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The pink-walled room is filled with the buzz of hair dryers and chatter, the women in their blue T-shirts alternately giggling and focusing intently at the beauty tasks at hand: setting curlers, painting nails, straightening a classmate's hair. Today's class focuses on relaxers and other products that help tame the coarse hair that most women try to hide in this Caribbean nation, which shares a border with Haiti. But the overall lesson is the same as it is every day in the well-scrubbed Centro Nuestro Espiranza, a school and community center run by the Oblatas order of nuns in this port town outside the capital, Santo Domingo.
Noyola and the other sisters of the Oblatas del Santisimo Redentor are trying to pave another path for Dominican women — following a pattern of intervention they have established in 14 other countries across the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world.
For 16 years, they have worked quietly here, earning praise from local authorities and grass-roots organizations such as the United Movement of Women, an increasingly influential organization of former and current Dominican sex workers. The nuns start out by going to the bars and brothels where the prostitutes work and talking with them about self-esteem and HIV. They bring supplies for jewelrymaking, and work on some craft projects. They offer to bring them for medical checkups and then encourage them to come to the center to take some of the many courses they offer: beauty, baking, sewing, candlemaking, basic literacy.
Perez had been working as a prostitute for years when the nuns started visiting her brothel. At first, she says, she routinely promised to show up at the center for classes, but never came. If a regular customer called while she was at class, she worried, he'd never ask for her again — and she'd lose some of the income she depended upon to support her three children. Eventually, though, something clicked, and Perez showed up at the center and asked to start beautician classes.
She loved it, she says. She liked doing hair, she liked painting nails. And she started to think that she could quit prostitution and start her own salon instead. These days, she says, she gives manicures and pedicures out of her home, and is taking computer classes at a nearby technical college. It's not as much money, she acknowledges, but she does not want to go back to her old life. Besides, I feel clean now. Before, I thought I was ugly, fat.