San Jose, Costa Rica (CNN)On a chilly Saturday night in the Costa Rican capital, fashionable young couples pack into nightclubs and spill onto the sidewalks.
But that’s not the part of San Jose that Mariliana Morales wants to show us. She drives us down a quiet side street where the shuttered stores are covered in graffiti. On the corners, solitary women in high heels and bright lipstick stare down cars as they drive by.
“All of this area is prostitution,” says Morales, the founder of the Rahab Foundation, a non-profit that rescues, rehabilitates and supports survivors of sexual exploitation and helps those who want a change, to get off the street.
The first step is outreach, she says as we pull up to an abandoned strip alongside a railroad track where two individuals stand shivering in short skirts.
“This is their turf,” Morales says, as she steps out of the car, “all of the prostitutes around here are transgender.”
‘I’m the owner of the corner’
Morales says she was called by God to pull as many people off the streets as she can.
She comes armed with a thermos of sugary coffee with a hint of cinnamon and packets of cookies. Nicole and Rachel happily accept two steaming cups.
“I’ve been doing this for 17 years, I’m the owner of the corner,” says Nicole as she nibbles a cookie. “This is all we can do to support our households.”
According to advocacy groups, transgender women often turn to prostitution at a young age.
“Here in Latin America, their own families can reject them thanks to a macho mentality,” Morales explains. “They find themselves on the street and they don’t have any way to obtain even the most basic things because no one will give them work.”
She says she has recued transgender youth who were forced into sexual slavery — most of them migrants from other Latin American countries who were lured to Costa Rica by traffickers or criminal gangs with the promise of jobs. Once they arrived, the traffickers confiscated their documents and they were forced to have sex — while they paid off their “debts.”
Transgender prostitutes face the added difficulty that they suffer from an extremely high rate of HIV-infection — the result of poverty and social exclusion as well as institutional discrimination that can make them wary of the medical establishment.
‘Rejected by society’
“It’s very tough because they have been removed from their network of friends and they are rejected by society,” Morales says.
Nicole says she chose her profession, but does wish that she’d had more options.
“I love animals. I have nine dogs and five cats,” she says. “I would like to work in an animal shelter, at least part time. So then I could work less here on the street.”
Rachel says she has been prostituting herself on corners for three or four years, but was exploited when she was younger.
“Since I was very, very little I got involved in these vicious circles so I did it in a different way,” she says.
“Now I have a degree as a hair stylist but I’d like to work in something more serious, not on the street,” she says. “I’d like to be a secretary and be really sexy,” she adds laughing.
Morales offers Nicole and Rachel small slips of paper with Biblical citations on them and says a prayer before jumping back in her car — on to the next corner.
The Rahab Foundation has an extensive support network for those it rescues from sexual slavery and for those who choose to leave prostitution — providing everything from doctors and psychologists to career training and financial loans.
Outreach, she says, is just the beginning of a long relationship.
“We wait for them, treat them kindly, and hope that one day they will receive our help so we can see them get out of this lifestyle and have a good life,” she says.