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

Prostitution and Mothers with Special Needs in Argentina, Claudia Vigil









When someone gives us a gift we appreciate it, and that gift will have a special place and maybe it will remind us of the person who gave it to us. When someone gives us affection we are thankful that such a person loves us, and since this is something intangible, its worth increases. But when someone asks us to join her in the most precious task, there is a feeling of a deep gratitude and the commitment to reciprocate such trust. We thank Zoraida Ramirez Rodriguez for all these gifts on behalf of Homahi and the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.


The Mother and Child Home Program at the Homahi Foundation was set up six years ago. From the very first moments I become aware that the worst enemy we were facing—prostitution—was hiding behind a mask of violence, exploitation, the most depraved version of sexuality, and the crudest type of ignorance regarding love. This enemy has the power to become intimately entangled with a woman’s identity. The effect over time is to leave deceitful marks to the point where the person believes that she is only good for such a thing. This has made me conclude that these women need to be given the greatest care to protect them from themselves. When these expectant mothers first arrive at Homahi, loneliness is written all over their faces.

Maternity and loneliness are so profoundly contradictory. The state of pregnancy in human beings is a social event; not just biological; therefore it carries great symbolism. If the consequences of pregnancy are abandonment, break-up, crisis, loneliness, then we are experiencing the first symptoms of a society that is ailing. Our work slogan is "to make a home of each house, a mother of each woman, and a son or daughter of each child." Throughout these years, we have firmly believed that it is not possible to give proper maternal love to an infant unless his or her mother has self-worth and gives and receives love. But the price must never be degradation.

There has been a great deal of talk about the poverty and anguish in the family at the end of this century. This situation takes away from human beings the essential gift that gives them a choice: freedom. In times past, to deal with child abandonment in Argentina, the only active program was adoption. This was the only alternative to a life of misery, abandonment, domestic violence, and unemployment. We are aware that not all children are wanted, and that adoption must be a free choice. When faced with such pressures it is neither a free choice nor a fair one. Thus, Homahi is created to offer this potential space. If a woman is helped to heal the wounds that have been caused in the chain of love, then her child can become a son or daughter.

About Prostitution

Even though it may appear to be obvious, when it comes to a collective community decision as how to deal with prostitution, it is extremely difficult to get a consensus. This issue touches all of us without exception, highlighting moral problems and the plural standards of morality that surround us. This involves the prostitute as well as the "client." When this is misunderstood there will be unfairness all around.

This topic has brought all of us to discuss it properly, and there is no room to apportion blame in an arbitrary fashion, particularly since we are talking about human beings. We are aware that when money is exchanged for sex, this degrades both parties. The consequences for the lives of each person differ considerably. The "client" will not loose his social status, his family’s affection, or his financial worth; on the contrary, his power is asserted on each occasion. On the other hand, and on a daily basis, we come across human beings who have lost their pride in being women, and that to rescue them from exploitation we have to invest considerable efforts. These women have lost their families, friends, social status, health, self-esteem, and finally their children. The existing laws do not go as far as punishing such harm.

The scope of Homahi’s programs includes: child pregnancy (minors of 12 years of age); incest and sexual abuse of children and adolescents; child abuse and abandonment; family violence; adolescent pregnancy (ages 12 to 18); work exploitation of children and adolescents; trafficking in babies; illegal adoption; and high risk maternity due to the following: drug dependency; delinquency; poverty and marginalization; chronic illness; mental illness; sexual exploitation for commercial purposes; mental handicap; motor or sensory handicap.

The handicapped mother lives a drama, which I ask you to stop and reflect upon, as it is a subject that is usually neglected by our competitive and arrogant societies. Any handicap which afflicts a woman renders her more vulnerable, and adds to her poverty and loneliness, thus making her an easy target for abuse and sexual exploitation.

