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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 102 (Suppl.), December 2006



Sister Michelle LOPEZ, RGS

Fountain of Life Center



We Good Shepherd Sisters have been working with women of the street since we were founded in France in 1835. In Thailand we have empowered them through:

  1. direct services 
  2. advocacy
  3. networking with the existing Church groups, Buddhist social service groups, government and non-government organizations
  4. co-operation with like-minded individuals and groups, nationally and internationally especially for advocacy works such as decriminalizing minors and people who have been trafficked.

But what we have discovered is that once the mother has been successfully integrated into society, her daughter becomes the next victim and when the daughter is successfully integrated, the grand daughter is in need of help. Why is this such a common pattern? Today I would like to base my sharing on some of the factors that maintain this cycle.

In most of the cases we have ministered to, one of the factors that pushed the women and girls out into the streets was the violence they experience from the male members at home. The male members were invested with power and there was a silent approval of this power by all the female members. Who gave them this power in the family?

The role of the family and the civil rights and freedoms within the family has always been very important matters for discussion at national and international meetings on the rights of women and children. This is because the civil rights of a person begins in the family. Socialization and the acquisition of values are developed in the family. When children and women experience cruel inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, when there is neglect, corporal punishment and sexual or verbal abuse or when male members have the license to do as they please, then the child's notion of civil rights and freedoms are severely distorted. The family which is supposed to be the basic institution in society for the survival protection and the development of the child becomes instead the first place where development is aborted and gross injustice flourishes. 80% of the women of the streets that we have ministered to, had very painful memories of their childhood. One woman told us that while plucking vegetables for the family, she and her young sister were gang raped. Petrified the two girls went home, and narrated what had happened. The father and the older brothers accused the older sister - 13 years of age - for neglecting her younger sister. The mother was silent and just wept. The atmosphere in the home changed since that day. Shame and a sense of failure pervaded. Feeling that she was the cause for this painful situation, the older girl ran away. Why did the male members react in such a way? Were they angry with the girls or with their abusers? Were they angry with themselves that it happened? Or did they feel they had failed to make the “masculine grade?”.

According to Michael Kaufman, men's violence against women is linked to men's violence against other men and to the internalization of violence, which is a man's violence against himself. What gives violence its hold? What has naturalized it as the de facto standard of human relations is the way it has been articulated into our ideologies and social structures. Violence helps confer on men a rich set of privileges and forms of power. In such a context, violence or its threat becomes a means to ensure the continued reaping of privileges and exercise of power. However Michael Kaufman notes that personal insecurities are experienced when there is a failure to make the masculine grade, or simply, the threat of failure, is enough to propel many men, particularly when they are young, into a vortex of fear, isolation, anger, self-punishment, self-hatred, and aggression.[1] 

The woman or the girl on the street needs to know this, but how does one tell her. She believes that this is her fate for being born a female. A person's freedom is deeply influenced by gender and according to Joann Wolski Conn “gender refers not to the biological sex (female) but rather to the meaning one's culture gives to that sex. Gender refers to the socially constructed meaning of sex that is pervasive in a culture at any historical period.”[2] 

What does this mean in the world of sex tourism, prostitution, trafficking, migration and smuggling. How does the dominant culture define the woman of the street?

She is nameless - they call her “Sweetie” “Cutie” “Honey” “Baby” - she is undocumented - illegal according to immigration laws - she is an offender because prostitution is illegal in some countries. She can be eliminated because no one will come looking for her - she is NOBODY.

Until very recently “female” or “feminine” universally connoted meanings such as passive, emotional, intuitive, more closely related to nature, guardian of virtue in the midst of an aggressive world naturally designed to be the complement to men; that is, by nature made for roles which support the leadership natural to men.[3]These are excellent definitions, but they are incomplete!

