Feature

Vulnerable women easy prey for sex-traffickers
Women in prostitution generally come from harsh, exploitative backgrounds, writes Chai Brady

Women who have been trafficked and subsequently forced into prostitution in Ireland sometimes don’t know what country they’re in.

Ruhama, an Irish charity that provides services for women involved in prostitution, often tackle challenging cases in which extremely vulnerable people are exploited by profit-fuelled opportunists, and transported like cargo both internationally and within countries.

“The truth is generally stranger than fiction when it comes to the ways in which unscrupulous people will exploit others, and the sex trade is no exception to that,” CEO Sarah Benson told The Irish Catholic.

“We’ve had situations on more than one occasion where women don’t even realise what country they’re in; one woman thought she was in Canada – the ship she was on and then the subsequent journey – she had no idea where she was going.

“We had another woman who thought she was in the United Kingdom, more than once that’s happened.”

Sometimes people willingly travel with their trafficker, lured by the promise of a job in the hospitality industry or as a childminder, but when they arrive those (often fake) opportunities vanish. Other times they are forced into domestic servitude and additionally sexually exploited.

Suddenly those who thought they were being smuggled into a country to work are forced into the sex trade and told they have to pay off “obscene and spurious amounts of money” for the trafficker’s services, according to Ms Benson. This can be as high as €50,000.

“It just tells you the degree to which the victims are kept in the dark and deceived, and it makes for difficult investigations. Many victims of trafficking make poor witnesses in court, because often they are unsure of the facts surrounding what happened to them.”

Report

Ruhama released their 2016 Annual Report this week which revealed the charity worked with 304 women of 37 different nationalities, and 92 of them were victims of sex trafficking.

Just under 100 women accessed the charity’s services for the first time last year, 73 of them received general casework support and 26 received casework support as victims of trafficking.

Many of the women disclosed that they have experienced deeply harrowing experiences such as rape, assault and other forms of psychological, physical and sexual abuse.

In Ireland the sex trade is mainly indoors, with a much smaller proportion of people involved in prostitution operating on the street. The industry has moved indoors to anonymous apartments, suburban houses and even massage parlours.

“Indoors it’s easy to control somebody, it’s easier to keep them hidden, it’s easy to keep them moving, so that is where you would find victims of sex trafficking,” said Ms Benson.

Even those who haven’t been trafficked are generally under the control of criminal gangs or other third parties.

Business is conducted online, with Ireland’s largest website, escort-Ireland.com, openly advertising women for sex, with prices quoted as low as €50 for half an hour.

The websites are registered abroad and are operated through servers around the world, which makes it difficult for Gardaí to tackle the online advertising of Ireland’s sex industry.

“The point is that the sex trade is organised now not by fixed premises but by internet ads, mobile phone numbers and if a premises is shut down the mobile phone number isn’t, and neither is the ad, so a buyer will just be directed to another premises very very quickly. It’s quite hard to disrupt as the whole thing is extremely mobile,” Ms Benson said.

RTÉ Investigates released two documentaries about Ireland’s prostitution industry called ‘Profiting from Prostitution’ in 2012 and more recently ‘Sex for Sale’, in which investigators tracked the movements of women being moved all over Ireland to meet with the demand of sex buyers, who look for a variety of ethnicities.

In ‘Sex for Sale’, 100 women’s movements were tracked by following their ads online for a number of years. Although the number of women advertised in each location across Ireland remained the same, the women were constantly moved.

Ruhama, who have been supporting women involved in prostitution for 27 years, have found there is always a large proportion of women who have clearly been trafficked for the sex trade in Ireland, according to Ms Benson. On average about 300 women access the charity’s services each year. Last year, according to the charity’s 2016 Annual Report, 222 women accessed a dedicated casework service, generally just about half of these women show clear signs of having been victims of sex-trafficking.

“Often somebody revealing that they’re trafficked is not a straightforward process. It sometimes is, but other times they would have been lied to and sometimes they don’t even know what the word trafficking means,” Ms Benson said.

For them “they’ve gone through a series of events and circumstances often which they blame themselves for, which has been reinforced by the messages they’ve been given by the people who’ve been using them”.

