What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘prostitute’?
Most likely, it is a list of unflattering words, which judge and criticize the moral character of a woman. At a recent Violence Against Woman Symposium, Edwina Gateley described these women as God’s beloved daughters, hidden behind masks.
The symposium was presented by the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati’s Office of Peace, Justice and Care for Creation. Gateley, author and theologian, shared about her life’s work of intimately getting to know prostitutes on the streets of Chicago and empowering them to change their lives. Gateley admits that at the beginning of her ministry, she was met by gruff and aggressive personalities. But as she spent years sitting with and listening to the stories of these women, she said their masks began to peel away, revealing wounded women whose lives were ravaged by deceit, violence and manipulation. They were victims of human trafficking.
The Polaris Project defines human trafficking as a form of modern slavery where people profit from the control and exploitation of others. There are several types of human trafficking including labor trafficking, sex trafficking, organ harvesting, and child soldiers. Sex traffickers use manipulation, coercion, violence and threats to force individuals (including women, men and children) to perform sex acts against their will. Human trafficking is a highly profitable, criminal industry that is driven by the principles of supply and demand – this nonchalant, business-minded statement becomes deeply disturbing when you recall that the “product” being demanded in this industry is human beings.
The symposium also featured speaker Brenda Myers-Powell. Myers-Powell is the co-founder and executive director of The Dream Catcher Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to end human trafficking in the city of Chicago. More importantly, Brenda is a survivor of human trafficking. She told her compelling story of survivorship with courage, raw emotion, and even a bit of humor. She painted a picture of the root causes which lead a woman to prostitution and keep her there: manipulative relationships beginning at a very early age (often in the home), desperation for acceptance and love, feelings of worthlessness, and the abuse of drugs as an attempt to numb those feelings of worthlessness. No woman freely chooses to sell her body. Brenda reiterated this by stating that no little girl dreams of growing up to be a prostitute and a drug addict. To be fair, the same can probably be said for the men involved in these crimes. I imagine that no little boy dreams of growing up to be a trafficker or abuser. What happened to these abusers in their young, formative years? Like Brenda, I wonder if they also had a childhood marked by broken trust and abuse. Human trafficking is a heartbreaking, complex web of broken lives.
If the root cause of this problem is wrong relationships, those based on deceit, manipulation, and violence; then the solution must be right relationships, those based on unconditional love, acceptance and mercy. Women religious, called to go to those on the margins, can be a source of these right relationships. As part of her healing process, Brenda shared that she, along with other recovering women, attended a retreat at a Motherhouse in Pennsylvania. They prayed with the Sisters and received the healing balm of mercy and love. As women religious, what can we do to offer healing to God’s beloved daughters?
In October 2015, the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, with the support of their Associates in Mission, adopted the following congregational stand against human trafficking:
As a Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, we believe that the practice of human trafficking should be abolished in law and practice. The Associates in Mission of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati strongly support this stand to abolish human trafficking in law and in practice.
Many of our Sisters are already involved in the fight against human trafficking. I hope and pray that our public statement will further propel us into action. As a first step, let us all pray unceasingly for the victims and perpetrators of human trafficking, and for an end to this horrific crime.