Working with Women in Forced Prostitution Do we need to Convert them, Care for them or Give to them? Jan. 18, 2005 Bill Prevette – sent to Haddon and Hilary Willmer



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Working with Women in Forced Prostitution

Do we need to Convert them, Care for them or Give to them?
Jan. 18, 2005

Bill Prevette – sent to Haddon and Hilary Willmer
The following essay was written after interaction last week with Iana Mattai (director of Reaching Out Romania) concerning her approach and the legitimacy of “allowing spiritual space” to girls that have been rescued from forced prostitution in Romania.
Reaching Out Romania is a ministry that directly assists young women that have been involved in human trafficking and forced prostitution. Iana is an NGO trainer, advocate, networker; she operates and maintains a home for up to 16 women in Pitesti, Romania. I have had several interviews with Iana and visited her centre for women. Recently we engaged in a very interesting conversation concerning her spiritual approach with the women in her care; she does not believe that she should pressure these women to convert in a traditional evangelical sense (i.e. get them to confess Christ and become believers). In taking this approach she has come under severe criticism from local pastors and churches.
Iana was raised in an Orthodox family and grew up as a typical Romanian teenager under the Ceausescu regime. She considered herself a good ‘Orthodox Romanian’ i.e. religion had little meaning for her other than the usual festivals associated with Easter, Christmas, baptisms, weddings and funerals but she was baptised as a child in the Orthodox church. During the Revolution in 1989, she was in Bucharest and was caught up with the huge crowd of the people that had been forced to come to the central plaza to hear Ceausescu speak on the morning of Dec. 22nd. It was to be the dictator’s last public rally as fighting broke out in the plaza and in three days Ceausescu and his wife were executed.
Shortly after the revolution, Iana found herself with a group of young women in a refugee centre in Serbia, many Romanian women and girls were attempting to get passage out of Romania and find jobs in the West. While in the centre, she remembers that there were some of ‘these crazy and religious repented ones (Pocaita)’ that were sharing their quarters with her and friends. As a Romanian Orthodox, Iana had been taught to avoid these ‘sectants’ (evangelicals) because they were said to be dangerous members of cults. The reputation of the Pocaiti was that they were always trying to convert and ‘save’ others. Iana and her girl friends made a point to avoid these religious fanatics in the refugee centre. However, one of these evangelicals made no attempt to convert Iana, but she was unusually kind and made every attempt to help Iana with adjusting to life in the refugee camp. Over time their friendship deepened and Iana eventually asked the young evangelical lady some questions about her faith, her prayer life and why she was a Pocaita? After many opportunities for conversation and patient answers to her many questions, Iana decided for herself to become a follower of Jesus Christ in this new way.
Several years passed in Iana’s life, she did not return to Romania eventually immigrating to Australia where she was married and had one son. In Australia her faith as a Christian grew and she became part of a Pentecostal church, began to study the Bible for herself and became involved with the ministries of a local church. Iana began to work with troubled young people in Sydney, although she had no formal training in social work, she found that she had a deep interest in helping children from broken homes and that were at risk from drugs and alcohol.
In 1998, her church took a team of people to Romania and Iana sensed that this was something that God wanted her to do. She had no idea that this trip would change the course of her life. Like so many Western missionary teams visiting Romania in the 1990’s, Iana’s church group came to assist children that were living in Romanian orphanages. While working at the orphanage, a call came from the Romanian Child Protection Services office to the director of the children’s home asking him to come and collect several young women from the local police station. Since Iana spoke Romanian, she was asked to accompany the director of the orphanage to the station. The young women in custody had run away from a local brothel in their city and the women were afraid that the pimps that controlled their lives would come and take them back to the brothel. Iana and the director of the orphanage agreed to take the girls out of the police station but the director said the children’s home was not prepared to provide for ‘these kinds of girls in the long term.’ Iana began to talk to the local NGOs, churches and other agencies that were working with children, orphans, street kids but she found no one that was willing to become involved with women that had been involved in forced prostitution. She began her ministry to the victims of prostitution in Romania the next week by finding a small apartment provide a temporary home for the girls. Iana admits today that she had no understanding of the trafficking situation in her own country and had she not been introduced to these girls at the police station she probably would have gone back to Australia -- none the wiser.