Only after building a relationship of trust, which takes time, can charity workers hear the full story. 

Of the women who access casework services, 56 were Irish. The second most prevalent nationality was Nigerian, with 47 women coming from the West African country. Women from Brazil (28) and Romania (20) make up the majority of the rest of women involved in prostitution who seek help from Ruhama. However, there are also people from all over Africa and Europe, as well as Venezuela, Kurdistan, Hungary, China and Russia, to name but a few.

All 43 women from Nigeria have been identified as victims of trafficking, as well as eight women from Brazil and five from Romania and Zimbabwe. More have been identified from countries all over the world.

Rarely a choice

The majority of women involved in prostitution around the world come from poor socio-economic backgrounds and have often been denied access to education, come from abusive family backgrounds, or are an ethnic minority in their country of origin.

Ruhama work with 22 frontline organisations around the world in Malawi, South Africa, Denmark, Germany, several in the US, India and more, and the overwhelming consensus is that prostitution is inextricably linked to people who have been denied their basic rights.

Many women were in State care, are runaways, and will be the poorest and least educated, making them easier prey for sex-traffickers and other third parties who would take advantage of them.

Ms Benson said that although some women may have chosen to enter prostitution, very often it is because they have been denied the option to make other choices.

Her charity operates what she calls an ‘empowerment model’ which aims to arm women with the skills and means to make choices.

“We would have a comprehensive education and development programme that focuses on both trauma healing and personal developments to develop confidence and support women to get over the traumatic experiences they’ve had, and then practical supports like English classes, career guidance assistance, and small education grants that can be really meaningful,” she said.

Caseworkers also help if there is a problem with immigration status and accommodation – which has become increasingly difficult to find due to Ireland’s housing crisis. However, 53 women received dedicated housing and welfare assistance according to Ruhama’s 2016 Annual Report. In addition, 79 women received education and development support, which includes career guidance counselling, maths, English, IT skills, study skills, education grants and interview skills.

They also assist in connecting them with other support services.

Contact

The charity workers made face-to-face contact with 1,719 women, and conducted 11,307 phone calls to, and on behalf of, women in their services. 

There is also a mobile outreach programme, which is a van that visits women working in Dublin’s ‘red light’ areas. The van was in operation for 130 nights last year, and, according to the charity, “the van is a safe space where women can access very practical supports such as hot drinks, snacks, hats and gloves and health and safety supplies, alongside much-needed emotional support and onward referrals to our own and other specialist services”.

Many of the women they work with face a range of vulnerabilities, including poor physical and mental health, domestic violence, substance abuse, poverty, debt and homelessness.

Ms Benson said: “So our model is very much an empowerment model that has taken very clear cognisant of the push and pull factors which draw women into prostitution. The experience of being in prostitution only compounds the barriers to exiting again, so those issues don’t go away. They’re further compounded by the experience.”

Leaving the sex trade is not a requirement of Ruhama, but it is encouraged. This is often not a linear process as the same reasons that pushed women into prostitution draw them back in again.

A counselling service is also provided, with the report stating that women ‘speak of living in constant states of tension and fear or hopelessness’.

Many display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the Ruhama team frequently respond to women’s suicidal thoughts.

Within the report was the experience of Nigerian woman Omorose* who was brought to Ireland by a woman she knew as ‘Auntie’ with whom she worked with in a salon. She was given the promise of a new job and education, and left Nigeria despite her grandmother warning against it.

When she arrived in Dublin she was told there was a problem with the family she worked for, and would have to work in Auntie’s business because she owed her a lot of money for bringing her to Europe.

She wrote: “Every day men would come to my room, sometimes five men, sometimes ten. The only escape I found was in my mind. My eyes would go to the ceiling where I stared at a damp stain. I could leave my own body and go right up to that ceiling.”

Finally she was able to escape while being moved to a new location, after contacting Garda she was eventually brought to Ruhama, who have since helped her on the recovery process.

Criminalised

Since the end of March this year it is now illegal for anyone to buy sex in Ireland, although it is not illegal to be involved in prostitution.