Since it was founded, Homahi has given a special priority to helping high-risk mothers. Problems that are dealt with by the program involve vulnerable women who deserve society’s support. They have a right to their dignity, to love as daughters, wives, and also as mothers. So that they can go forward, they must change, but this is also society’s responsibility.

How we work at Homahi

It is not difficult to guess what thoughts may be on the mind of a handicapped woman who has been abused: "What am I, but this?" Her perpetrator may well have referred to her in such a fashion. Let us imagine that this already disadvantaged young woman finds out that she is pregnant and decides not to have a "quick and cleansing" abortion. The Consejo Nacional Del Menor (National Council for Minors) makes referrals to our homes. Civil courts may also request, through the National Council, that a young woman be placed for treatment with us. Many of the placements were made without any expectations of success or hope that the young woman would be able to care for her child, let alone become a gainful member of society. Many courts did not trust the validity of our help.

In time, we have had successful referrals. This is the only program of its kind in the country. Our professional team is highly specialized. Our skills are increasingly in demand for the treatment of difficult cases. We have opened up new areas of work endeavoring to help lone mothers become members of a society that becomes more and more demanding and exclusive.

Selected statistics which highlight some of our successes are as follows:

  • 32% of the total number of referrals were or had been women in prostitution
    • 16% of that total had been initiated into prostitution when older than 16 years
    • 25% of that total had been initiated into prostitution when younger than 16 years
    • 49% of that total suffered from mental, sensory or motor handicaps
  • From 1991 on, 75% of the referrals were discharged and 25% remain at Homahi
    • 27% of the cases were discharged because of marriage or return to the family
    • 55% were in stable family relationships and work conditions on discharge
    • 10% were referred to other institutions for various reasons
    • Only 8% were discharged not having met the objectives.

Each home has a team made up of Trainers in Everyday Living and two coordinators in charge of providing comprehensive follow-up to each case. This team ensures that each resident keeps her appointments at the Rehabilitation Center, and will encourage each mother to develop an appropriate daily routine so that the relationship with her child is strengthened. The residents’ intellectual and learning capacity is evaluated so that they can attend school at whichever level is appropriate; primary, secondary or tertiary level. Doctors have a dual role, curative and also preventative through health education. Language and communication skills are quickly assessed. Mothers are trained to stimulate their children’s’ speech, avoiding future learning problems. Psychologists provide an assessment on admission, so that in consultation with the team, a psychotherapeutic treatment can be devised on an individual basis. It is essential to deal with those dysfunctional or violent models the mother may have internalized, and to avoid these being transmitted to her child. Children are also assessed psychologically on admission. Mother and child participate in joint activities led by a pedagogue specialist in evaluating mother-child relationships.

Training for Employment is essential for the case to be successful. The Foundation is constantly developing new initiatives that offer the residents proper work training which should ensure that they obtain gainful employment independent of the program. We are currently promoting the creation of a Social Enterprise Program despite the high unemployment that exists throughout Latin America; this is a new challenge for us. These children whose mothers are handicapped deserve to have their own identity now, they deserve their mother’s love.

As a way of offering support and follow-up the program must be linked to something that gives the mother a viable and dignified life style. So far, we have been able to organize training programs in several skill areas, including: cooking, candy preparation, and catering for banquets; making of party favors and brides’ bouquets; making industrial ceramics; making rubbish bags, and developing secretarial skills and training for conferences.

These programs are essential because of their therapeutic value, particularly for those women who are victims of sexual exploitation; these programs prepare them to earn money with dignity. Those young women who were in prostitution lack stimulation and the will to learn a skill. From the beginning they compare it with the monetary profits they used to get while in prostitution. In spite of our limited resources, we ensure that each resident is paid a small amount of money on a weekly or monthly basis from the beginning of his or her training. This small amount has a symbolic value. By undertaking some training which will enable her to value herself more highly and be productive, a woman learns the value of money and distances herself from previous degradation. However, money is required to carry out these objectives.

