Tag Archives: human rights

Avoiding the White Savior Industrial Complex

26 Feb

The premise of the “White Savior Complex” is derived from the scenario in which individuals who exercise certain privileges–race, class, education, etc.–invade the spaces of certain groups or communities that are culturally different from their own with the intention of uplifting or “saving” members belonging to the groups they are invading. (“White” is really semantics to describe “saviors” from high-income/developed communities).

Those with privilege often wrongly deem the communities they approach as “oppressed”, or otherwise lacking access to certain rights or liberties , and in desperate “need” of help. From desiring to “rescue” sex workers to wanting to “liberate” oppressed women in the Middle-East, the White Savior Complex is a flawed mentality, and the intrusion of those with privilege into perceived “oppressed” or “disempowered” communities is often coupled with a desire for self-promotion that is justified with misguided altruism and harmful ally-ship.

Savior complexes, while perhaps partially fueled by a desire to do good in society, are callous displays of privilege that reinforce social hierarchies. “Saving” implies that certain communities are above others, and only groups with access to certain privileges embody the efficacy to empower those who are labeled disadvantaged or in “need” of help. Broadcasting the perceived struggles of another group in a showcase of pictures from mission trips and research projects can be both insensitive and exploitive to many communities.  “Look at these oppressed and impoverished brown/black women and children from the global south that I helped save”.

Saviorship of those who voluntarily enter the sex industry is a current topic of public spectacle that has generated a community-wide response. The hashtag #NotYourRescueProject was started by twitter activists to express discontent over sex work-related savior mentalities and reject the jarring notion that all sex workers are unhappy in their profession and do not wish to participate.

In 2012, Teju Cole,  a writer for the Atlantic, published a series of tweets on the White Savior Industrial Complex 

Yesterday, I published a series of my own tweets on “Being a Good Ally & Avoiding the White Savior Complex” . I’ve embedded the full composition of tweets into my post below:

You can absolutely have the best intentions and still hurt groups that you wish to advocate on behalf of. How CAN you be a good ally to the groups you are advocating on behalf of?

Your mentality matters. The premise of all savior complexes lie in self-promotion or seeking public approval and praise rather than true social justice advocacy.

Be mindful of the fact that if you are in a position where you feel like you have the ability to “save” or “empower” oppressed/minority/disempowered groups, you are demonstrating your position of privilege and, in fact, reinforcing social hierarchies.

One great way to know how you can help is by listening and asking groups you are allied with how they would like for you to become involved. By listening and taking into account the words of others, you demonstrate a genuine interest, and you will likely be called upon when your support is needed.

Email me: rachel.safeek@duke.edu

Twitter: @RachSafeek



Finding a Role for Women of Color in Anti-Rape Movements

10 Feb


The first SlutWalk in Toronto, ON, April 3, 2011 Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Toronto-Slutwalk.jpg

The first SlutWalk in Toronto, ON, April 3, 2011
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Toronto-Slutwalk.jpg

I wanted to weigh in on a topic that I’ve been following on twitter lately, and I’ve been getting many requests from peers about my opinion on this topic: the idea of a community SlutWalk. For those who are unfamiliar with the term SlutWalk, the basic premise is that women and feminist allies can gather in solidarity and parade the streets of their local communities wearing whatever choice of garb desired, however skimpy or “scandalous”. The message that is being conveyed is a powerful one: As women, our choice of clothing, or lack thereof, is not a license for intercourse. Moreover, by embracing flaunting the word “slut” on picket signs, it is perceived that feminists are taking ownership over the word, eliminating use of the term as one of verbal assault against women.

As a self-identifying feminist and a resolute believer in equality, I support the underlying message of this anti-rape movement. However, as a woman a color, I acknowledge that feminism and one’s expression of liberation via sexuality becomes more complex when the intersection of gender and race is considered, and, as feminists, we must remain conscientious of the interplay between various levels of oppression: race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

Recently, a friend of mine raised the topic of women of color participating in slutwalks on facebook. Here was my response:

As women of color, we are often hypersexualized for our skin color and stereotyped before our credentials are discussed. Whether through being assigned playful (read: dismissive) nicknames…”my Turkish delight” or “my spicy Latina”, being asked where we are from or  what we are mixed with, or labeled an “exotic beauty” for our “sexy accents” or our curves, we are readily branded, dismissed, and relegated to sexual objects. For many of us, it’s our skin color and our body type that make us subject to sexualization and objectification, not necessarily the clothes we wear (as the SlutWalk would suggest).

