Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
November 30, 2009
Dominican townspeople unite to create street-smart kids
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE
BOCA CHICA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - Sixteen-year-old Doralin Pulio Valerio knows she could easily be working on the beach, but she also knows prostitution would not be the kind of work she or her parents could brag about.
Sex is big business in this Caribbean resort town less than an hour east of Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital. Young male and female prostitutes ply their trade around the clock on the wide white-sand beach and up and down the city's main street.
For young people such as Valerio, the attraction to the sex trade is money and attention - or so the sex traffickers tell them. In reality, there's the risk of HIV and AIDS, physical abuse, exploitation and the loss of self-esteem.
Valerio has been approached numerous times by men asking her to come to work for them. She told Catholic News Service that the offers came wrapped around an invitation to legitimate employment.
She recalled one man who offered her a job "if I wanted to make a sacrifice with him." She refused outright, knowing that, if she accepted, she would be headed into the shady world of human trafficking.
"A lot of people would want to take advantage or trick me, but I knew more," she said. "They believe they are smart. But they can't trick a little kid because a little kid is already smart enough."
Valerio said her street smarts were developed through the awareness training she received during the last nine years at Caminante, a program formed in response to negative aspects of the tourism industry that developed rapidly in the 1990s after the town's sugar-cane processing factory closed.
Founded by Denise Pichardo Rodriguez, a member of the secular institute of Our Lady Full of Grace, Caminante has expanded since its founding in 1994 to encompass vocational training for young adults and a homework centre to help kids stay in school.
Pichardo had come to town to work with child labourers in 1993 and soon discovered how children were becoming victims of a growing number of American and European tourists seeking sex.
Caminante, which means "one who walks the path," also conducts workshops for hotel and restaurant owners to create awareness of the depth of the sex trade in town. Parents, community leaders, ministers and priests have been organized into community watch groups.
"The tourists who come are bad," Pichardo said. "They are older men mostly looking for sex."
Marleni Guante, Boca Chica's public prosecutor for children and youth, has high praise for Caminante and Pichardo in particular. She called the program a partner in the prosecution of sexual predators and trafficking henchmen.
"A great majority of cases of sexual exploitation have come through Caminante," Guante said. "The staff here gets information and that is sent to investigators."
Prosecution of traffickers and predators is difficult, however. Foreigners, the main seekers of sex, often flee after posting bond - if they are caught at all.
As a long-time participant in Caminante, Valerio has become a mentor in the program, often talking with younger children on the street about the dangers posed by white strangers with grandiose proposals. She regularly urges kids to show up at Caminante's weekly programs, which include art, tutoring, meals and lessons in self-esteem.
When she sees a stranger approaching children, she explained, she begins asking questions, hoping to deter the visitor from hurting youngsters.
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