THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS -- A year ago Esther earned her living as a prostitute. Now the attractive 21-year-old works as a taxi driver.
While she now makes half the money she did before, she is happier and more relaxed.
Esther is one of the success stories of a project launched in the Netherlands last year to help prostitutes deal with their problems and show them the way to a new life.
"Prostitution Project," run from offices in a seedy district of the Hague, has helped prostitutes go back to school, land secretarial jobs and start their own boutiques or hairstyling salons.
Psychological counseling and appointments with bank managers are also arranged.
The offices, on a street dotted with sex shops, provide a welcoming place for prostitutes when they want moral support, practical advice in dealing with the bureaucracy, or just a good cry.
"One of the biggest problems most prostitutes have is lack of self-confidence to do anything else," said Ceciel Brand, the energetic social worker who runs the project.
She said many prostitutes find dealing with officialdom daunting, the prospect of a job interview terrifying and the idea of living any other kind of life almost unimaginable.
Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands, and Brand works with police to encourage prostitutes to report incidents of abuse and cases where women are forced into prostitution against their will.
The city council granted her about $100,000 two years ago to set up the project to rehabilitate prostitutes.
"Usually, our contact begins on the street. A prostitute may complain about poor pay, about trouble she has with her kid or her rent, and then eventually it comes out that she really doesn't like working as a prostitute," Brand said.
That is when Brand and two other social workers involved in the project present the alternatives.
Together with a women's employment organization, they run a 10-session course to help prostitutes decide what other jobs they might be able to do. The prostitutes are taught job interview techniques and how to write application letters.
The women are also told how to give a credible account of their past without divulging that they had worked as prostitutes. Most of them tell prospective employers they have been housewives, photographers or models.
Many prostitutes seek a new life because AIDS has made their work both more dangerous and less profitable.
One 45-year-old decided it was time for a change because she feared she could no longer compete with younger streetwalkers.
Esther, who became a prostitute at the age of 16 because she had no other way to earn money, was drawn to the rehabilitation program because it offered advice on how to apply for public housing.
"Ceciel helped me," Esther said in an interview, asking that her full name not be published.
"After that, I would just stop by to talk. Then I took a course to figure out what sort of job would be suitable for me."
After working at a nursing home for six months and deciding that she didn't like it, she joined a taxi firm as a driver.
"I make about half the money I made before, and sometimes when I see pretty things that I can't afford to buy I think about going back. But I don't think I will," Esther said.
"My life is much calmer and I'm much less nervous than I used to be," she added.
One of the hazards of her new job is the risk of running into old clients.
"My past continues to confront me. A couple of the drivers were clients before and it was no time before there were rumors flying that I was a prostitute. It's terribly annoying," Esther said.