Matter-of-factly, I believe that the idea of a slutwalk is proposed and executed from a position of power and privilege that is not available to women of color. As a woman of color, I do not feel safe calling myself a slut (even within a group setting of “solidarity” with other women), in the same way that I don’t feel like I can participate in the “casual Friday” look at work without compromising some of my credibility or professionalism, as a non-white person. Whereas white women are presumed to be born innocent, WOC are hypersexualized first, so there is already stigmatization involved before we can even discuss what clothing we wear….it’s an added level of oppression that the traditional slutwalk does not address.

Furthermore, I think it’s important to take into account that rape is most often not about the sex, but rather, exerting control over another person. Historically, WOC–minorities, in general– have been consistently relegated to inferior statuses. Rape has also been historically used to oppress minorities during colonialization and during the slave trade between masters and their “property”, which also calls attention to a greater need to focus on the issues of WOC when discussing sexual assault and gender-based violence.

Many of my peers, especially fellow Duke grads, are confused when I don’t respond enthusiastically to this topic, since I am often considered sex-positive for my work with HIV prevention and sex worker advocacy, but I DO think it is especially difficult for WOC to subscribe to a sex-positive and liberal culture at times. It’s not impossible for us (I certainly identify with this culture, indeed), but certain platforms, ie. slutwalks, while radical and forward thinking, can also create drawbacks for minorities. Representation of minorities in this walk is critical, and the sexualization associated with being a woman of color–beyond clothing–should be addressed.

-Not your princess Jasmine

email me at rachel.safeek@duke.edu
tweet me @RachSafeek

Human Rights Activism: End of the Year Reflection

25 Dec


#FightStigma is a campaign that was started by students at Duke University involved with Know Your Status, an HIV testing and education group dedicated to providing free HIV testing to individuals on academic campuses in Durham, NC

@RachSafeekFollowing the incident with Justine Sacco, we should use #HasJustineLandedYet as an opportunity to educate about #HIV/ #AIDS & prevent future insensitivity https://bluedevilbanter.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/a-little-lesson-in-hiv-101/ …

This past week, former PR executive, Justine Sacco, was fired after posting a tweet connecting HIV transmission to race in South Africa. The tweet, which was posted by Sacco to her twitter while waiting to board a twelve hour flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa, was deemed insensitive and racist by twitter audiences, prompting an uproar among HIV/AIDS and human rights activists in the Twitter community. Airborne and without internet access, Sacco remained unaware of the frenzy that was occurring on social media sites in response to her tweet. The most notable response included the generation of the hashtag “#HasJustineLandedYet” to host discussion around the infamous post. Upon her arrival in Cape Town, a newly-unemployed Sacco was greeted by a crowd of journalists and angry activists demanding an explanation.

Whether a poorly executed joke or a genuinely crude display of carelessness, the callous nature of Sacco’s tweet comes as a disappointment to many. Such frivolity from a PR exec, REALLY? At least one thing of which we can all remain assured is society’s willingness to address overt instances of social injustice. Hence, the thousands of Twitter viewers who were quick to denounce Sacco’s behavior, albeit via 140 characters or less.

Another recent human rights victory related to health and HIV prevention comes in a different form: The Ruling of Canada’s Supreme Court to Strike Down Anti-Prostitution Laws. Having worked with female sex worker populations in the past, the issue of decriminalization and regulation of sex work is one that I am particularly invested in. This past week, Canada’s highest court passed a ruling that condemned the nation’s anti-prostitution laws, arguing that such laws endanger individuals within the profession, ignoring the health-related risks of the trade.

Finally, another recent personal victory comes from my own work with HIV and human rights-related causes on World AIDS Day 2013. December 1 (World AIDS Day) always marks an important day for anyone committed to work with HIV.

