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White House and State Department honor law student

Ana Moraga, a second-year student in the Northeastern University School of Law, can often be found — of all places — in a Guatemala City red-light district, where she has built an empowerment center to help women improve their own lives and those of their families.

Ana Moraga

[media-credit id=19 align=”alignleft” width=”220″][/media-credit]Moraga, who was born in Guatemala and lived there until she was 13, when her family moved to San Francisco, was in a far different place on Friday: the White House, where she was one of nine people recognized by the Obama administration and the State Department as a “Champion of Change” who has made a marked difference in connecting the Americas.

“The Champions that we recognize today have helped their countries and communities of origin, and in doing so have bettered our region as a whole,” said Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson. “These exceptional individuals, with their work in sports and community development, in education and financial inclusion, inspire others by their example. In a region with such profound human links between our societies, ideas and inspiration spread quickly to the benefit of people all over the Americas and the Caribbean.”

“It’s been quite a ride,” Moraga said. “It’s a real honor to be recognized for my work in this way.”

After graduating from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Moraga decided to commit a year to giving back to her native country. She had planned to do work to promote literacy among sex workers, who face great risk and are disenfranchised them from a legal system that could prevent or prosecute abuse.

“But once I got there, I realized that literacy was not at the forefront of these women’s needs,” Moraga said.

More important, she quickly realized, was training in new careers for women who wanted to move out of dangerous work in the red-light district, but not take jobs in the country’s equally perilous sweatshops. So Moraga worked to send two women to beauty school, then arranged for those women to train others in the craft.

Soon Moraga formed MuJER, an organization whose acronym translates to Women for Justice, Education and Awareness, which offered job training and other classes to women right in the red-light district. She partnered with a French organization to create a safe space for the women and worked with judges and prosecutors to help shift a legal focus from the prostitutes, who often had few or no other options, to the men who hired them.

“The women do make a choice to do this work, but that choice is very limited,” Moraga said. “So we want to provide empowerment so the women can have other choices.”

Since MuJER was founded, it has become almost entirely run by the women who participated. Moraga stepped back to a position on the organization’s Board of Directors when she enrolled at Northeastern. She hopes her legal training will empower her to continue to work on behalf of populations like the one she focused on in Guatemala.

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