Changing lives and saving lives in El Salvador

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Date: 21 April, 2006

Patricia Pérez

Patricia Pérez is a member of the organisation of sex workers, a group run by Flor de Piedra. The group provides a space for sex workers and ex-sex wokers to meet and take part in workshops including sexual health courses and HIV training.
Photo: Christian Aid / Sophie Richmond



Marta Fernández was forced into becoming a sex worker at 15. Now at 49, with two children and two grandchildren, Marta is working as a cleaner. She is also teaching sex workers in San Salvador how to protect themselves against HIV and other sexually tranmitted diseases (STDs).

Marta is one of the four directors of the Organisation of Sex Workers (OTS) run by Christian Aid partner Flor de Piedra. It is the only organisation working with sex workers in the capital of El Salvador, San Salvador. The city has the dubious distinction of having the highest levels of HIV in the country. It also has the highest number of sex workers in the country, 4% of whom are HIV positive.

The vast majority of sex workers do not work in the industry because they want to, but because they feel they have no choice. Women like Marta lack the education or skills to work in other jobs. They end up selling sex on the streets, the parks and in the guesthouses of San Salvador. They risk their lives to earn enough money to support their families.

For these women, Flor de Piedra is a welcoming place. It is somewhere they can go for coffee, advice and to learn about their rights. They also learn practical skills, such as how they can protect themselves.

‘I have a lot to thank my friends for; they told me they came here, so I started coming too. As your self esteem increases you change how you are, how you behave. Thanks to God and Flor de Piedra I got a different job, as a cleaner’

As well as transforming her own life, Marta is committed to supporting other sex workers, so they may be able to transform their lives too.

’It feels really good to go out and talk to the other sex workers. More people now have increased self-esteem and are aware of HIV. A few years ago no-one would have used condoms. There wasn’t any information available about condoms. We offered them but we didn’t insist. There was a lot of ignorance.’

Marta’s efforts are changing habits, changing people’s understanding of HIV and changing lives. There's still however, lots more work to be done.

’Flor de Piedra has given many workshops. They’ve done a lot of publicity work with men, making them aware that, even though they may feel healthy they could still be carrying an STD or HIV. Now housewives are more at risk of HIV than sex workers because they have less access to information.’