Helping women and girls leave work on the streets
On March 21, the Permanent Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations in New York hosted a panel discussion entitled The Pastoral Care of Women and Girls Working or Living on the Streets during the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, in which panelists described the vexing situation of women and girls on the streets and advocated for policies that criminalize the demand of prostitution and human trafficking while assisting the victims.
Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, said the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, especially goal 8.7, shows the international community’s commitment to leaving no one behind, including women and girls who are exploited on the street.
“One of the groups perpetually at the highest risk for being forgotten neglected and exploited are those women and girls who are forced to live and work on the streets,” he said. “When Pope Francis spoke to the general assembly last September, he emphasized that our world needs all government leaders need to take concrete steps and measures to eliminate to phenomena of social and economic exclusion and its painful consequences.”
Auza also mentioned the Catholic Church’s formal condemnation of human trafficking slave labor and prostitution in 1965 during the Second Vatican Council.
“It is so sad that more than 50 years after this statement, the situation as worsened instead of improving,” he said. “That is why Pope Francis called us not to turn away from our fellow human beings who are deprived of freedom and dignity, but to forge the new worldwide solidarity to eradicate this evil.”
He said one group to respond to this call is the London-based organization Women at the Well, which offers services such as healthcare, legal help, addition recovery, food, showers, as well as life skills training to empower women and girls to leave the streets and achieve their full potential, free from exploitation, exclusion and abuse.
Sister Lynda Dearlove, a Religious Sister of Mercy, founded Women at the Well and said the facility she runs, which feels more like a home than an office or clinic, sees about 250 women every year.
“Prostitution for the women we work with is not a choice,” Dearlove said. “Most of the women became involved when they were still under 18.”
Dearlove said 70 percent of women she sees involved with street based prostitution were part of the state care system, and many experienced sexual and physical abuse at an early age.
“Prostitution is not about sex,” she said. “It’s about exploitation, violence and abuse. 68 percent meet the criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the same way as victims of torture undergoing treatment.”
But many women do not have access to services and opportunities they need to exit prostitution because of the legal structure of many countries that places the burden on the woman, with no legal consequence for the man buying the sexual act, she said, which keeps women who want a different living from obtaining jobs and many state services.
“We think the buying of the sexual act should be criminalized in order to tackle the demand,” she said. “If the act of selling the sex was decriminalized women would be able to access the services much more effectively.”
Sister Dearlove, as well as the rest of the panelists, advocate for a legal system called the Nordic Model that shifts the legal burden to the mostly-female victims onto the exploiters of prostitution like pimps and traffickers, the panelists said.
Rachel Moran endured prostitution from the ages of 15 to 22 on the streets of Dublin, Ireland, before escaping and obtaining a journalism degree. She now works to help other women leave the streets through SPACE International, the Dublin-based organization she co-founded that gives a voice to survivors of prostitution to influence public perception and policy regarding prostitution.
“Poverty is not the cause of prostitution. It is the cause of women’s compliance with the system. We must target the male demand,” she said. “It is not okay to buy your way inside a human body. It is a matter of exploitation in and of itself. The Nordic model very firmly opposes this in legislation by saying, ‘No this is wrong. It is illegal.’”
Moran said evidence in support of the Nordic model comes when comparing prostitution in countries that have adopted the model, such as Sweden, Northern Ireland and Canada, with countries that have legalized pimping such as Germany, Holland and New Zealand.
She said prostitution runs rampant in countries that have legalized pimping, exploiting impoverished and migrant women, like in the brothels of Germany where there are 450,000 women and girls working, with the majority of victims coming from Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. She said her organization sees the same problem in New Zealand, where traffickers bring women in from nearby Asian countries.
“They are interested in profits,” she said. “If they find themselves in a hostile territory they will simply get out of there or they won’t go there in the first place.”
When Sweden adopted the Nordic Model in 1999, critics thought it would push prostitution underground, but Kathryn Hodges, Department Head of Social Care at Anglia Ruskin University, said Sweden has since seen a dramatic reduction in human trafficking and demand for prostitution. It is not enough to criminalize the demand, however, without providing survivors with the diverse services and opportunities they need, she said, and she urged the public to provide more financial assistance to non-profits that serve women in these circumstances.
“When they come to need support, our current services are unable to respond, with women ending up in custody, and immigration detention centers,” she said. “If we started to understand prostitution as a violent crime against women, would professionals better understand their required response?”
To watch the event in its entirety, click here.