After deciding to stay in Romania to work with these and others that were being forced in prostitution, Iana learned that the issue was not being discussed openly by social services, Child Protection, the NGOs and least of all in the Romanian evangelical churches. After making herself known to several officials in Bucharest, in 1999 she was invited to participate in a training conference organized as a joint venture between the Romanian government, US AID, the FBI. Shortly thereafter the Romanian Ministry of Health and Social Services began writing laws concerning anti-trafficking. Over the next couple of years, because Iana was one of the few Romanian women with expertise in lending assistance and practical help to restore the lives of women subjected to trafficking, she was invited to speak at numerous conferences on trafficking issues and learned that the laws were not addressing the specific needs of the women that were victims. Many of the policy makers wanted to crack down on trafficking by prosecuting the perpetrators but Iana felt that much more direct assistance should be focused on the girls that were actually being trafficked. For this reason she began to concentrate her energy on the women in her care. With the help of USAID and some sources from Western Europe she has been established a permanent home for 16 women and girls. The women at her centre are in full time residence, are given shelter from brothel owners, are able to acquire some working skills in their own sewing and fabric shop and most importantly for Iana they are given a place to restore their dignity and a chance to rebuild their lives.
I spoke to Iana about her philosophy of restoring dignity to these women, I wanted to understand what role faith has in her interaction with the victims of forced prostitution. Iana is comfortable with the language of faith and evangelicalism – she acknowledges that the girls are caught in an emotional, psychological and spiritual recovery process. She acknowledges sin, spiritual warfare, institutional evil as all having part in the brokenness of the women’s life. In her spiritual life, prayer and bible reading are very important disciplines. She acknowledges that her personal faith sustains her in many difficult moments in working with the needs of the women in her care. Also, Iana feels that faith helps her to persevere and continue in her work in what appears to be an escalating problem in Romanian and throughout the Balkans.
A recent report was presented by Helga Konad, of the EU-led Balkan Stability Pact Task Force on Trafficking in Human Beings to the Vienna based Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The report said that traffickers are moving deeper underground despite increasing regional and international efforts to combat this type of crime. The document also issues a caution on the rise of trafficking in children in the region. Konrad said, "As you can see in the report, the problem is huge everywhere. But most of the victims in South-eastern Europe are coming from four countries. These countries are Albania, Moldova, Romania, and Bulgaria”. Widespread poverty in the region remains the main cause of human trafficking; most victims are women and girls. Some are kidnapped outright, but most are lured by false promises of jobs abroad as waitresses, dancers, or babysitters, but are then forced into prostitution by means of threats, beatings, and even torture. Many times they are kept hostage in houses or brothels without any documents. (From paper presented at conference hosted by Association of Albanian Girls and Women see www.aagw.org )
However, as Iana discussed the use of faith as a methodology in working with the women in the centre, her language changes. She does not feel that she should put pressure on these women to accept a specific spiritual position. She does invite pastors and others to visit the centre and share the bible with the women. This has been done on a regular basis but conflicts have arisen with local churches and pastors. One pastor told her that what the girls needed most of all was to ‘be saved’ and that he would not continue to visit the centre unless an opportunity was given to the girls to ‘receive Jesus as their personal savoir.’ Iana tried to explain that she did not believe this was not in the best interest of the girls since so much of their trauma had been brought on by those wishing to force decisions on them. Also, Iana has had several teams of evangelical interns (both Romanian and western) visit her project, she feels that many of these interns lack understanding of the issues facing the women at the centre. She notes that often the young volunteers from the churches will want the women to retell their stories and does not see how this is helping the women in recovery. “What is to be gained or accomplished in asking my girls to retell these stories, don’t the people from the church understand that telling a testimony like this is damaging to the soul of someone recovering from prostitution”.
Unfortunately in Romania, the typical evangelical church or believer has had very little experience in dealing with anyone recovering from trafficking. The prescribed cure is usually to receive Christ and then to testify to that effect. The next step is to join the local church and then become a member, in due time all your problems should be solved, at least if one is living ‘completely’ for the Lord.

