and company, she initially scoffed: “that’s just politics”. It would take far more than a lecture or one-off condom demonstration to sensitise Miriam about the risks of unsafe sex and empower her to protect herself. And that wasn’t all she needed.
“The people at COIN realised that I had a lot of problems. I was very quiet. I kept things to myself. They sent a psychologist to my home,” she shares.
Miriam credits that intervention with helping her to improve her self-esteem, transforming her disposition as a mother and empowering her to insist on safe sex.
Today she is a volunteer with COIN, a 19-year-old non-governmental organisation in the Dominican Republic. COIN’s programme is based on the philosophy and methodology of education among equals. They direct an extensive peer-led network of volunteer health workers for the sex worker community. Accurate information on how HIV and other STIs are transmitted, condom use negotiation skills with clients and referrals to STI clinics are among their activities.
Over the years they have conducted extensive research on sex workers. That information has been used to develop innovative educational materials such as comic books, posters and stickers, all with their target group in mind.
Miriam is also a secretary and volunteer with Movement of Unified Women (MODEMU), a national union of female sex workers. She makes a great spokesperson: “We empower sex workers about prevention and when they are aware we don’t allow them to leave. We keep them to share what they have learned with other people. MODEMU also works with psychologists because there are some problems we really can’t deal with. And we also have a support group for colleagues who are HIV positive. We go to their homes to visit them and help educate their families.”
She is a far cry from the broken, lonely young woman who entered the sex trade to care for her brood of three and even, in later years, the father who spurned her. But Miriam still can’t envisage a life after or apart from sex work. I ask what she thinks she would have become had she been loved, nurtured and educated.
“Maybe I would have been a good housewife,” she laughs. “I have no idea.”
Photo Caption: The woman pictured here is not the one quoted in the story. Credit: Gary Coronado/ Palm Beach Post