Not lesser, loved

Nicole James | Central Asia

In two years of working with girls who sell themselves for sex, Amelia*, an OM worker in Central Asia, has only heard of two leaving the trade. Prostitution thrives across Central Asia—despite the honour-shame culture’s overwhelming aversion to it—as a result of rampant human trafficking and the economic crisis that drives many women to do anything for money.

Society scorns the individual women in the trade, regardless of whether they’ve entered by choice or coercion, but is immune to prostitution overall. Children scamper around the same streets where women stand, jingling a handful of keys, alerting passers-by to their availability. Families shop at bazaars bordering brothels. Sometimes, at dusk, cars full of men will pull up together—fathers or uncles bringing younger male relatives as a rite of passage, Amelia described. “If you see that growing up, how normal does it feel to you?” she stressed. “I pray that men will realise this isn’t what sex is. Sex should be about love, it should be about your family, with your wife.”

For the majority of women in the trade, however, sex is about survival.

They cross city limits and country borders, motivated to earn money that will help them achieve a better life or support their children. But once they enter the trade, they rarely make it out. “Before the girls will come with us, they have to believe something else. They have to believe that they have other options. They have to believe they’re worth something,” Amelia stressed.

Katya*, a Central Asian believer who helps with administrative tasks and accompanies the small outreach team on occasion, said, “God gave us freedom, so I want also to share with them that they can be free. And help them to get out. Some of them think that they have no choice, and they don’t have any way to start a new life, but we want to help in that.”

Breaking the ice

A handful of OMers, including Amelia and Katya, seek to make relationships with women already involved in prostitution as well as those most vulnerable to it. They don’t have a specific programme but have adopted practises that put them in proximity to the women they want to reach.

Sometimes a pair of OMers walk down a street where girls are known to stand, praying for and interacting with those they meet. Other times, they visit a nearby brothel and sit in a break area, praying and waiting for the women to approach them.

“There’s a lot of suspicion if you just go and start talking to someone,” Amelia explained. “When we’re walking on the streets and meeting girls, we found that just starting to talk to them wasn’t working, so we would ask for help.”

Questions like, “Do you know where a good place to eat around here is?” or “Do you know how much I should pay for a taxi to get to this place?” broke the ice. “We found out the girls really wanted to be helpful,” Amelia said. “Even though they’ve been through difficult situations, their hearts aren’t completely closed up yet. They’re still willing to help a stranger.” By asking for help, the OMers also start relationships they can build on later.

Of course, resulting conversations often stall on the surface level topics of hair styles and children. “You can have these conversations for a year or two years before you get to something significant or before they trust you enough to say, ‘I want to leave,’” Amelia noted.

One of the brothels the team visits has a café where the women take breaks between clients. For a long time, whenever Amelia went there, she would sit in the café and pray that God would provide a way to talk to the women. “For ages that wasn’t happening,” she recalled. “We were just praying for the girls but not engaging them.”

Finally, on an afternoon visit, Amelia and another OMer, both new to the local language, arrived at the brothel and found the café empty, except for the girl who served coffee and tea.

“Do you want to sit with us and help us practice our language?” they asked her.

She agreed and sat down next to them. “When the girls came in, instead of going over to the counter to buy their food, they came to where she was, which was at our table, and then they started talking to us, too!” Amelia recalled. “From that day forward, we had relationships.”

In the end, the solution again proved so simple: “It’s just us going in and asking for help,” Amelia described. “If we humble ourselves, we can connect with people a lot more easily.”

When the church cares—and when it doesn’t

Rosanna*, a girl Amelia encountered in her city, was alternating between Russian and English when they met. “Usually, the girls have quite similar back stories. Maybe they’re from another village. Maybe they have children or relatives they’re supporting. They came in to the city looking for a better life, but they didn’t find it,” Amelia said.

Expecting Rosanna to echo this narrative, Amelia was surprised—and saddened—to hear her account. She had studied English and German, earning a university degree, and was living and working in another big city—doing Bible translation.

“A lot of the girls won’t be 100 per cent honest with us, especially in the first few meetings,” Amelia noted, “but this makes me so sad if this is true. If she was working with the church, and then she moved cities, ...who was not looking out for her that she ended up in this business?”

Despite discouragement at some of the stories and the scope of the situation, Amelia has also seen God work through dismal situations. At one point, after establishing multiple relationships in a particular brothel, a new pimp forbade the OM workers from visiting girls there. “Stay away, stay away, stay away!” she hissed whenever they showed up.

“We were really worried,” Amelia shared. “These are the girls we’ve spent so much time with. The whole ministry is threatened.”

The team took time out to pray for the situation, asking friends and co-workers to join them. Eventually, they returned to the brothel and discovered that the problematic pimp had been overpowered. During their absence, however, one of the girls had left the trade. She was at a partner organisation’s shelter, and a small local church had taken responsibility for her rehabilitation—offering to help her find work and accommodation. “The timing for that and our faith was crazy, the fact that God’s doing that for this lady is crazy, and the fact that a local church wanted to get involved and help—that’s huge!” Amelia enthused.

“If someone’s been known to be a prostitute, it’s hard for them to find another job afterwards,” she explained. For their career prospects to change, it’s imperative that believers start businesses that will employ these girls. “At the moment, our partners have a shelter, so if girls come out, they can go there, and they can get rehabilitation, but we don’t have any business we can put the girls into.”

Meanwhile, the OM team hopes to advocate for the women in area churches, “so that the believers will step in: that when they’re going through the streets that they will be different than other people, that they won’t just walk past the girls, but they will see them as people God loves,” Amelia explained.

From project groups to DBS

Prostitutes are not the only women who operate on the fringes of Central Asian society. Amelia has also partnered with another organisation to empower the poorest women in the country where she serves.

Through the project, which involves business skill development, God has provided Amelia and her partner opportunities to connect with individual women. “We’re sitting in parks, knocking on doors, going to schools and asking the teachers to point out the poorest women in the community,” Amelia described. “For a lot of them, they’ve never met a believer before, so it’s God allowing us to enter into these women’s lives and giving us a way to do it, even if the project objectives are turning out really hard to meet.”

Through the project, Amelia’s partner—a Central Asian believer who was divorced—discovered that she could reach out to women in similar situations. After a month of working with other divorcees, “we still don’t have a [project] group, but two of them have come to know the Lord, and one of them is interested in going along to house churches,” Amelia shared. “I taught her [Discovery Bible Study] because she wants to start doing her own groups with these women, and they’re looking to her for guidance. This is so cool!”

“When I joined OM, the most important thing for me was that in a lot of places in the world, and definitely in the prostitution sector, there are women that have been told by their societies, by people they’re meeting, ‘You’re no good. You’re not good enough. You’re lesser,’” Amelia summarised. “It’s so hard for me to see people who don’t realise actually they are so important and so special. ...I want women, who don’t believe that God could possibly love them, to know that He does.”

*Name changed for security

Nicole James is a world traveller and writer for OM International. She’s passionate about partnering with believers to communicate the ways God is working across the globe.

Published: Friday, 29 June 2018
Credit: Nicole James
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