Oppression will never be eradicated from a stance of impotence or doubt. Our work has been well thought out and grows in strength. It would be essential that by consensus, all business enterprises would support our work, since prostitution and drug trafficking are permanent alternatives as a source of income which is easy to get. This war cannot be won with weapons, but through consensus. By spreading widely our concerns, we must discourage those who benefit from human degradation. Offering treatment to those most affected is our duty just as it is our duty to lead the way to consensus.

Program for Handicapped Mothers

As citizens it is our duty to strengthen the relationship between both parents so that their families become new cells in society The Homahi Foundation has set up a program, which recognizes the rights of handicapped mothers. Handicapped women have the right to be mothers This program is the only one of this type in the country, and it is fulfilling an old debt by offering comprehensive help to these women who, until now, have been devalued and excluded from society.


Pregnant handicapped women face a number of family, social and economic problems that place them and their children in a very high-risk situation. These are underprivileged women who have been victims of rape, abuse, domestic violence, and general exploitation. When they become pregnant and go to maternity hospitals, they are targets for insults and run the risk that their babies may be taken away from them. If their children are not adopted, they are highly unlikely to have post-pregnancy care let alone follow-up during their children’s first years of life.

No one helps them to establish good relationships with their children to prevent future problems. There is the belief that these women are not able to love or to be loved by their children. They are totally abandoned, full of fears, and anguish which could result in post-natal psychopathology. Nobody helps them to raise their children. This is a lonely time for them. Yesterday they were handicapped women neglected by state and society. Today, they are deemed unable to be mothers; they are surplus to this arrogant society. The situation becomes more desperate when there is no housing or work, which would go to meet basic human needs. In conclusion, the facts deny all human logic. These human beings, who are most vulnerable, are not supported by but dumped by society.

Our general objectives are to include the Prevention to Abandonment system; providing protection, assistance, and social skills training regardless of the age, physical, mental or sensory handicaps of the women we serve, and give priority to a therapeutic approach. One of the objectives with the highest priority is the child’s right to life and his or her identity. By giving the mother support, the mother will be able to give her child two things: life and a name.

Handicapped women, who are pregnant, many times facing an unwanted pregnancy, are already experiencing a deep sense of abandonment. Sexual abuse, prostitution, deception and indifference should not determine whether a woman may overcome all this and establish a family. We work towards this end. Our specific objectives are varied and many. They include the following:

  • To offer comprehensive help to mother and child avoiding automatic separation or separation without due consideration;
  • To offer appropriate sexual education;
  • To prevent the child from being deprived of maternal care in early infancy;
  • To enable the mother to look for and find family affection to help her in her role as mother;
  • To promote a sense of being a part of society;
  • To intervene to avoid inappropriate or fast adoption processes carried out by private agencies interested in monetary profit;
  • To prevent those high risk situations where family estrangement, violence, abuse, and/or ill treatment, would be detrimental to the child; to offer information on legal rights the mother may be entitled to have on professional advice;
  • To treat any psychosocial problems using a multidisciplinary approach;
  • To give advice by way of courses, seminars, round tables, etc. to all those who directly or indirectly help these mothers and their children;
  • To encourage amongst the residents a spirit of solidarity, sensitivity to handicap, and learning to cooperate so as to enjoy a harmonious environment;
  • To provide help in case of accident or health problems;
  • To teach them to care for their own health and of their children’s, i.e. breast-feeding, stimulation from an early age;
  • To implement all those principles which enhance education;
  • To encourage economic and financial independence;
  • To increase the community’s participation, such as business offering jobs;
  • To establish closer links with the state, the municipality, and the World Health Organization;
  • To offer a real work option apart from the corruption and exploitation in which the women found themselves previously

Program Implementation

The handicapped mothers, either expectant or with newborn children, live at an assigned Homahi Home, following the decision of the treatment teams. The professional team at CE.RE.SO. (Social Rehabilitation Center) formulate diagnoses of the residents, which are the basis for their treatment and any other recommendations. This should promote changes in the health, education, socialization, and information areas. Follow-up is periodic so that the team members are in contact with each other.

