Costa Rica is widely perceived as Latin America's most stable and affluent democracy, and a paradise of conscientious ecotourism. It's also considered a "sexual paradise" where prostitution is legal, drawing pedophiles and other unsavory characters. The Costa Rican Tourism Institute has launched a major campaign to combat child-sex tourism — huge signs warning that sex with underage girls is illegal and will be prosecuted make the point in the immigration hall of San Jose's international airport and on billboards nationwide.
Many of Costa Rica's estimated 15,000 prostitutes fall into the profession after a childhood of sexual abuse at home – an endemic problem within Costa Rican society. (As many as 30 percent of female students at the University of Costa Rica say they were sexually abused as children. The problem is far worse among less educated, poorer families. Consider: 10 percent of Costa Ricans live in absolute poverty and 40 percent of adolescent females in rural areas do not attend school.)
The incidence of sexual and physical abuse within the family forces desperate girls to escape for a life on the street, where they are vulnerable to an accelerating cycle of further abuse. Alas, Patronato Nacional de la Infancia (PANI), the main child welfare agency in Costa Rica, is so underfunded that it can provide only a modicum of social services for abused children.
I was introduced to the depth of the problem at Casa Luz  — a home for young mothers who have been physically abused and are at high social risk. I still weep at the girls' individual stories, told me by Eldon and Lori Cook (owners of the Hotel Grano de Oro, in San Jose), who founded Casa Luz with their own money in 2002. Many of the girls at Casa Luz, for example, became mothers at 12 or 13 years of age. Some were impregnated by their own fathers or family members. Lacking in self-esteem, most of these exploited child-mothers had been relegated to a hopeless life of drugs and sex on the street.
By providing shelter, emotional support, educational and vocational development, and parenting tuition, the goal of Casa Luz is for the young mothers and their children to be able to live socially healthy lives. The first girls who arrived in 2003 have now passed to Phase Two, with 16 two-family units that provide a home to the young mothers who have demonstrated an ability for semi-independent living. Phase Three will create a multi-purpose social center to integrate Casa Luz Families and the surrounding community.
Help break the cycle of abuse and exploitation of children in Costa Rica by donating to the Casa Luz Foundation:
Payable to: Samaritans Purse (#080454 Costa Rica, Case Luz Home)
Send to: Samaritans Purse Canada, 20 Hopewell Way NE, Calgary, AB T3A 5H5. Telephone: 1-800-663-6500
In United States:
Payable to: Samaritans Purse (#013763 Costa Rica, Case Luz Home)
Send to: Samaritans Purse US, P.O. Box 3000, Boone, NC 28607. Telephone: 1-800-665-2843