International Women's Day
This International Women's Day we want to highlight the story of Maria. Maria grew up with no real support network, her family were focussed on making enough money to survive. After a brutal experience of sexual violence when she was just 14, Maria’s life spiralled out of control. Until she came across our partner ACJ’s project.
“When I was younger I lived with my mum and my sister. My mum worked a lot so my sister and I were often home alone. One day when I was 14 years old I was walking home and I was attacked and raped by three men. This was the worst experience of my life. After that day I dropped out of school for a while. When I finally returned my family were having terrible money problems – we didn’t even have money to eat, let alone for the materials I needed to do my homework. I didn’t want to cause my mum any further stress so I asked one of my neighbours for help and she told me to go to this local bar. I was 15 years old. That was when I started having sex with men for money.
One of my regular clients fathered my two children and I went to live with him, but after a couple of years he began to beat me so I took my children and left. I went back into sex work to get money for my children. It was horrible.
One day one of the ACJ team came and talked to me, she invited me to a training session about how to get a different job and I went. They helped me not only with writing my CV but also with things like booking doctor’s appointments and how to find a school for my children. I met my current partner, Martha, while I was still working on the streets and she was a sex worker as well. She started coming to the ACJ activities too and together we started going to more and more activities with them.
We both really liked it because they taught us that we are worth something too and that we deserve to love ourselves and look after ourselves. They showed us how to defend our rights and solve our problems.
I’m very happy now; I’ve left sex work and Martha and I live together with her son and my daughters. We’ve set up our own little business selling candles.
I’m one of the ACJ youth leaders and we do things for other women and girls. I really like going out and telling other people who are in the situation I used to be in how I changed my life, and that they can do the same.”
Since 2016, we’ve been working with ACJ in Bogotá to protect children and young women from commercial sexual exploitation. This year ACJ’s working with around 400 schoolchildren from two particularly high-risk neighbourhoods, as well as a group of 30 young women like Maria, aged 16 – 28, who are already involved in sex work.
ACJ offers the young women vocational courses – childcare, catering, hairdressing – all of which are careers the women are interested in. They also learn about sexual and reproductive health and rights, and how to take care of themselves and their children.
Young women who successfully leave sex work, like Maria, are trained to become leaders and role models in their community. They regularly go out into the community to share what they’ve learnt with the public, including other women involved in sex work, to show how they have changed their life for the better after participating in the project. Their activities challenge gender inequality and raise awareness about violence against women.
In one activity last year, a group of youth leaders performed a play about the types of violence women in their neighbourhood experience with the aim of catching the attention of passers-by, including sex workers. The youth leaders struck up conversation with their audience, asking people to discuss whether they considered that the play demonstrated violence and what they thought could be done to prevent such acts of violence. To conclude the activity they asked audience members to hit a piñata filled with messages of solidarity for women and read them out. This is just one of the ways ACJ is reaching out to young women involved in sex work, and raising awareness about violence against women to other members of the community.
In another public activity, the youth leaders ran a breast cancer awareness raising session for women involved in sex work. The young women took with them a large-scale model of a breast, which they used to show women how to spot the signs of breast cancer and perform their own self-examinations to enable early detection for women involved in sex work who in many cases don’t have the financial means to get medical support.
This International Women’s Day, join us in celebrating young Colombian women who, even in the most difficult situations, are standing up to violence and exploitation. Share their inspiring stories, make a donation, and join the international celebration of women’s rights!
Click here to make a donation to our work with young women like Maria today.