Last year, while working with Know Your Status, an HIV testing organization run by Duke University students, I spearheaded an HIV testing and launched a photo campaign entitled #FightStigma”, along with the amazing photographer and my former classmate, Shayan Asadi. (More pictures here.)  Every year, I take some time to reflect on the events from World AIDS Day. Last year’s reflection was actually a Facebook post turned very short blog posting:

“Today is World AIDS Day! Exactly one year ago, I spent this day testing for HIV and educating about the disease with female sex workers in Salvador, Brasil. It was the most meaningful experience I had until that time, and I never thought I could make a difference in the same way. One year later with Know Your Status, we (a group of 20+ Duke students) have managed to test hundreds of students and Durham residents over the course of one semester…It makes me so incredibly proud and inspired to see so many college students invested in a cause, whether political advocacy or human rights activism, I am so honored to be a part of a college campus with such progressive enthusiasm.”

Fight Stigma is a campaign that was started by students at Duke University involved with Know Your Status, a volunteer group dedicated to providing free HIV testing to students in Durham, NC

Fight Stigma is a campaign that was started by students at Duke University involved with Know Your Status, a volunteer group dedicated to providing free HIV testing to students in Durham, NC

One year later, I’m still continuing my work with HIV prevention as an HIV Education Specialist, researcher, and, of course, blogger. I spent the majority of the first week of December (unofficially deemed “HIV /AIDS Awareness Week”) engaging in various outreach events throughout my community, including helping to launch an HIV testing marathon event, entitled “#LoveSafely” and a panel discussion about “Caring for HIV/AIDS Patients in the United States”.  Check out the details below:

HIV/AIDS Awareness Week

HIV/AIDS Awareness Week

HIV Testing Marathon

HIV Testing Marathon

We tested over 65 people in just a few short hours, and I did a few of those tests in Spanish. Over the course of the week, over 100 tests were administered. The successes of these events, coupled with the very fulfilling research/outreach I do leading up to December truly make this season the most wonderful time of the year.

Email me at rachel.safeek@duke.edu

-Rachel Safeek

Voluntary Female Sex Work vs. Sex Trafficking of Women

13 Oct


@RachSafeek: Not all #sexworkers are products of sex #trafficking. There are women who enter sex work of their own volition.

The difference between human sex trafficking versus consensual and/or voluntary sex work among women is a topic that I’ve been meaning to address for a long time. Oftentimes, when I mention that I work with HIV prevention among Female Sex Workers (FSWs), many incorrectly assume that the women with whom I work are all victims of female sex trafficking.  Just this morning, I received an email from a fellow Duke graduate with a link to Nicholas Kristoff’s column about sex trafficking in the United States. The sender noted that I would likely appreciate the column  “because of the work [I] do with sex trafficking victims”.

Indeed, I value the article for the education that it reinforces to readers regarding sexual exploitation in the United States. However, I believe that an important piece of the story is missing, the part of the sex trade that includes the group that I DO work with: women/girls who choose to enter the profession “willingly”. (Note: I refer to “willingly” as such because I do acknowledge that it is debatable whether women who do enter the sex trade without being forced by a third party pimp or madam choose to do so 100% agreeably. Many who do choose to engage in sex work do so out of desperation or a lack of better options, including a lack of skills, resources, and education. These women, however, do not fall under the category of trafficked women, which is problematic, as I will discuss later in this post.)

In any case, global health students, researchers, and health care workers alike have responded to my work in a manner similar to my classmate’s, assuming I work solely with trafficked women. While directing attention to an important cause, they are simultaneously dismissing the value of work with women who voluntarily engage in the trade, an unintended effect.

Personal Experiences with Trafficking

Before delving into further discussion of consensual and voluntary sex work, I would like to first like to acknowledge that I do not wish, in any way, to alleviate the seriousness of human sex trafficking. We can all agree that the effects of unlawful human sex trafficking are damaging to the individual and society as a whole. Even Hollywood has made a supreme effort to portray the traumatizing and dehumanizing side effects of trafficking in films such as Taken (2008).

I myself have been the personal target of trafficking because of the work I do. On World AIDS Day 2011 (December 1), while leaving my workplace in Salvador, Brasil, I was grabbed by two individuals who attempted to force me into their vehicle. The two men were later identified as pimps. As an HIV researcher and activist, I am committed to decreasing stigma around HIV through prevention education and research. Eager to assist in the World AIDS Day festivities at my workplace, I stayed at work late into the evening, a dangerous decision which put my own life in jeopardy. Due to extreme luck and some willful attempts to fight back, I was able to escape the situation and run to the police, who were not much help and mostly likely involved…but police corruption in Brazil is another topic which I’ll reserve for future blog postings. In any case, having almost been forced into the trafficking system, I am without a doubt privy to the manner and degree to which sex trafficking is an issue of paramount concern and represents one of the highest and most inhumane human rights abuses.