Iana has not been trained in formal theology or in child development. She is however a deeply engaged practitioner and has had some theoretical training in psychology and the social sciences. She has implemented an important spiritual principle in restoring dignity to the women in her care. She understands that every woman and girl that comes to her for assistance already has faced great personal stigma for being involved with prostitution, their social standing has been denigrated and in many cases the girls cannot go back to their birth families. She recognizes in Romania the idea of converting from Romanian Orthodoxy to becoming ‘a Pocaiti or a repented one’ carries and additional social stigma. The objective of her program is to help the girls recover as human beings and Iana understands that these women have lost more than their self esteem. She prefers to introduce spiritual matters to the girls in as natural a way as possible, there are times that they experience nightmares, debilitating fear or intense anger. Instead of creating a ‘spiritual hothouse’ environment where spirituality is imposed on the women on a regular basis (as is common in many evangelical social rehabilitation programs), Iana has chosen a less intrusive form of spiritual intervention. She will pray with the girls or share the scriptures with them but always chooses to introduce spiritual care at the point of need or if spiritual help is sought out by the victim.




Some Theoretical Reflection
As Iana was talking to me about her spiritual approach with the girls she said that she felt she was right in her method but continued to receive criticism from pastors and evangelical friends that she was wrong in not giving these girls the chance to repent. At this point in our conversation I shared with Iana some of the insights I have learned in my research concerning spirituality and children and have sourced those thoughts here.
First, as Christians we assume that spirituality is a normative human phenomena – spirituality is not an accomplishment or an act of religion it is a central human quality.
Secondly, many researchers now theorize that children and youth can and do have spiritual experiences, insights and knowledge without the intervention or assistance of adults, church or (heaven forbid) pastors. These theories are supported by research on children’s lives from Edward Robinson and James Fowler in the 1970s to Robert Coles (1991), David Hay and Rebecca Nye (1998), and Tobin Hart (2003). Theories like Hay and Nye’s “relational consciousness” and Hart’s five capacities are built on their studies of and accounts of children’s lives. These scholars recognize that children and youth have spiritual experiences that are significant in the immediate and long term.
Thirdly, and most importantly I think for the pragmatic and very interventionist evangelical care givers is this: spiritual experiences can occur outside the structures and training of organized religion or they may be filtered through the lens of the religion of a child’s family and culture. We need to remind ourselves and those that we seek to help that spiritual experiences can include a deep sense of transcendence through experiences of light or nature (Hart, 2003; Robinson, 1983; & Scott, 2004) or troubling dreams or visionary encounters (Coles, 1991; Hart, 2003; Scott, 2004), experiences of altruism and kindness or compassion (Coles, 1991; Hart, 2003), commitment to another, forgiveness, and so forth. Children and youth who have these kinds of experiences may not have religious vocabularies to express or articulate their encounters with mystery or the numinous: that which is beyond themselves. As Hay and Nye (1998) note, in order to speak of their experiences they rely on the religious vocabulary provided by their cultures.
It is my observation that many evangelical programs working with wounded youth and children are in much too big a rush to give those in our care the right religious vocabulary and to teach them the right religious formulas for knowing the transcendent. Our chosen method is that we want children and youth to accept Christ and then learn the languages of our particular creed or denomination. We don’t take the time to recognize that God himself is working with children and youth in ways that He best understands and when we insist that the children in trauma receive the message the way we want them to have it – we may be damaging their long term recovery.
In a study of group homes, Anglin (2002) identified “congruence” as a central element of successful care for children and youth and noted that: “Responding to pain and pain-based behaviour is the primary challenge at the level of the care work staff” (p. 55). A “faith-based” organization that operates programs may have an humane and spiritual intent, but how it carries out that intention at more than just the mission level can be evaluated and examined. In Anglin’s study it is clear that the institutions that worked best had a singular higher purpose: putting the well-being of the child first and organizing administration and procedures toward that end.
When faith based organizations have hidden agendas in their programmatic interventions, such as religious agendas these can be easily perceived by children in crisis. All children have an intense early warning awareness that is developed for their self-protection. “Any hidden agendas or interventions may be counter productive for the children, their families, and the institution. This includes the danger of a secondary religious aim to proselytize, which can fragment and divert efforts toward the best interests of the children or families.” (Anglin, 2002)
What Gifts do we offer?
What can be learned from Iana’s approach to helping girls that are recovering from the trauma of forced prostitution? Is the objective of a faith based program to convert these girls or does faith based care point us to something deeper?
“…the gift remains outside, external to, the economy of production and consumption, distribution and exchange. Indeed, the gift remains radically transcendent to the determinations of reciprocity within the economy of goods and services; and insofar as it does impinge upon and interact with this economy…” (Schragg, 1997, p. 140)
When we speak of understanding spirituality in the recovery of children and youth at risk and especially with women that have been forced into prostitution I find it helpful to recognize the two spheres inferred by Schragg: one which is immanent in what he calls the “the economy of production and exchange” and the other which is transcendent seen in he metaphor of gift giving.
There are many faith based programs which operate from the perspective of ‘economy of production and exchange’ i.e. the goals for young people (behaviour change, spiritual development, social skills) are treated as a type of production. The program director, staff and caregivers input certain interventions and skills with the expectation of outcomes and a ‘product’. In this sort of program, the assumptions are also that the girls in recovery will input something – their own effort and participation, their goals, their practices at social skills, their work on resolving life issues – all of which help produce an outcome acceptable to program staff. In this sort of program most of the interventions, relationships and inputs identify some outcome variable against which the effectiveness of the program can be measured. The question can (or should) be raised that by setting measurable outcomes do we run the risk of undermining the ethical and spiritual commitment to these young women because the program operates at an immanent level of exchange and production.
