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Sex Workers Confront HIV
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Sex Workers Confront HIV
Confronted with the horrific realities of HIV/AIDS, sex workers in the Dominican Republic have banded together to create a united women's movement. They help increase awareness of prevention techniques, resources and safety, as well as serving as volunteers in a revolutionary HIV vaccine trial.
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Produced by Stephen Sapienza.

Find out more about the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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Segment 1

TITLE
At least 70,000 of the Dominican Republic’s 9 million people are HIV positive. Female sex workers here are reported to number as many as 130,000. The HIV rates among sex workers here runs three to 10 times higher than in the general population. Some 80 percent of sex workers work in bars, discos, and brothels, and 20 percent work the streets, tourist beaches, and ports.
JULIANA [Founder, MODEMU]
Of all the towns, it has the fourth most sex workers. I don’t have a real estimate of the number of sex workers in Haina. There must be at least a thousand sex workers here, because La Haina is a town with income. We have a port, where tourist ships dock. There’s a manufacturing area -- a lot of industry. So, there’s money, and where there’s money, there’s sex work. Well, in this country it is very difficult for a woman to get a job. The only options available are being a housekeeper, working in a factory, or live with a man (cook and clean for him in exchange for food and housing), or sex work.
JOCELYN [Sex Worker]
I’ve been doing this for 10 years. I gave birth to my child, Rosy, the one who’s 11. When I saw I had nothing -- she had no milk, her dad left and abandoned me -- a friend of mine said, “Come with me to the port.” When I went, a Honduran sailor fell for me and gave me $100. Here we have a port, where ships and sailors come through. That’s who we work with. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn’t. I’m tired of doing this work; I want to leave this life, because I don’t want to keep doing this anymore. It’s not something you choose to do, but out of necessity. Seven people live in my two-bedroom house: my three kids, my sister and her child, and my niece. Around here, there is a lot of crime, a lot of drugs. My kids are here, but I want to move. My children can’t grow up in this environment.
JULIANA
I’m not doing sex work now. I work on behalf of sex work. I started MODEMU [Movimiento De Mujueres Unidas] 14 years ago. People were saying all sex workers infected people with HIV. So we got together, and seeing the problems that the women had, we came up with the idea to form a united women’s movement. And we went to the streets to work with our fellow sex workers. Sex workers working with sex workers. It was the same language.
DR. ELLEN KOENIG [Instituto Dominicano de Estudios Virologicos]
MODEMU does get money on certain programs. They apply for grants and USAID has not helped very much because the American government doesn’t want to work with sex workers. But the European community, the Canadian equivalent of AID, other groups will fund studies or work for them. So in that way they have gotten money to finance some of their programs that they have under way.
JOCELYN
Can I get a ride? I’m a member of MODEMU, so I go give speeches to girls in the business. I go out three days a week to talk to girls about HIV/AIDS prevention. When we went to Semana Santa, I went to the El Sifon Bar to teach the girls the correct use of the condoms. There are many men who don’t like to use a condom. Many will offer you $100 to have sex without a condom. We say no. No condom, no sex.
DR. ELLEN KOENIG
A female sex worker cannot protect herself unless the man wants to protect himself. There is a female condom, but it is very uncomfortable and it’s about five to ten times more expensive than the male condom. So the woman is really at a disadvantage in this game. They realize that with this disease, they have to work to help solve.
SIGN
Laboratorio
JULIANA
There was a test of a (HIV) vaccine for sex workers. Because it targeted high-risk people, they called MODEMU to provide sex workers. So Ellen called MODEMU, MODEMU sent six representatives. I was one of them. I was also part of the study.
DR. ELLEN KOENIG
In the Dominican Republic, our first study showed the highest levels in men who have sex with men and the Haitians, and this probably continues on today. So when we were picking people, the idea that the Haitians might be good, but they were doing vaccine trials in Haiti. The men who have sex with men, I believe they can find easily in places like the United States and these men in the United States are very dedicated to helping this. They felt that the female prostitute here would probably be a good candidate, and when they saw the number who had other sexually transmitted diseases they figured that this was a very susceptible population and one that would be adequate and might give us some good results as far as the HIV vaccine goes.
JULIANA
The vaccine -- it’s a trial for the vaccine, but it’s the most promising so far. But if the vaccine turns out to work, it won’t be for our benefit. We are taking a chance for the sake of science, for our grandchildren, for future generations.
DR. ELLEN KOENIG
These women are the real heroines of the AIDS epidemic because they are giving their bodies and their time to help us try to solve this problem.