From World AIDS Day 2011. Holding a red candle for HIV awareness and wearing a red ribbon HIV activism shirt

From World AIDS Day 2011. Holding a red candle for HIV awareness during a candle light vigil and wearing a red ribbon HIV activism shirt.

Sex trafficking is not the same as consensual Sex Work, but discourse should develop around each topic equally

Nevertheless, even with my own personal experiences with trafficking, I believe it is important to consider cases of women who are not forced or kidnapped and sold into the sex trade. There are a several reasons why I am against the singular portrayal of female sex workers as products of human sex trafficking:

First, I believe that assigning the title of “trafficked” to all women engaging in transactions of sex relegates women who voluntarily enter the profession, labeling them as “victims”. This is both an unfair and disempowering assumption. Many women, some of whom are highly educated and accomplished, willingly choose to enter the sex work trade. One rather famous case involves the Ivy League graduate who documented her experiences with prostitution.  Additionally, I have worked with many female sex workers in the past who noted that they were comfortable working in the sex trade. Sex work was their profession–their source of income. It was what they were comfortable with, and while perhaps they would not want their daughters to continue with the trade, they personally did not identify with feeling “used” or “victimized”. If anything, they were happy they could provide for themselves and their children. While the notion of “empowered” sex workers may not represent the overwhelming majority of sex workers in the United States or internationally, and while they certainly may not be the headlines for discussion around sex work, these women cannot be overlooked when engaging in discourse about sex work.

Secondly, and related to the first reason, dismissing all women who engage in sex work as “trafficking victims” ignores the job-related risks of women who voluntarily engage in the profession. Women who engage in consensual transactions involving sex cannot be discounted when considering the needs and, more importantly, the RIGHTS of those involved in the trade. If all sex workers are readily labeled trafficking victims–or victims, in general–, those who have chosen to enter and remain in the trade willingly (or for lack of better options), will have their rights overlooked. The focus will be shifted mainly to helping women leave the profession. As I noted earlier, not every woman wants out. Many are comfortable with the work they do, and so, it is essential that women who do choose to remain in the trade are not denied their rights e.g. safer working conditions, protection from rape/sexual assault and gender-based violence, and addressing key health concerns, including prevention of STDs and HIV. Focusing on cases of female sex trafficking ONLY subtracts from the much needed attention that should be paid to public health and gender-related risks associated with women who are not being forced and sold into sex work by a third party pimp/madam.

Finally, and this is a more subtle yet very important point, focusing solely on sex trafficking ignores the reality of women who engage in casual transactions using sex. For this point, I refer back to the definition of sex work:

“Sex work is the exchange of sexual services, performances, or products for material compensation”

Considering this definition, an individual who has offered sex in exchange for food, money, or a place to stay has engaged in a transaction that is deemed sex work, even if he or she does not formally identify as a sex worker. Take, for example,–a situation that I have heard time and time again from the women I work with–the case of a young woman/girl who is homeless, lacks formal skills and education, and the support and resources that a family can provide. She may see sex work as her only option for money and choose to enter the trade, albeit out of desperation. Oftentimes, she is not being forced by a pimp or madam, which does not qualify her as a trafficking victim. And while she may have entered the trade out of desperation and circumstance, she is still voluntarily engaging in sex work for money, shelter, or food. An unfortunate situation, but for many women who do voluntarily engage in sex work, it can be a reliable source of income which some (NOT ALL) women may be comfortable with.

This is a more common occurrence than society is willing to accept. However, even if we do not always include these transactions as instances of “formal prostituting”, we must acknowledge the role that they play in leading women to officially entering the trade and the number of health risks that develop as a result of engaging in these types of desperate transactions. Women who engage in sexual encounters for goods for money out of their own volition (even if out of desperation), and in the absence of a third party pimp/madam or John who forcefully demands that a woman submit to prostitution, represent an under acknowledged group.

