Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Families and Sexual Exploitation

(This picture of 'family' demonstrates that the definition goes far beyond that of blood relatives at Casa Esperanza. This woman lives with and cares for these girls and have become family to one another.)
One thing that really struck me was the presence of families at House of Hope and of women I met on the streets. Any sociology class on Central America will teach that family is one of the most important, if not the most important cultural value.

There are two (nearly contradictory) ways in which I saw the role of family intersecting with the presence of sexual exploitation: 1) promotion of sexual exploitation, and 2) healing and restoration.

The Pain:
For the young girls I met at House of Hope, it was often neglect by mothers or outright insistence on entering sex work that brought the girls to live there. I say 'mothers' because fathers are a rarity here. Usually when the girls asked about my family I would tell them about my husband. Then they would ask if my parents were alive and then they would ask "And you have a dad, too?". It was a heartbreaking question.

Most of the girls mothers worked as prostitutes in the streets of Managua, so that lifestyle is all that they have grown up knowing. However, that doesn't mean that they wanted to start joining them on the streets at the age of 11 or 13. Some of the girls would run away in protest, but this could lead to physical abuse and violence from others (usually stepfathers or mothers' boyfriends) in their household.

For those who were abused in their own household, prositution became a legitimate source of income when they found themselves on their own and having to care for an infant by themself. For example, an 18 year-old living at House of Hope (she looked so much older to me...) not only cared for her 3 year old daughter, but also an 8 year old! ...sigh... It is almost no surprise that sex work becomes a way of life with so much pain and violation in one's past.

Even older brothers and sisters are at fault and have faciliated sexual exploitation of these women and girls. In one case a girl was sold to a trafficker/brothel for $7 US by her sister.

The stories of how family members violate the dignity and rights of these girls and young women are endless. Nonetheless, the stories out of House of Hope also reveal a healing and restoration that can happen when transformation takes place. The transformation is not limited to residents or those that attend the Tuesday meetings -- it can renew entire families.

I think it would be impossible to do work with sex workers in Nicaragua and not address their families. Most who come to House of Hope have a child by the age of 14 or 15. I would expect that most sex workers have children early into their careers. Abortion is not an option for those that do get pregnant, or if it is it is a very dangerous one, because it is completely illegal and any one caught giving abortions will find themself "disappeared" quickly and quietly.

So in the midst of a history of abuse, pain, rejection, and violence...how does healing take place? At House of Hope it is by the power of the Holy Spirit and belief in and obedience to Jesus Christ that helps women be healed from past sufferings.

For one family, the mother was currently working on the streets and had two daughters. The oldest daughter also worked on the streets with her mother. The youngest did not want to follow that same path and had been (or was close to being...) a victim of sexual abuse. The mother began coming to House of Hope on Tuesdays and felt that the youngest daughter would be safer living there. Some time passed with the young girl at House of Hope and the mother and daughter coming on Tuesday mornings. Slowly transformation took hold and the mother decided to leave sex work. The eldest daughter went back to school and graduated. Both are now confident in their abilities to make a living in something other than prostitution. And the youngest daughter is on the path to graduate from high school as well!

(Women part of the Nueva Imagen Ministry in Managua)
At Nueva Imagen, another Christian ministry for women working on the streets of Managua, the transformation of the family by the grace of God was evident. Broken families are the norm among sex workers. However, women spoke there of how God was able to change their marriages and to heal that brokenness. Restoration took time, but it is possible. And their lives are a living testimony to that.

The Point:
Hope is a necessary part of this work. I was asked by a group of short-term mission leaders who were staying with me at the Quinta Primavera when I left House of Hope if I really saw possibility of prevention and elimination of sexual exploitation. How could I say, "No!"? While the challenges are great and overwhelming I saw and heard enough stories of hope and healing that I believe there is reason to believe we can and should help women who are victims of exploitation. Moreso, we must commit to do everything possible to prevent the spread of the "culture of exploitation" and to tackle the root of the problem.


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