When she was only 14 years old, Miriam was the primary caretaker of her family. Like many other girls in her situation in Guyana, Miriam turned to commercial sex work to provide for her family.
As a female sex worker (FSW), Miriam put herself at risk of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections. In Guyana (pdf, 485kb), FSWs have an HIV prevalence rate of 16.6%; still, only 35% of FSWs surveyed knew two ways to prevent sexual transmission of HIV. In order to reach this population with education, prevention, care and treatment services the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), through USAID, funds several community based intervention programs.
At 15 years old, Miriam gave birth and soon found herself in an abusive relationship. She suffered through years of abuse until she left with her children and moved to a large city. Once again, she was on the streets trying to make a living.
In 2006, Miriam was reached through Keep the Light On, a project targeting sex workers implemented by Comforting Hearts, a USAID-supported NGO located in New Amsterdam. Through training and education, Miriam became a peer educator.
She said, “Being involved as a volunteer with Comforting Hearts benefited me greatly. In addition to reaching out to my peers, my own life was also changed, because of the knowledge I acquired which helped me to change my risky behaviors.”
Miriam reached out to sex workers and their clients and shared HIV/AIDS information with them. She was also trained to provide care to people living with HIV, through the Home Based Care program, and provided bedside care to HIV positive people at the New Amsterdam Hospital. Miriam later became a member of the Caribbean Network of Sex Workers and president of the Caribbean Sex Work Coalition.
On a return visit to her hometown, Kwakwani, in 2008, with her greater insights on HIV/AIDS and her experience as a sex worker, she quickly assessed the plight within her childhood community. Poverty was still rife; the sex trade, with many unsafe sexual practices, was more pronounced than ever in this small mining community.
To respond to these challenges, she decided to start a community-based organization, ONE LOVE, to educate commercial sex workers on HIV prevention. The organization trains peer educators from the mining areas within Kwakwani and reaches sex workers and their clients with appropriate HIV prevention messages, condoms and HIV testing and counseling. The organization also provides economic empowerment activities, which allowed some of the women to leave sex work.
ONE LOVE, through Mariam’s leadership and passion, is one of the newest recipients of USAID funding through PEPFAR, and is testimony to the fact that one person, based on her own experiences, can make a difference in the lives of others.
Miriam concludes, “Now I am living my dream of reaching the population that I was once a part of; many lives have been saved and many lives have been changed, all because of my work. This is very precious to me.”