This sheds light on a need to uncover the greater issues at hand: Ultimately, female sex trafficking and female sex work (excluding cases of women who entered the trade voluntarily and not out of lack of other options) are two micro issues in a macro problem: gender disempowerment. Whether actively forced by a third party, e.g. a pimp/madam or a John, or voluntarily engaging in sex work out of desperation or lack of skills, education, and resources (forced out of circumstance), the macro issue at hand is the vulnerability of women in each situation.

We all recognize the dangers that are present for women who are kidnapped, trafficked, and sold into the trade. However, if we choose to focus solely on female sex workers who are the products of female sex trafficking, we are ignoring the macro issue of disempowerment among women who are compelled to enter the trade due to circumstance ( lack of skills, education, and a strong support system/resources). This disempowerment should be a topic that is capitalized upon and addressed via public policy, and it is often overlooked by the assumption that all women in the profession are forced in by pimps or madams, rather than also by circumstance or choice.

Finally, there are various other issues to consider with regards to sex worker rights and public health/human rights issues. For the purpose of this post, I have restricted my discussion to women. I did this on purpose to demonstrate the role that gender plays in increasing vulnerability among sex workers. Gender is continually cited as a factor which predisposes women to violence and disease transmission, two key topics that I choose to focus on with my research. I focused on female sex workers, given my extensive background working with this group and in an effort to highlight the particularly devastating effect that financial disempowerment, gender-based violence, and rape/sexual assault can have on women in the trade. However, it is also important to consider the situation of male or transgender sex workers.

Additionally, one must consider what is truly consensual sex work.  I mentioned that I have met some women who are truly content with their earning income through the sex trade, but what percentage of all sex workers do these cases account for? Furthermore, do young girls/women who express content with engaging in sex work really have the ability to engage in consensual transactions using sex? All very important questions to consider. In any case, these questions represent even more of a reason to consider all instances of sex work, despite only the “sexiest” and most shocking stories of sex work/trafficking which are often highlighted in the media.
Email me at rachel.safeek@duke.edu
–Rachel Safeek


HIV Decriminalization & “Justice for All” event

5 Oct

Left to Right: Honorable Judge Ernesto Scorscone, board president of JustFundKY, Robert Suttle, Assistant Director of the Sero Project, Rachel Safeek (myself), Sean Strub, Founder of POZ magazine and Executive Director of the SERO Project, and Blake Flaugher of AVOL, inc.

I had the opportunity to meet these notable individuals at the inspiring JustFundKY “Justice for All” event at the Kentucky Theather on Thursday, October 3, 2013. The event included an open panel discussion about bringing progressive policies to the state of Kentucky. Sean and Robert of the SERO Project also spoke earlier that day about HIV decriminalization and their campaign, the SERO project. http://seroproject.com/

–Rachel Safeek

HIV Prevention Among Female Sex Workers (Honors Thesis in Brasil)

15 Sep

In response to the number of requests I’ve gotten from current Duke students/study abroad students who are interested in reading about my work in Brazil with female sex workers, I’ve dedicated this post to focusing on the details of my research project.  If you are interested in my motivations for working with HIV prevention and sex workers, you can read more about my experiences in the field in one of my previous postings. And for those who are interested in the socio-cultural backdrop of the project, you can read here about why I selected Salvador (Bahia), Brazil as my site for undergraduate research and why the HIV/AIDS prevention model is so unique in Brazil.

Talking to one of the coordinators about disease prevention among Female Sex Workers

Talking to one of the coordinators about disease prevention among Female Sex Workers

I want to address the issue of culturally-competent community engagement briefly. For anyone who is working with marginalized groups, it is ALWAYS important to bear in mind that you should approach your research in the most non-intrusive way possible. You never want to come off as exploiting the persons with whom you are working for the benefit of your research and publications. Because Female Sex Workers (FSWs) are a marginalized and stigmatized group, many of the women with whom I worked were initially unwilling to participate in my project.  I was American, “over-privileged”, and it didn’t help that I had a rudimentary and “textbook” knowledge of Portuguese at the time of my first visit to the organization where I worked, O Projeto Força Feminina–The Female Force (Empowerment) Project (September 2011).