Imagine a young woman newly admitted to a more typical evangelical woman’s shelter. From her point of view she is here for a painful number of reasons: she is a victim of abuse and forced prostitution, she carries the stigma and pain of the experience of sexual embarrassment; possibly she started out seeking a better job or opportunity only to be betrayed by the men who took advantage of her innocence. She can not return to her family or village, she may want to start her own family but be so damaged physically that this is now impossible. By coming to the shelter, she is removed from the fear and chaos of the life of the brothel and feels some relief but is unsure what this new ‘home’ holds for her. Imagine as well, that this is the typical ‘hothouse” evangelical recovery program. Now this abused girl is watched, programmed and monitored by a diligent staff, they have many interventions designed to change (heal?) her and they desire to bring her into some compliance with a new religious order for her life. There will be other girls in the program as well, all will be watching to see how she handles the new environment, not all of them will be supportive, some will be intent on making her life in the home competitive and challenging. Imagine this young lady being given a long list of behavioural expectations and responsibilities and at the same time being given a new religious and technical vocabulary. She recognizes that she has landed in a foreign culture, she recognizes that there are rules and an agenda to this new place and as long as she does what they want she will be rewarded in some way, even if the new agenda is not her own or to her liking. She also recognizes that if she does not respond to the new agenda she might be punished or that certain benefits of the program will be withdrawn.
In recovery programs such as this one, it is usually not acceptable for the victim to express her anger, pain or outrage even if she knew socially acceptable ways of doing so. This is due in large part to the religious conviction of evangelicals that ‘God takes away all pain and if we are faithful to confess our sin to the Lord he will heal us’. Of course, the caregivers in this sort of program want the best for the girls in their care but their evangelical faith often has a much stronger understanding of resurrection (healing) than of the cross and its metaphors of death and burial. Many evangelical recovery programs encourage the beneficiary to move quickly past the suffering and pain to make way for healing and life that is found in Christ. The situation for this young woman might rapidly improve if she learns that the staff and caregivers do care for her, she might fell more secure and connected as time goes on, but she will know that the are severe consequences for acting out on pain and grief. There is something subtle happening in this sort of program, the young woman knows that people want something from her – this is expressed in the program language, interventions and ongoing instructions from the care givers. She is rewarding for improving and compiling to stated program goals and she is punished or re-educated for failure. The staff and leaders in this sort of program expect to see measurable results and change and most importantly they desire for the young woman in their care to begin following Christ as her personal savoir.
Unfortunately, this is not abstract exercise; this is typical of many faith based programs that I have seen that have been set up for youth at risk by evangelicals. I have personal experience growing up in a Methodist Children’s Home and years of observation as a missionary that leads me to this conclusion. When the young lady in this illustration has trouble or causes problems in the program, affection can be withdrawn, she can be removed from the program or threats can be used to bring her into compliance. What has been described is a very behaviouristic approach – typical of faith based programs which intend to shape both behaviour and belief of the beneficiaries. To the extent that the young woman cooperates she will be rewarded with relationships, privileges, freedoms and hopefully graduation from the program. In such programs the relationships with young people are contractual, should one of the parties break the contract the relationship is over. The contract is dependent on terms and conditions; it can be terminated by either party.
In my own experiences working with at risk youth I have heard some young people tell staff that the kids really don’t think they are that important. “You only care about my behaviour – you don’t really care about me.” Iana shared with me one of the comments from one of the girls living in her centre, this young lady had come to Iana after leaving a government treatment program where she described the program as being like prostitution: “Getting paid (with benefits) for doing what the customer wants.”
From a spiritual point of view, the pain and difficulties of a young lady entering a residential care program, have to do with her exploitation, violations of her dignity, inadequate love, hatred, transgression, irresponsibility, resentment, anger, fear, despair – this young lady in the illustration has been violated physically, sexually, morally and emotionally. Young women like this have been manipulated treated as a means for the gratification of an adult’s pleasure, security and emotional needs. This is indeed an ultimate violation – a spiritual violation, which operates through the physical, moral, and emotional expressions of her life.
What is needed to address these problems from a spiritual point of view is to practice a radical kind of giving love and kindness – gift giving. This is a generosity of love toward this young woman that does not expect a return on the investment not the fulfilment or satisfaction of an adult’s needs, or a response to adult power. This is the kind of love described by Paul in 1Cor. 13. Indeed it the love that originates in the heart of God and comes to us in human for in the person of Jesus Christ. It is the only kind of kind of love that can brings ultimate healing and opens up the possibility of transcending the brokenness and wounded ness that sexual exploitation leaves in the heart of the victim. This kind of love is a giving that operates outside the language of production and exchange – it does not ask for a return on the investment and it does not possess the recipient of the gift. Care giving and the gift of affection are not contingent on behaviour or making a certain religious set of statements. Clearly effective programs with at risk youth and those that have been trafficked in sexual exploitation must have boundaries and expectations for the recipients of the program. But if those programs have been set up to address spiritual needs then we are called to think about how best to meet the spiritual needs of those that come to us for help.