We have also noticed that women tend to internalize suffering, violence and pain. They live in a culture of silence and passivity. Sometimes they even ignore or trivialize the inflictions they have received. We had a case of a Sex tourist, violently carrying his partner and throwing her down into the pool several times. The woman just laughed as if she was enjoying it. There were many people at the swimming pool. Among them, there was another woman who saw what was happening and went up to the lady, and with deep concern asked her if she was in pain. She replied that it was very painful but she was too embarrassed to say this to the man. There were so many people around. Here is an instant when women ignore or trivialize the inflictions they have received

However what is even more shocking and painful is the participation of women in their own oppression. We had a case of a grandmother who drove her own married daughter and her 7 year old grandchild out of the house because the child's mother had reported to the police that the 17 year old male cousin had raped her 7 year old daughter!!! The grandmother reminded her daughter that she was a prostitute herself and that there was no difference between what was being done to her and what had been done to her 7 year old daughter! When this mother and her 7 year old child appeared at our center there was so much anger, guilt, shame and hatred in their hearts. They felt trapped and did not know the way out!!

According to Nunuk P. Murniati acts of violence against women all serve to support male importance and dominance and to downgrade women's value. Patriarchy has turned woman against herself and her daughter and daughter in laws against her sister and her mother. Patriarchy has opposed women to women.[4]

The women of the street that we minister to, have been trafficked, smuggled or have chosen to migrate. What we notice is that there is a link between migration, human trafficking and smuggling. They are related in many ways because in the migration process itself, trafficking and smuggling occurs. According to UNIFEM, the vulnerabilities of groups of people who migrate to meet survival needs and those who are trafficked or smuggled are largely similar. However there are important differences between migration, trafficking and smuggling. Clarity on the links and differences between migration, human trafficking and smuggling enables action that promotes and protects women's human rights.[5] 

Often in the past we had spent our energy trying to get women off the street. We send them to rehabilitation centers or provided employment for them, only to discover some months later, that they had re-migrated. Why do women migrate despite the risks, hardships, discrimination, abuses and torture they experience abroad?

According to Radhika Coomaraswamy, the essentially novel feature of modern forms of trafficking is that women desire to migrate for many reasons and for this reason they become increasingly vulnerable to traffickers. This desire to migrate is often ignored in the traditional analyses of trafficking. Macro development policies followed by governments in pursuit of globalization may have led to unemployment and debt on the part of third world women. This in turn has led to women migration in large, numbers in search of survival. This search for survival is sometimes a nightmare as their vulnerability is exploited and abused by those who wish to profit from their profits or their labour. Ironically this search for survival often empowers some women. Households and communities become dependent on their earnings and even governments come to rely on their foreign currency remittances.[6]

But what a price some women have to pay. We had a case of a woman of the street. She was dying of AIDS. She was proud of herself because at least she had a house for her family to live in!!

In our desire to help women and stop migration and trafficking, we must not overlook their desire to migrate in order to improve their lives and the lives of their family members. Although we strongly desire to get them off the street, and end trafficking we still have to respect women's freedom of movement.

As Radhika Coomaraswamy says, if we ignore women's survival strategies, we will force them into an even more exploitative reality. For this reason conceptual clarity is absolutely essential before we discuss legislation and procedures for preventing trafficking.[7]

What we also need to seriously consider is the terrible situation at home which pushes them to migrate. How often I have heard the women of the street say that nothing worse than what they have already experienced at home could ever happen to them abroad!

For everyone concerned with immigration and refugee law, the truth is that many trafficked women are escaping conditions that are even worse than the reality they face as sex workers in a brothel. The nature of persecution and suffering they had to undergo before they voluntarily leave a country is often ignored in the literature on trafficking.[8]

Liberation of the women of the street therefore needs a multi-dimensional approach. I believe strongly in education and awareness building. Unless men and women are aware of the exploitative situation of women and unless men and women know their rights and obligations very little change can happen. Simply empowering the woman of the street will not be effective because she will return to a family or society where myths, cultural practices, laws, religious beliefs and practices continue to discriminate against women and children. The Convention on the Elimination of all Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) clearly defines “discrimination against women” as acts of distinction, exclusion or restriction made “on the basis of sex.” The document calls “States Parties to condemn discrimination against women in all its forms” and pursue “appropriate means and without  delay apolicy of eliminating discrimination against women.”[9]I belief that documents like this should be studied seriously inall religious formation institutes and preached whenever the opportunity arises. Families listening to this over andover again will be obligated to work to wards harmony and partnership, which will foster gender equality in thefamily and hopefully keep the women and girls off the street. This is avery effective pastoral method of helping the women of the street.

