An airport sign that warned about the consequences of getting caught with a child prostitute followed by an underlined “we mean it” was enough to catch the eye of newly arrived tourist Maria Fejervary who was vacationing in the country with her children.
“I thought, why would we be greeted with this?” she said.
Once she returned home, curiosity led Ms. Fejervary to see reports that Costa Rica is the fastest rising country for underage prostitution.
As a child care psychologist, she wanted to help. To do so, she gave up her childcare facility in the Bay Area, of California and moved to Costa Rica in November 2010.
Now, more than two years later, she has built and received the necessary governmental permits to open the first safe house for child survivors of sexual exploitation. A group of six girls will move into the house, known as Salvando Corazones, April 15.
“Salvando is so thankful to all who have supported us and worked alongside us to make this a reality,” said Ms. Fejervary in a release. “We see this safe house as just the beginning to help combat issues of human trafficking and child sexual exploitation. Costa Rica is a wonderful country. Let’s help to remove the darkness and bring new light to these children.”
Salvando Corazones, Spanish for “saving hearts,” will house children from ages 8 to 18 in the Guanacaste region. According to Ms. Fejervary, Guanacaste has a high amount of girls working in the area, but their location is set apart from the temptations to go back into the lifestyle or seek drugs.
“It’s really peaceful. You really get a sense of healing here,” she said.
All the girls will be placed through the Costa Rican child care agency, the Patronato Nacional de Infancia. Girls traditionally come to the organization on their free will seeking help or they were intercepted by the judicial agencies in raids, explained Ms. Fejervary.
Previously, since the girls were so young, the agencies had no place to put them.
“The psychology need is different from putting them in Rahab or the other places,” said Ms. Fejervary, referring to the Fundación Rahab for adults.
At Salvando Corazones, the youngsters will be put under a full program that includes four hours of home schooling where they will also be taught English, two hours of extra curricular activities, chores such as cleaning and gardening, sessions with a psychologist, and rest and relaxation. On weekends, activities such as going out will be scheduled.
The girls will have the opportunity to stay in the home until they turn 18 years old. At that time they can either further their education or start their life in the world.
“We will provide training and life skills so they can face society without using their bodies as a way to finance themselves,”
It is Ms. Fejervary’s goal to open multiple houses. Her second home will be a way to separate the girls with children from those without, and her third house will be for boys.
Another part of the project will be to create a curriculum for schools that educates students and parents about child violence.
“In Costa Rica there is a lot of incest,” explained Ms. Fejervary.
The girls who have been hurt think that they might as well go out and get paid to have sex, or they run away and then don’t have a way to make money except for selling their bodies, she continued.
“One of the biggest transitional things that leads them into prostitution is abuse at home,” she said. Her goal is to start integrating a program that changes this culture of abuse.
“Culturally there needs to be a lot of change because you don’t want to say its accepted, but when one in four of the kids is being abused, what other word do you use?” she said.
Ms. Fejervary knows the change won’t be immediate, and says there will need to be at least two decades of educating and generations growing up before a drop in child prostitution is seen.
Another safe house is being opened in Quepos by the Seeds of Hope organization, but they are still awaiting approval from the child protection agency. Once opened, Seeds of Hope and Salvando Corazones will be the only safe house for children in Costa Rica.