The young women that come to Iana Mattai certainly need care and commitment: they are familiar with being used by others and are very familiar with their own pain and the language of production and exchange. What they need is a kindness and love that is extended to them regardless if they express appreciation or not, whether they act in a certain religious way or not.


As we finished our meeting, I told Iana that I had learned a few things in searching the literature and that my research led me to believe that she was indeed following the right approach with the women in her care. These women coming out of prostitution had learned to expect others to respond to them in patterned and scripted ways. In fact these women had learned to survive in a world I do not know if I could. They had mastered ways of invoking certain response patterns in their pimps and the men that had taken advantage of them.
I told Iana that I thought the best thing she and her staff can do for these women would be to bypass these normal expectations (‘you want something from me – I will figure it out and give it to you’) bypass these expectations of abuse and commercial exchange and give these women something they have not had before, give them the gift of love and grace.
I also heard myself saying I did not think she should try and convert these girls by getting them to become Pocaita but just keep giving them the love they deserved and God wanted them to have.
I guess I am the now the one who might be criticized as not very Evangelical?


Comments by HW


  1. This is a very useful paper, based on very heartening story.

  2. I agree with the overall argument.

  3. But I wonder whether it fails to be holistic, especially in drawing upon the very questionable contemporary theorising about spirituality. There could be clearer thought about the nature and value of religious vocabulary and shaping of life

  4. It contains a great critique of so much christian practice – production and return principle, and contrasts it with free giving of love. This is extremely well done and very important

  5. There is a failure of theology at the heart of this paper: is that because you want to be tactful and not pull your punches? First, the pocaiti view of faith etc, which is well described and criticised, could be identified as a kind of magic – and a faith in magic always breeds irrational, unthinking practice, and insensitivity and impatience with human being. But as other parts of your argument show, this is to misrepresent the gospel and christian faith. The pocaiti may be right to an extent – they may have the root of the matter in them – as Iana’s story shows, it was on such person who lived this faith in Christ non-magically who brought her to faith – but when it is explained and exploited in the particular way the pastors follow, it merits all this criticism and distancing. Theological criticism should not be expressed at the level of groups and positions as wholes, but rather should home in to particular points where something is clearly wrong, or strategic for improvement. The pocaiti and the pastors may not be put under a general blanket of condemnation, but we can speak precisely about the points where things go wrong. You have uncovered one such point – but now it needs to be developed as an Evangelical theological criticism.


And on the positive side, your exposition of the way of the gift should not lead you to suggest that you might be criticised for not being very evangelical - If they make that criticism, they are not being very Evangelical. Here there is an important struggle about what the Gospel, the Evangel, is.
It is part of the Evangelical history from its eighteenth century beginnings, if not earlier, that it is a movement generated by the tension between the evangel and our christianity, even when it is called Evangelicalism. Most Evangelical leaders etc are sure that what they teach is simply the Evangel, and the movement is often based on the uncritical confidence of leaders in themselves bolstered in various ways, by organisations and adulation of congregations etc. It is always difficult to raise the question within Evangelicalism, about whether it is true to the Evangel, and mostly the movement likes to think that it is only people outside who are untrue to it, but the questions – what is the Evangel? Are we true to it? have been constitutive of the dynamic of the movement always.
So your proposal should be seen as part of that questioning, and so needs to be understood as theology, as search for the Evangel and being true to it.


Of course what it requires of Evangelicals is that they open themselves to rethinking the faith they think they possess and are experts in – (Rom 2?) and that is very hard for pastors who expect to be heard and obeyed without question. But that of course is a theological mistake, about the possibilities of human knowledge, infallibility, Spiritual illumination authority etc – all of which come to light in the church. S

So you must not even for tact’s sake, concede either theology or being Evangelical. Rather we need to work along these lines to restate Evangelical faith and practice, so that our practice is more human, less magical, and our giving is a more faithful reflection of the generosity of God, which is the base of the Evangel




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