On World AIDS Day, I am reminded of a recent visit to Guatemala where I visited an old stretch of railroad called La Linea, which is now home to sex workers who rent tiny rooms for business each day.

Their business is a precarious one. The solicitation of sex in exchange for payment brings inherent and obvious health risks to individuals who engage in this behavior, but also for the community.  For those who make a living in commercial sex work, education is key to ensuring they are able to protecting themselves by reducing the risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Guatemala’s HIV prevalence rate is less than one percent among the general population. HIV in this country is classified as a “concentrated epidemic”, because cases are generally much higher among particular groups of people. One in every twenty sex workers in Guatemala is HIV-positive. Programs that educate these at-risk women on how to protect themselves will be critical to the country’s ability to keep the epidemic from spreading beyond this group to surrounding communities.

I met with a peer educator named Noemi, who works with a USAID-supported education program that is implemented by a PSI affiliate in Guatemala.  Shunned by family after the death of her mother, Noemi was forced from an early age to fend for herself. At fourteen, her grandmother sent her away and suddenly she stood alone in the world.

Not long after, Noemi fell pregnant and gave birth to a son and desperately needed a job to support herself and her child. She was lured by an individual who promised her work as a waitress, and was horrified when she realized that she had been sold into the sex trade. She was forced to work in order to repay the “debt” owed for clothes and makeup the brothel owners forced her to wear.

In the beginning Noemi had no idea how to protect herself or what rights she had as a sex worker. It wasn’t until she met peer educators at this particular program, PASMO, that she began to learn and understand ways to protect herself and negotiate terms with clients.

Armed with knowledge, Noemi began to volunteer, teaching other sex workers about HIV and how to negotiate condom use. She stopped practicing sex work and began volunteering full time teaching women about HIV and STIs through games as well as personal one-on-one visits. She offers voluntary counseling and rapid HIV tests in addition to a booklet of vouchers for free health services.

It was clear to me that Noemi is much more than an educator to the community she serves. Her personal story inspires others. This USAID-supported program gave her the knowledge and confidence she needed to protect herself and eventually exit the sex work industry. Now she is repaying another debt, this time on her own terms.