Michael Flood in his research paper Working with Men for Gender Equality notes that after the World Congress on Women in 1995 governments expressed their determination to encourage men to participate fully in all actions toward gendere quality especially with regards tomenÂ’sviolence against women, sexual and reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, fatherhood and families.

It is important to involve men inwork on gender equality because they are both part ofthe problem and part of the solution. Gender injustice will only cease when menjoin with women to put an end to it. In addition, men's own health and well being are limited by contemporary construction of manhood (Kauftran 2000: 1-3). Rather than seeing men only as obstacles to women's empowerment, it is also worth recognizing that some men already are playing a role in fostering gender equality. They are living already in gender just ways. They respect and carefor the women and girls in their lives and they reject traditional, sexist norms of manhood. Ultimately gender reform must serve both men and women's interest and both men and women must own this transformation.[10] 

Women are on the street both at home and abroad. Sending countries forget that they are also responsible for the damage done to their women. As Christians we not only have to push our governments but we also must find alternative employment for those who are forced and squeezed to work in dehumanizing situations. David Hollenbach tell sus that: “Itis the duty of the society [Church and individuals] according to the circumstances prevailing in it, and in keeping with its proper role, to help its citizens find opportunities for adequate employment.”[11]

Finallyt here is one important question we need to ask: Who are the customers? Why is there a demand always? From our experience we know that the customers are of both sexes, but up to the present moment, predominately men - who are incapable of having an equal sharing relationship. They are people who refuse to hear anything about themselves. Their notion of relationship is distorted. The discipline of areal relationship - of fidelity to one partner - of facing each others limitations and strong points is too threatening for them, and so they opt to live in a world of fantasy. They believe themselves to be “Do Gooders” since they have no intention of harming the other. Theyare actually helping the victim financially!

The condemnation of evil, ignorance and injustices are also part of the ministry of evangelization. The exploiters, traffickers, tourists, customers etc. who usually fall into the category of the few who have power and possessions, need education in the hierarchyof values and human rights in order to be true to their vocation as human beings, avocation which is both earthly and transcendent.[12]

As followers of Christ it is our duty to teach and spread the social doctrine ofthe Church.

I can stand here and talk about THE woman on the street. I can say this because there is THAT group which I do not belong to, but which I am called to help. However at our last General Chapter the challenge was loud and clear - we were called to Be Life Bearers WITH and for the Poor of Our World. So today as I stand here and speak - I am speaking not only on behalf of THAT woman on the street but ALL the other women and men who are on the street. Some of us are there because we choose to be in solidarity with the poor. There are others who are not there physically, but have worked tirelessly at local, national and international levels to liberate the woman on the street. Wherever we stand, what I feel we should never forget is to be ON THE ROAD closely following in the footsteps of our Divine Master Jesus our Good Shepherd - this is what I believe DISCIPLSHIP is all about.

[1]Michael Kaufman, Working with men and boys to challenge sexism and end men's violence,Prepared for the 1997 UNESCO experts group meeting Male Roles and Masculinities
[2] Women'sSpirituality Recourses for Christian Development Second Edition, edited byJoannWolskiConn (Paulist Press, New York Mahwah, N.J. 1996), p. 10.
[3] Women'sSpirituality Recourses for Christian Development Second Edition, edited byJoannWolskiConn (Paulist Press, New York Mahwah, N.J. 1996), p. 10.
[4]A. Nunuk P. Murniati(Catholic Feminist Theologian, Professor of Theology Faculty SanataDharmaUniversity, Indonesia and Coordinator of EATWOT) 2004.
[5]Empowering Women Migrant Workers in Asia, United Nations Development Fund for Women.
[6]Radhika Coomaraswamy, Violence against Women and Trafficking, paper presented at the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, 2004.
[7]Radhika Coomaraswamy, Violence against Women and Trafficking, paper presented at the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, 2004.
[8]Radhika Coomaraswamy, Violence against Women and Trafficking, paper presented at the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, 2004.
[9]Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (Article 1 and 2).
[10]Michael Flood, Workingwith Men for Gender Equality,paper presented at the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, 2004.
[11]David Hollenbach, Justice, Peace, and HumanRights, pp. 60-66. 
[12] SollicitudoReiSocialisArt. 41