Previously the law just targeted anyone soliciting sex publicly, the operation of brothels, and anyone involved in ‘pimping’.

The new provision criminalising sex buyers in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 was met with criticism from groups such as the Sex Workers Alliance (SWA), who say the legislation will further push the sex trade underground making it more dangerous for people involved in prostitution – who they say will be forced to take greater risks to meet and attract sex buyers.

Ruhama, who campaigned for the legislation to be passed, believe it will protect women working in the sex trade and shows that the State is taking steps towards recognising women are the victims of prostitution.

It is still too early to judge the effect of the law on the lives of women in prostitution and the industry as a whole, according to Ms Benson, who says similar models such as in Sweden – often called the Nordic method – have led to a decrease in serious violence against women in prostitution. 

“In the Netherlands, which has the exact same overall murder rate as Sweden, 28 prostituted women have been murdered since 2000, and none in Sweden over the same period of time,” she said.

“More needs to be done to ensure that these laws are properly enforced, in order to achieve their objective to minimise the inherent harm of a wholly exploitative trade.”

Organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have long campaigned for the full legalisation and regulation of prostitution, while the World Health Organisation has advised in favour of this model.

Amnesty International has said legalising the trade is the best way to defend people in prostitution against human rights abuses, and criticised Norway’s 2008 decision to bring in laws criminalising sex buyers in an article published on their website in 2016.

It read: “Amnesty International heard how some sex workers who have reported violence to the police in Norway have been evicted from their homes or deported as a result of engaging with the police. 

“Under Norway’s laws, sex workers are at risk of forced evictions as their landlords can be prosecuted for renting property to them if they sell sex there.”

The charity was told that Norwegian police launch investigations against landlords who had women involved in prostitution working in their rented accommodation, and due to fears of eviction the women don’t report crimes.

A major argument in favour of legalising prostitution is the belief it reduces HIV rates. However Ms Benson argues that this was not the case.

“What’s not taken into account is the scale effect. When you legalise the sex trade it exponentially increases in size,” she said.

With legalisation she said there is increased competition, a lowering of prices, and a higher degree of control from third parties who would be regarded as legitimate businesses.

The heightened competition can lead to women in prostitution taking more risks, such as having unprotected sex and engaging in sexual acts they are uncomfortable with.

“Very different from harm reduction programmes that focus on the likes of needle prevention, there’s no circumstance anywhere where somebody will actually pay more to use a dirty needle.

“The fact is buyers will pay more not to have to use a condom, and so that creates a pressure and a tension for the person in prostitution. Either they are directly offered more money not to use a condom, or if the pimps know that it’s a service that is desirable whether they publicly say it or not (we would hear from women that they do) either they turn a blind eye or will encourage women not to use condoms in order to keep clients happy.”

The legalisation of the sex trade gives courage to the buyers and normalises their behaviour according to Ms Benson, and with that a degree of dehumanisation occurs. This leads to people in the sex trade being seen as commodities. 

In Germany, where it has been legalised, certain brothels advertise a flat rate in which men are told: “Sex with all women as long as you want, as often as you want and the way you want”, before going into more detail about the services provided. According to German newspaper Spiegel, one of the largest newspapers in Europe, on the brothel’s opening night the police noted 1,700 men attended, and at one point 700 men stood in a line outside it. Ms Benson described the language used in such sales pitches as a device “primarily to utterly dehumanise the women”.

Emotional impact

Ms Benson stressed the impact working in the sex trade can have on people, especially when they’re young.

“A concern is that that experience somehow shapes their own sexuality, which is a very disempowering experience,” she said, adding that there are potential impacts for that person with regard to having “fully autonomous intimate relationships” or just for them to recognise their own sense of value. 

When a person’s boundaries are so heavily pushed, regardless of whether they’re involved in prostitution, it impacts on personal, particularly intimate, future relationships.

Ms Benson added that prostitution is the “absolute denial of a woman’s bodily autonomy”, because the buyer purchases the right to do what he wants to their body. “The imbalance of power becomes all the more pronounced, because what in effect they’re doing is buying consent.”

 

***Name changed to protect identity.