I recently returned from a trip to El Salvador and Nicaragua with the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), as a fellow in the Rabbinical and Graduate Students cohort of the Global Justice Fellowship. The trip was an incredible opportunity to finally meet the other fellows in person (fellows are based in LA, Boston, NYC and Florida, so we conduct our monthly learning via webinar), and to see the work of a few of AJWS’s grantees in person. AJWS is currently organizing around a campaign they call the “We Believe” campaign, where they are advocating for greater recognition and respect for LGBTI rights worldwide, pushing for Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act, and seeking to minimize early child marriage globally. To this end, the organizations we visited in El Salvador and Nicaragua are all working on advancing women’s rights, sex worker rights or LGBTI rights in their communities. While I loved the opportunity to meet the other people in my cohort, study Jewish texts on justice, and having endless conversations on everything under the sun, for me the most inspiring aspect of the trip was simply being in the developing world again.
My first semester of graduate school, while exciting and stimulating, made me feel very disconnected from the issues that originally drove me to the program. From the (relative) comfort of my New York City home, the pressures of finishing economics and statistics problems sets often drowned out the sense of urgency and passion to help find and implement systems to mitigate global poverty. Talking face to face with members of the organizations we visited and even simply driving around the streets of San Salvador, La Union and Managua reminded me why I wanted to international development. In school, I read reports and studies about health, educational and economic outcomes in the developing world. In San Salvador, I had an incredibly powerful conversation with a sex worker that personalized the effects of lack of economic opportunities. I want to tell you the story, and to share one of the ways her story reinvigorated me to find solutions to pervasive poverty.
We were visiting Flor de Piedra (Flower of Stone), a sex workers’ rights organization in San Salvador, El Salvador. In small groups, we had an opportunity to talk to some of the women who are involved with the organization, many of whom were or still are sex workers in the capital. I asked the two women I was sitting with how they came to be involved in sex work. One woman, Reina, told us that she didn’t begin sex work until she was in her mid-40s. Reina was born in a rural village in El Salvador. At the age of 17 she was raped and became pregnant with her son as a result of the rape. Several years later, she also gave birth to a daughter with a partner. She and her family moved to San Salvador looking for work, and her partner left her. Reina was in a new city, the sole caretaker for her two children. She found work in a factory, but was laid off after several years due to her age and inability to work as quickly as the manager expected. With three mouths to feed, clothe, shelter and educate, Reina was desperate to find another job. But, as a woman in her late 30’s with little education, no one would hire her. And so, with no other option, Reina began working as a sex worker.
Reina emphasized that while no one forced her to become a sex worker, she only chose to enter the field because she had no other options.
In just a few minutes, Reina summarized everything I learned and believed from my first semester at SIPA and my work in DC, Israel and Kathmandu before starting graduate school. In the absence of opportunity, people will sacrifice everything to provide for their families. Reina was willing to literally sell her body, and with it her dignity, to provide for her children. While the choice to become a sex worker was just that—and independent choice—Reina herself stressed that she did not want to be a sex worker, but did not have any other options.
This resonates with many of the stories I heard while working with refugees and immigrants around the world. People just want to live their lives: in peace and safety, with adequate food and water, with safe shelter, with access to quality education and stable, dignified work, and with the ability to care for themselves and their relatives in the event of sickness or injury. But if people do not have access to these basic rights, they will go to any length to attain these necessities.
After visiting Flor de Piedra, we visited the hospital La Divina Providencia, where Archbishop Oscar Romero lived and was assassinated. As I listened to the story of Monsignor Romero’s life and his last speech, I was struck yet again by the how much people are willing to sacrifice in order to get what they feel they need.
The stories of Reina, Monsignor Romero and dozens of other people we met in El Salvador and Nicaragua resonated with my biggest takeaway from my three years working and volunteering with migrants—attempting to deny people basic human rights is futile. People will always eventually find a way to survive; for me the only question is what can I do to help people realize their rights in quickly and with dignity. As Martin Luther King, Jr said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”