Each team member keeps case records. Written reports are submitted on a quarterly basis on initial diagnosis and treatment progress. These are forwarded to the appropriate authorities dealing with the case.

The Foundation employs professionals so that each case receives comprehensive treatment. Whenever possible there is a close liaison with the staff at the public hospital. Therefore, staff can treat the residents from both establishments.

The Social Work Department does any work related to establishing communication with close relatives up to three generations, and ideally relationships are be reestablished. Up to date information on mother and child are also this department’s responsibilities. Accurate evaluation of the mothers’ mental handicap enables us to determine the extent of their learning difficulties and whether or not they can be dealt with within the regular school system, but it is increasingly difficult to arrive at an accurate diagnosis because of the boundaries that separate mental handicap from social dysfunction. The concept of normality becomes ever so diffuse as the critical conditions of family life increase toward the end of this century.

What is labeled, as Social Dysfunction is the subject of great controversy among the different professionals such as doctors, educators, psychologists, pedagogues, auditory specialists, etc. Mental handicap refers to something different, particularly from the teaching perspective. The Psychology Department is responsible for formulating a good diagnosis of each resident. They deal with all matters related to mothers’ psyches and the circumstances of their pregnancies. They evaluate each child’s potential. In this way, there should be joint diagnosis and prognosis pertaining to any mother and child.

Thus far, we have been able to identify some dysfunctional patterns with respect to the way the mother perceives her child:

  • The child represents the magical solution (unconsciously) to all conflicts. The child becomes a "war trophy" through which she may exercise some power over her partner.
  • The child becomes an "offering" with which to deserve the partner’s love
  • The child becomes an "undifferentiated" extension of the mother. The child becomes a partner in this rather pathetic situation.

The dysfunctions do not by themselves indicate the seriousness of the problem. In our experience there have been many cases, which have been successful following a comprehensive treatment. It is important to mention that research indicates that in almost all cases, women in prostitution have been victims of incestuous sexual abuse in infancy by their own parent or close relative. This data helps us to formulate prevention programs and also gives us grounds to offer these women therapeutic treatment to help them live as useful members of society. Needless to say, these programs must not include any judgmental attitude, as this would increase guilt; it is essential to remember that this person had no choice when they were sexually abused. The trauma can be quite severe and can be expressed later on in a variety of ways, such as depression, suicidal attempts, feelings of self-destruction, psychopathology, psychosomatic illness, depression, etc. To encourage these women to be in control of their lives once again, it is essential to undo all these traumas with the utmost care.

All professionals working in the medical department include as part of their treatment an educational and preventative dimension. They are fully aware of the importance of health education as the first requirement for a dignified quality of life.

We also have a Social Assistance Department. This is, in our opinion, an essential part of the help offered at the home. If the residents are not able to become fully reintegrated into society and able to hold down a job regardless of the high quality of the treatment they received, we cannot speak of full recovery.

The most important goal in this process is for the resident to learn to take risks, to be able to attempt new things, to make mistakes, to learn from these experiences. This should enable them to be in control of their own lives.

The Foundation invests considerable effort in ensuring that the residents are given assistance that is as comprehensive as possible to ease their lives as handicapped mothers. This community-based approach means that society should also learn to value these mothers. In other words, all the techniques and methodology used should be highly consistent.

Mothers exhibiting dysfunctional behavior (stealing, prostitution, trafficking in drugs) have responded positively to this approach and in the short and medium term have been able to secure jobs with a salary according to the going rate in the market. Follow-up is offered to the residents until they have acquired a level of stability in their jobs, and the main objective from then on is to facilitate a permanent discharge to the community. It is felt that learning money management is fundamental to having an independent life style.


Claudia Vigil is the Director of "La Huella," a drug addiction treatment center in Argentina. She is a psychoanalyst specializing in families with multiple problems.







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