Warning: This story contains content that may be disturbing for some readers.
*Sarah’s life on the street began when she was just 12 years old.
But even before then, her childhood had been far from idyllic – she was abused by the husband of her grandmother who would touch her “in places where I didn’t want to be touched” and later by her own parents, who would fly into a rage and physically abuse her.
It was after her parents abandoned her that she found herself alone and homeless. During that first night on the street, she was approached by a man who offered her money in exchange for sex.
“I was desperate,” says Sarah, with emotion.
She agreed to his offer, and it marked the beginning of a cycle where Sarah would sell herself to survive.
Sarah’s story is not uncommon – there are thousands of young girls just like her who are used for sex every year in the Dominican Republic. They are often vulnerable girls who have grown up in poverty and in homes where they have faced violence, abuse and neglect.
In fact, a report from the International Justice Mission found that 1 in 4 sex workers in the Dominican Republic was under the age of 18. This is a reality that has made the island paradise of the Dominican Republic a hotspot for tourists seeking to engage in sexual acts with underage children.
The dark side of tourism
The Dominican Republic welcomes millions of tourists every year, including over 800,000 Canadians.
Many come to soak up the sun and enjoy the lush, tropical surroundings as well as the luxurious amenities provided by the hotels and resorts. Others travel for more sinister reasons, including drugs and sex with underage girls. And even though sex with minors is illegal in the Dominican Republic, perpetrators often get away with their crimes or suffer few consequences.
For vulnerable girls like Sarah, tourists – specifically tourists from North America and Europe- present an opportunity to make hundreds of dollars for one night of work and in Sarah’s case, she decided to move to Punta Cana, a top tourist destination, with an 11-year-old friend to interact with foreign men.
“We started having sex with tourists in exchange for money,” she says. “I used to put on a dress and makeup and head to the local casinos or beach at night.”
“I got to know some pimps who would put me in touch with clients in exchange for a cut of my earnings. Sometimes, if I was in a hurry to pay my rent, I’d go looking for work in the day as well.”
Much of the exploitation of young girls in the country is made possible by hotel employees, taxi drivers and people selling souvenirs on the beach as these individuals are often paid by male tourists to connect them with girls.
“It was horrible,” says Sarah. “Sometimes you’d sleep with the men and then they’d leave without paying. Most of the girls I knew took cocaine to be able to stand being with them.”
Sarah, who is now 19, is grateful she never became addicted to drugs because she believes that she would’ve been trapped in the cycle of sex and poverty for much longer if she was.
The turning point
After 6 years of exploitation, Sarah’s life changed when she met a woman who helped her become involved with Plan International’s Down to Zero program which works to reduce child sexual exploitation in 10 countries around the world.
“She rented a room for me so I didn’t have to sleep with tourists and she gave me medication to clear up an infection,” says Sarah.
Sarah then began to see a psychologist to talk about the hardship and trauma she has faced.
“The psychologist taught me that you don’t have to sell your body to make a living,” she says. “You can get a job with dignity instead.”
With this realization, Sarah was able to transition into a new role as a hairdresser. And while she’s learning new skills, she’s also healing and slowly but surely finding her place in the world.
“I like the salon because it’s a peaceful place to be,” she says, adding that it’s a stark contrast to her previous life.
Sarah is still in the early days of her recovery, and the road ahead will no doubt have ups and downs. But one thing is certain: Sarah is determined to use her experiences to help others.
“My dream is to be a psychologist one day like the one who helped me and give girls like me who have experienced horrible things on the streets another chance at happiness. I want to help heal wounds and be a role model.”
The journey to her dream career will be a long one as Sarah must return to school since she was 12 when she dropped out. However, that’s not going to stop her.
“If you have dreams, you should pursue them,” she says with a determined smile.
“Life is a process. You’ve got to fight for what you want every day.”
*Name has been changed to protect identity
About down to zero
Commercial sexual exploitation of children is a phenomenon that affects 2 million children worldwide.
Down to Zero is a program created by Plan International and partners that aspires to end sexual exploitation of children in 10 countries. It works to create safer communities where child survivors like *Sarah are supported to transition their lives and better protected to identify cases of abuse to the authorities.
Since the project began, more than 6000 boys and girls in the Dominican Republic have been trained to advocate for children’s rights to live a life free from violence and abuse. While scores of tourism establishments, including hotels, have received training in preventing child sexual exploitation.