The city of Santos is a tourist center and port. It has a high concentration of nightclubs and other establishments where prostitution thrives. Many young girls are violently exploited at these locations. In 1996, the Girls of Santos Project was one of the 20 finalists of the Public Management and Citizenship Program; since then it has broadened its reach, developing new activities, strengthening partnerships, and working with youth sexual violence.
The first stage of the Program’s work involves a team effort during three nights each week. During this period, the team makes an initial contact with girls in prostitution zones, such as nightclubs, hotels, areas near the port, and gas stations, to gain their trust. It is hard work; it takes five or six field visits to bring the girls to the Center. This year the group gained strength by recruiting Cristina, a former beneficiary of the project who now works to help change the lives of other girls, as hers has been changed. The fact that she knows many of the girls and the prostitution spots has helped the team earn trust and expand their efforts to new locations.
Caseworkers on site hand out condoms, a visiting card with the Center’s address, and an appointment book with educational information (used by the girls to note jobs). If and when an individual decides to visit the Center, she is given personal attention and shown around the facilities by a caseworker, who talks about the project and sits down for a snack with her. The goal is to engage the girl in an informal manner to take part in activities. After taking down personal information as well as family and social data, the caseworker begins to explore intimate issues such as psychological conflict, domestic violence, discrimination, relationships, health, and work problems.
At the Center, clients have the opportunity to take part in workshops that improve self-esteem and educate women about bodily health. Self-esteem is the cornerstone of all subsequent work, such as citizenship, sexuality, and job training. In 1998, a partnership arose between the Program and a second civil society organization, the municipal Grandparents Know All Program. Elderly citizens hold craft workshops at the Center, and many of the girls who attend the Center’s activities find, in these surrogate grandparents, a caring and affectionate family figure often not to be found among their close relatives.
Thanks to a partnership with the municipal government of Santos, program activities have now been expanded to include educational programs addressing sexual abuse, raising awareness, and taking preventive measures in schools, universities and community centers. Besides this preventive work, abused girls are also directed to workshops and social services available at the Center. The Program has also retained a lawyer to assist in police and court cases. This innovation has proved so useful to the girls that legal assistance has become a standard service of Sentry programs throughout Brazil.
The attention shown to girls at the Center is completely personalized, as each girl needs unique assistance depending on her family context, the violence to which she has been subjected, her economic class, and education, and her own involvement with drugs and crime. Cases of abuse that arrive at the Center either by a third party’s recommendation or by a victim’s own initiative are often met by prejudice and ignorance from the community at large, making it difficult to raise awareness of sexual and physical abuse in Santos and to punish perpetrators. Yet, it is the organizing principle of the Sentry Program that the fight against abuse is crucial to fighting sexual exploitation. Although not every sexually abused woman becomes a prostitute, sexual violence is a constant theme in the history of women working in prostitution.
- There is no short-cut to dealing with sexual abuse of young women; the Center for Girls – Sentry Program of Santos has found that each case needs to be dealt with on an individual basis, taking into account each girl’s family and social context.
- The key to all activities offered by the Center for sexually exploited or abused girls is to improve self-esteem.