Costa Rica is aptly named; it is the rich coast of Central America. With a thriving economy for the upper and upper-middle classes, a booming vacation market, and world-renowned beaches, the number of tourists and businesspeople who come to Costa Rica each year is over half the country’s population. Unfortunately, it is also a country popular for sex tourism, known as “the Bangkok of the West”.
This is certainly a different scenario than FTG usually works with as prostitution is legalized in this country. With this legalization of prostitution, the number of tourists who show up on vacation with an intent to procure a person for their sexual services is estimated at around 80,000 people a year! That’s not taking into account the johns who are citizens or ex-pats who live in the country who solicit sex as a part of the cultural norm - just those who travel purposefully for the sex tourism! There are no laws against prostitution or against solicitation, only against pimping (or having a third-party in transactional sex) and any exploitation involving minors (under 18).
However, just as in other countries where this type of sex work is legal, rates of trafficking often increase with the demand of sex tourists rather than decrease due to legal regulation. Our partners in Costa Rica, Face Of Justice, estimate that 99% of the individuals in prostitution that they work with began as young adolescents. As a reminder, there is no such thing as a child prostitute - if you're a minor and you're in commercial sex, you are, by definition, a trafficking victim.
There are over 300 brothels in the central San Jose district alone. There are generally two sides to prostitution in San Jose. There is the section of town known as Gringo Gulch, the higher end commercial sex neighborhood popular with Americans, Canadians, and Europeans. These brothels often house the 18-35 year olds - the beautiful and young and “desirable” women. The women working here are generally paid more, have safety measures in place, and operate within the “party scene”. However, when the ladies “age out” or become less profitable or desirable in the eyes of the johns/clients, they are forced out of this area and many end up in the Zona Roja, or the Red Zone.
All of the women we will be working with come from the Zona Roja.
When asked to describe the Red Zone, Elizabeth, the co-founder and Executive Director of Face Of Justice said:
“It’s just havoc there. It is where the lowest of the lowest of the lowest of the lowest, the poorest, the most abused – it’s just this cesspool pretty much of abuse – drug abuse, sexual abuse, prostitution.”
This is where the tourists and ex-pats largely avoid, the johns being locals and nationals. Drug-deals happen in broad daylight, it’s known to criminals as the place to hideout after committing a crime, violence occurs openly and is regularly ignored.
The women working in prostitution line the streets beginning at 9 am. However, they make their way indoors around 5 pm as it’s just too dangerous to be outside after dark. The women in this area that FOJ works with range in age from 14-82, with far less 18-35 year olds as women in this age range are often working in the brothels rather than the streets. The 8 women that will be in our program are in their 30s or older. Some of the older ladies have been in sexual exploitation for over 30 years, never being offered an alternative.
Because of the cultural norm of commercial sex, the FOJ staff said that for many girls and women within this country, their sexuality is their identity, that they don’t have a self-identity until they have become sexualized. This fact along with having seen their own mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and sisters engage in prostitution, many of the women see this as their only viable option to take care of themselves and their families. They’ve been groomed by family members, “loverboys” from the gangs, and the sex economy in their country to not see other options.
Some of these women are third or fourth generations stuck in this cycle. We're talking about breaking generational chains of oppression, poverty, and exploitation. It won't be easy - but it's worth it.
When asked what the impact of FTG will be for these women, Elizabeth said that by giving these women the tools to empower themselves, it will allow them to dream, that they will discover their value and their true identity. “This is a real and tangible way to offer these gals a way to take home food for their kids and also help them see that freedom is they can have options.”
Join us as these women go from a history of abuse and oppression to true freedom!