||  Donna Hughes Home   ||   Making the Harm Visible Home   || 

Making the Harm Visible
Global Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls
Speaking Out and Providing Services

The Center for Psycho-Social Rehabilitation in Chile, Marlene Sandoval









Chile is lucky to be in the southern part of South America and becoming, once again, part of the global economy. The successful economy reflects Chile’s type of government, but there are those, such as Chilean intellectuals, who have realistic concerns.

The 1996 United Nations development report shows that one of our communities has a standard of living equal to Canada, and another community located in the southern region has development equal or similar to Canada. It is true that our child mortality and child malnutrition levels have gone down. Nevertheless, we have been able to accomplish these things only by using our natural resources in a disproportionate way. There has been land and ocean water pollution. Social exclusion has developed within the neoliberal model. Those new social sectors that are excluded are the new alien groups that are not part of society. They go beyond marginality. There are children, boys and girls, who are loitering in the streets. They are simply carrying out a way of surviving.

I decided to work with girl children in a rehabilitation center because in my country there has been an historic tradition of working with street boys. There have been two groups that have worked with boys—nuns and the police. There was not an acknowledgement of girl children in the streets.

Over many years, I was labeled crazy. It was unacceptable to many people to see that these children were there. There is a culture of submission embedded in official or formal education which is linked to the image of a suffering woman, who sacrifices herself for her children, family, society, and has no identity of her own. It was extremely difficult to show them evidence of girl children in the streets, but it was even harder for me to discover the conditions of prostitution in which they were living.

I got close to them through adult women who were in prostitution. I had to get rid of prejudices, language, which actually effects us all, and establish new tools to form relationships. I became aware that some adult women in prostitution were worried that they were losing business to younger girls. And some women in prostitution were mothers, who would cry when they were talking about finding young girls who were in prostitution.

I am not going to repeat the same topics addressed elsewhere in this volume, like why prostitution exists, because those reasons are common to all the regions. When I became involved with this work, I realized that I couldn’t do it alone. I went under ground with the girls because I was politically exiled to Central America, and I had been thrown out of my country. I came across people like Professor Sotto, who is the co-director of our center, and Ana and other staff members who have been working with me for many years. It was necessary for us to devise a program that would address itself to street educators and trainers, to teach youngsters and adults how to reach street girls—how to talk to them, how to look at them. It is not easy to tell you the stories of these girls and women. Adults who are immersed in this type of work still never stop being astonished by the stories being told to us by girls of nine and eleven years of age—these girls who are surviving this dirty war called prostitution. The victim who survives this macabre, sordid game becomes involved in this without realizing that it is not a children’s game.

Why is it so important to rebuild their lives? Or should I say to build them? At the moment we are actually reconsidering our name in terms of social "rehabilitation," because they were never functioning, previously. We are thinking of a center for "repair" in terms of social and psychological ways. It doesn’t have anything to do with coming along and using a band-aid or some cream to heal a wound. It is a matter of sewing, ever so skillfully, each one of the tears without making a mistake. When the girl realizes that it is important that she is alive, something happens to her eyes, to the way she looks, and I call that the magic moment. They begin to open themselves up, to sing, and to cry. They tell us part of their stories. And something very important to us, they laugh. That is the most important moment in this process of repairing all the traumas that they have suffered.

What are our tools-what do we do at CERSO? We train a team of workers who will be in direct contact with the girls. I don’t like to use the term "select," but it is very important who goes out on the outreach program on the streets. We begin to make contact, visiting the nightclubs. If we visit houses of prostitution, we change from time to time those who go along so that people working at the brothels won’t become familiar with them. Our relationship with women in prostitution is very important; they help us a great deal. It is also very important in this process that the street actors, the children, the trainees, and the women in prostitution become aware that they are doing something for society. We have to decide and map all the streets to show which route we follow. The active participation of girl children in prostitution in our project is very important. We attempt to use community centers, but this is not always possible. If we come across a case where we see that the girl is in danger or that its going to be highly explosive we take her to the center for "repair" and healing.

When the girl comes to the center, she joins in the activities there. We do not write down a history, because it is a violation of her rights to maintain files on her. We decide together what issues to work on, based on what the girls think affects them most. CERSO is a lifeline to save children’s lives. If they had a minimum of human dignity, they would not live as they do. They need to learn to have dignity.

CERSO started in one room, in a house with no running water. Now, we have a place that offers psycho-social "repair," and a dream to better the lives of the girls. In 12 years we have had no government support. Sometimes I don’t know how the program will carry on. Every time I think that we will have to close, more children arrive, and we stay open.


Marlene Sandoval, from Chile, has been a social worker for twenty years. She was exiled from Chile by the dictator Pinochet from 1976 to 1983. She was a refugee in Central America. She returned to Chile in December 1983 and started to organize a women’s group, Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights, which was one of the largest anti-Pinochet organizations. From 1987 to 1989 she was the subdirector of Latin American and Caribbean Network for Families and Children. She received a diploma in strategic planning in nongovernmental organization development from Bolivariana Universidad in 1993. She founded Centro de Rehabilitaci n Psicosocial (Center for Psycho-social Rehabilitation). She is now completing research on consequences of prostitution in girls with the sociology department of the Universidad Concepci n. She has written a report on prostitution and girls entitled Feas Sucias y Malas (Ugly, Dirty and Bad) that appeared in a Latin-American publication in Venezuela. Another report, La prostitucion infantil no es un juego de ninos (Prostitution of girls is not a game for children) was published in Revista (Crisis) in Argentina. Many of her writings have also been published in Sweden, Germany and Switzerland. Ms. Sandoval is listed in the UNICEF index in Chile. In her work against prostitution she has visited 32 countries.







Published by
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, February 1999
Donna M. Hughes and Claire M. Roche, Editors
ISBN 0-9670857-0-50
Donna M. Hughes, dhughes@uri.edu