To overcome any cultural/linguistic barriers and earn the trust of the women at O Projeto Força Feminina, I dedicated the first few weeks of my project to establishing a relationship with the women. I taught basic English classes and engaged the women in belly dance and makeup classes (eyebrow threading), which they loved! It was truly a beautiful exchange of cross-cultural interests: I shared aspects of my Middle-Eastern culture. In exchange, the FSWs taught me some forms of Brazilian dance and helped me with my Portuguese. Ultimately, we established a firm sense of camaraderie that allowed them to trust me and have me interview them about their work and sexual behaviors. I also demonstrated my commitment to working with the group by returning to my project site again last summer (May-August 2012). While I will not be able to return to Salvador until next summer, I still maintain contact with many of the women at the organization.

Below is my finalized research abstract with some pictures from my time at O Projeto Força Feminina. Please email me at rachel.safeek@gmail.com with any questions.

“Who Cares about Us–We are Just Women of the Street”–Combating HIV Transmission and Gender Disempowerment among Female Sex Workers in Salvador, Brazil 
Authors: Rachel Safeek, Sherman James, Ph.D
Duke University 

BACKGROUND: While Brazil is lauded for its exemplary HIV prevention model, the majority of HIV prevention programs promote safe sex through education, ignoring the realities of gender disempowerement and inequality, which increase the susceptibility of female sex workers (FSWs) to instances of violence and disease. This paper analyzes factors associated with gender disempowerment and lack of condom use among FSWs in Salvador (Bahia), Brazil who engage in heterosexual interactions with male clients. An understanding of the sources of gender disempowerment is key to developing culturally-appropriate and effective policy interventions.

METHODS: Over a seven-month period, formal interviews were conducted with sixteen female sex workers and focus group discussions were conducted with 35 female sex workers at Projeto Força Feminina. The latter is an organization located in Pelourinho, the Historic District of Salvador, that works with FSWs to promote safe sexual practices and combat gender-based violence. Three life histories were also conducted with three of the sex workers. Additionally, Dr. Edivania Landim, the former head of the HIV/AIDS program of Bahia, was also interviewed.

RESULTS: Interviews and focus groups revealed that economic vulnerability (financial instability), drug use, and instances of gender-based violence (structural violence) and rape/sexual assault from police and clients disempower FSWs, increasing their susceptibility to the transmission of disease. In each case of disempowerment, the factors contributing to women’s decision to engage in intercourse without condoms or other types of risky or unsafe sex were influenced by their inability to defend themselves as women and as FSWs, a social group of women isolated on the bottom rung of Brazil’s social and economic ladder. The respondents were clear that their gender was a definite factor in the many difficulties they faced.

DISCUSSION: Increased emphasis should be placed upon female-specific forms of protection, e.g. female condoms, microbicides. Unionization among sex workers is necessary to gain political acknowledgement of sex worker rights through legalization of the profession.

KEY TERMS: HIV/AIDS, Female Sex Workers (Profissionais Do Sexo), Race, Economic Vulnerability, Disempowerment, Gender-Based Violence, Structural Violence, Health Disparities, Human Rights, Salvador, Brazil

–Rachel Safeek

"Empower women in the situation of prostition"

“Work in solidarity with women in the situation of prostition”

Colorful sitting room

Working on art projects

Working on art projects

Mission Statment

Mission Statment

In focus group discussion

In focus group discussion







On Brazilian Time

25 Nov


The title of this post refers to the manner in which I’ve decided to write this months after I’ve already returned to the United States. In Brazil, the concept of time is not the same as we view it in the United States. Deadlines are flexible. Meeting times are subject to change ten minutes prior to the start of the meeting (even past the ten minute beforehand mark it’s sometimes okay to make the “can we meet fifteen minutes later call”…chances are both parties are running late…it’s Brazil). The mentality of Bahia is sometimes characterized by the  “why worry about something you didn’t do today when you have all day to do it tomorrow” mentality. Talk about low pressure and stress-free expectations. No one does the casual ” fashionably late” like Brazilians (o jeitinho brasileiro).

So, months later, after plenty of time to reflect on my research and travel experiences and add perspective to how these experiences will affect my academic and professional career goals, I can say with absolute certainty that (1) I love Brasil, (2) my experiences there have been the most meaningful and most fun times of my life, (3) not a day passes when I don’t reflect on something I learned in Brasil.

In Brazil–and in the US to some extent–I work with HIV/AIDS prevention among female sex workers. A wide array of reasons led me to pursue this cause. You can read about them in detail in my other posts, specifically this one or my “about me” section. But, in summary, I am a public health/health policy major, studying health disparities from a sociological, human rights, and policy perspective, and these interests have led me to studying health disparities and HIV prevention.

