Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy

Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy

Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy

Trafficking Prostitution

Ministry To Women Who Are Trafficked

Trafficking is the trade in and the abuse of women, men and children for forced labour, for sexual exploitation and for organ removal by criminal gangs for profit. It is globally the third most lucrative illicit ‘business’ after drugs and ammunition.

In Ireland for the past decade there has been a steady increase in prostitution and trafficking – both are inextricably linked. Due to the secretive and highly organised nature of human trafficking it is very difficult to say how many women have been trafficked for sexual exploitation. However a total of 102 were identified over a 21 month period in research published in 2009.

Ruhama, the organisation with which I am a volunteer, has been working with women who are victims of sex trafficking since 2000 and has provided a range of services – counselling, education, skills training, advocacy, resettlement and accompaniment to over 300 women. The thriving sex trade is now operating in every county in Ireland. It is estimated that at any one time over 1,000 women are involved in indoor prostitution and are of 51 different nationalities. Most of the indoor sex trade is organised and controlled by criminal gangs, some  of which are Irish and others are foreign.

During the Celtic Tiger era we have all witnessed the growth of amusement centres, lap dancing, pole dancing, and adult sex shops on the main streets of our towns and cities. Ruhama is aware that it is in touch with the tip of the iceberg as it is only the women who are detained at Customs or who escape from captivity or who are released following a garda raid on premises, who come to its notice.

Technology such as the internet and the mobile phone has facilitated expansion of trafficking, enabling all involved to operate with greater anonymity and invisibility. In this scenario operators and users can keep a low profile and this impedes Ruhama’s ability to access the women trapped in this covert exploitation. These women and children come from all parts of the world, no country is free of ‘the predators of this pernicious trade’.

The introduction of anti-human trafficking laws since 2008 is very welcome but does not go far enough. The most recent campaign “Turn off the Red Light” – to end prostitution and sex trafficking in Ireland is making huge efforts to raise awareness of the harm caused by prostitution and to target the demand aspect of the issue. It advocates as does Ruhama, the introduction of the Swedish model of legislation which criminalises the purchase of sex by buyers and decriminalises the selling of sex by prostituted people. Countries such as Norway and Iceland have since followed this model with obvious success of a decrease in prostitution and sex trafficking.

I am often asked how I became involved in this ministry. Since completing a Masters in Feminist Theology in Berkeley, USA, I have been involved in women’s groups and in women’s issues over the years. This made me very aware of the inequality and gender imbalance in Church and State organisations. When the opportunity arose I undertook the short training course provided by Ruhama to work with the most marginalised and most deprived women – those in street prostitution. I spent four years working in this aspect of the work, going out in “the van” at night with other volunteers, meeting the women, listening to their stories and supporting them in whatever way we could. Most of these women “work” to feed their drug habit and are offered counselling, education, and support to exit prostitution if and when they have the motivation to do so.

For the past five years I am working as a ‘befriender’ of women who are trafficked and I do this in co-operation with the key worker assigned to each woman. In my role I help the woman to adjust to as normal a life as is possible if she is not deported. This may mean accompanying her to a hospital appointment, visiting her in hospital, visiting her in her hostel accommodation, attending a trial or court hearing with her, going to the Immigration Office or more pleasantly, helping her to shop, going to a film or sharing a meal together. Each woman is different and has her own interests and needs. Some have very little formal education while others have third and university level. Being a befriender sometimes involves travelling as far as Cork, Carlow, the Midlands as well as to Dublin. As many as half those trafficked are now in rural and urban locations and not in the city.

My community is also involved in providing ‘safe house accommodation’ and short respite for some women. This is usually for a limited period of not more than a week at a time when a woman is seeking “status” or temporary accommodation in hostels or elsewhere. Each member of the community contributes to the welcome, welfare and concern for our guest. This type of project undertaken by a number of congregations demands much time and patience. A Sister who is regularly at home gives this kind of time, patience and understanding to the women, some almost regard her now as a mother figure. Sensitive to their every need, she affords them this time and space to express themselves, to share their experiences as much as they are able to, sometimes in faltering English or in sign language. For many English is not a first language. Some of the women who have stayed with us are Russian, Chinese, Latvian, French and Romanian. A number have come from African countries especially Nigeria and the Cameroon. Many too are from various religious backgrounds including Catholic, Muslim, Evangelical and other.

They like to buy and cook food sourced in their own country if possible but Johanna has taught them some Irish dishes – a favourite for some is ‘Simply Delicious’ mashed potatoes! At Christmas and Easter for the past number of years we have invited one of the women to share with us on these special occasions. Through the rehabilitation and educational programmes in Ruhama, some have made marvellous progress and are able to avail of Fás projects and advanced language and computer classes.

A further aspect of my work is with APT (Act to prevent trafficking). This is an organisation of which I am a founder member with several other religious men and women under the auspices of CORI & IMU. Founded in December 2005, we work to raise awareness of trafficking, to lobby for just and adequate legislation. We network with like-minded agencies in Ireland (ICI) and with religious in Europe (Renate). Since many of the Congregations involved with APT are missionary we try to develop contacts and networks in the countries of origin especially in Africa.

Members of APT visit parish groups and clubs, colleges and universities, senior classes and transition year students. We present a power-point presentation on the topic and encourage conversation, questions and comments. You are invited to visit our website for further information.

Recently APT has produced a very useful resource booklet on “Human Trafficking, Prostitution & Spirituality” which can be downloaded from our website. It has contributions and background information from a number of specialists with an introduction by Fr. Donal Dorr. This booklet is also available on request for €10 from APT, c/o St. Mary’s, Bloomfield Avenue, Dublin 4.  The proceeds are used to help continue the work of raising awareness.

Useful website addresses:

1. APT
2. Ruhama
3. Renate (European Religious Women against Trafficking & Exploitation
4. Turn off the Red Light Campaign
5. ICI (Immigrant Council of Ireland)

• ICI Research Report 2009 – Globalisation, Sex Trafficking & Prostitution – The Experiences of Migrant Women in Ireland
• Email:



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