Brasil is a country renowned for its model HIV/AIDS system, in addition to a universalized health care (long post about this). While organized prostitution (brothels, the management of prostitutes through a pimp) is illegal in Brazil, it is not illegal for one to work as a prostitute. The high rates of HIV among female sex workers, despite the highly successful model of the nation’s HIV/AIDS program and the legitimization of the profession, drew me toward investigating this study. One would reasonably assume that a profession which is legitimized and acknowledged by the federal government is accompanied by some form of regulation. This does not appear to be the case in Brazil . Despite the Brazilian government’s attempts to exercise tolerance toward a marginalized group, female sex workers still disproportionately account for high rates of disease transmission, representing a principal disparity in women’s health in Brazil. For a country with an exemplary HIV/AIDS program, this seems paradoxical, and it is this line of thinking that served as my impetus to pursue a research project in Salvador, Brazil where this disparity is highest.

I spent my summer working with O Projeto Forca Feminina, a non-profit, Catholic-based organization located in Pelourinho, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. The organization’s goal is to work in solidarity with women who are involved with prostitution, providing women with a safe haven they can go to during the day. The sex workers participate in self-esteem building exercises which empower them to see alternatives to sex work or, should they choose to remain in their profession, to do so in a manner in which they are educated about their rights as women and as workers. The primary focus of the organization is to combat violence against women in all forms: physical, mental, verbal, or sexual. Whether the manifestation of violence is physical bruising, mental anguish, or the spread of sexual disease, the goal of the organization is to empower women to realize that any form of violence against women is unacceptable, and whether or not women choose to leave prostitution, they can take preemptive and proactive measures to defend their health and well-being.

I helped to coordinate English classes, belly dance classes, and art activities for the female sex workers at the organization. On the side, I conducted formal life history interviews with the workers. In my interviews, I was interested in learning how women entered their profession, what experiences they have had with gender-based violence, if any, and what factors contribute to whether or not they engage in protected sex in their encounters with clients. The last question is key for prevention of disease transmission and was the main focus of my study. For reasons why condoms were not used, women cited incentives of cash bonuses for engaging in sex without a condom, drug use or intoxication/impaired judgement, pressure from clients, and instances of rape and violence from clients and the police as the primary factors that contributed to the lack of condom usage among workers.

The results suggest that public health policies should promote prevention methods that engage female-controlled forms of disease prevention(e.g. female condoms and microbicides designed to kill sperm, bacteria, and viruses). These methods should be emphasized in both classrooms and public health campaigns and be made more available to the public sphere, perhaps distributed in the same locations where condoms are made readily available. Furthermore, sexual education courses should also incorporate female-specific forms of protection.

While the primary focus of my trip was to conduct my research, I found that most of my time was spent listening to the stories of the women at the organization, their struggles and near-death experiences. The saddest story came from a woman who I became very fond of through my English class. She told me how her ex-husband abused her( “he tortured me for months”), burning her, hitting her, and eventually leaving her with nothing. With three children to feed and no education, she felt compelled to enter prostitution. She saw my English course as a way to make her more marketable for other work. She is only one of many women with whom I have worked with who have similar stories, a multitude of intense trials and tribulations which they had to overcome. Hearing these stories have inspired me to continue my work with human rights and pursue a line of work addressing gender disparities and women’s health.

Beyond my research, I have so many wonderful memories from this past summer. I have a large group of Brazilian friends, with whom I am very close to. There are like family to me. After weeks of experiencing life without speaking any English, or being near any other American, I began to feel really integrated in the culture, and when I was there, and I felt that it…nothing could feel more perfect. I don’t care how many grants or scholarships I have to apply for, how many cover letters I have to send out, even if I have to wait until after I graduate from medical school…Aut viam inveniam aut faciam (either I will find a way or I will make one)…I am going back.

Here is a drawing that a sex worker made for me after I finished interviewing her. She told the most incredible story. It’s says “Rachel, you are this rose. Kisses. -Haide”.


The night time view from my apartment…..If I have ever at any moment in my life felt at loss words, thoughtless and full of emotion all at once, it was here. Countless hours spent gazing over the balcony at the Atlantic ocean. Que saudade….