25 October 2013

Prostitution and human trafficking (4)

An unexpected comment on my last post about prostitution and human trafficking helped me see that I hadn't expressed myself on this subject as clearly or as fully as I had wanted to. That is perhaps not so surprising. It is hard to communicate well the evil of human trafficking while also proclaiming the value of the women working in prostitution. Mixed in with that is my own sadness about the reality of prostitution - about the assumptions we as a society have made about sex and prostitution - and an even deeper sadness that people have been pushed into prostitution, some more forcefully than others.

Human (sex) trafficking is most simply defined as participating in exploiting another person through (threat of) force, fraud, deception, or abduction (see wikipedia). The trafficker usually makes a lot of money doing so, but can also participate in trafficking in order to receive special services or gain power.

There are those working in prostitution who have been trafficked, even in a place as highly regulated as the Red Light District in Amsterdam. No one knows the numbers: they range from a few women to 90 percent of them. People can't even agree on what it means to have been forced. Because of this, it often becomes an all or nothing conversation: prostitution is pretty much the same as human trafficking, or prostitution is only incidentally related to human trafficking. I reject both views because they do not take seriously either the evil of human trafficking or the messiness of prostitution.

If you equate prostitution with human trafficking, you run into problems whenever any prostitutes claim that they are doing this out of their own free will. Either you have to believe these prostitutes are all lying or you run the risk of thinking that human trafficking can't be really as bad as people make it out to be. Thinking that prostitution has nothing to do with human trafficking makes you ignore the reality that prostitution is one of the most ideal forms of trafficking: there's money to be made as a woman can be "sold" over and over again, those renting the windows can make a lot of money and thus can potentially be influenced (and a woman forced into prostitution is ideal in that she's not going to cause difficulties about whether she gets receipts for the rent or enough days off), people look down on prostitutes, and prostitution is private (so the clients can often get away with doing harm to the women). Add to this that it's very difficult to prove human trafficking, partly because of the risks and traumas involved in testifying. And the punishment in the Netherlands is still shockingly low.

In light of this, I pray and hope that (legalised) prostitution stops being such an ideal breeding ground for human trafficking. The best way I know how to help is to pray. I am also thankful for the work of the many organisations who do their best to encourage and support the women behind the windows here in Amsterdam (e.g., the vrouwenpastoraat of the Salvation Army). Alongside of this I want to raise questions about how prostitution, as it is now set up, makes the women more likely to be taken advantage of by others. I hope and pray that others will join me in asking about questions of justice and praying for the women involved in prostitution, especially those who feel helpless and/or have been trafficked.

24 October 2013

The future of the CRC

Not so long ago, I sat around the table with a bunch of people involved in a Christian Reformed Campus ministry. Much to my delight, we started talking about matters of faith. I discovered that one was searching for community back home, another met God in music, still another wasn't so sure what to say about his faith, another had a history of addiction, another was passionate about having others get to know the hope and strength he had found in God, still another mentioned how faith had changed from being a duty to something more vibrant and living.

Several of these group had not grown up connected to any kind of church. None of them had grown up in the CRC nor had they been looking for the Christian Reformed Church. Yet somehow (even through some of those funny God coincidences like mis-hearing the name of the church), they ended up as part of a Christian Reformed Campus ministry. Someone joked that this unexpected community was the future of the CRC. And that made me smile - because I believe the CRC would do well if these fascinating, intelligent and enthusiastic group are part of her future. It'd be good if some 'old', grown-up-in-the-church types also were part of it, too. I hope that the CRC is a place where these people - new folk and old - can feel at home and continue to flourish.

23 October 2013

Ode to my bike

Although I have had more than enough things to write about, I haven't had enough time to sort them all out and wite about them. Hopefully I'll be able to do that soon, including sharing a few thoughts about the last 2 weeks which I spent with Matthijs in North America.

Until then, however, I direct you to a recent (fun) article I wrote for catapult magazine.

Ode to my bike

Seven years ago I bought my first real bike. It’s not that I’d never had one before; it’s just that this one was different. It was an oma bike, the 100-euro, black, banged-up version that one should ride wearing a skirt and heels. It was love at first sight. Or almost. It was love after I managed to figure out how not to fall off when I braked (back-peddling!).

To read the rest (don't worry - it's short!), I encourage you to go to catapult's own website.

Special thanks to my friend Kristin who took the picture of me biking during a visit to a nature preserve.

14 October 2013

Neighbours keeping an eye on me

The other evening when I left the house rather late, one of the neighbours chided me that I shouldn't be gone long. Not so long before that, one of the neighbours saw me coming back early Sunday evening and wondered where I'd been. I hadn't been out with another man, had I? I laughed and said I was actually in church. And just the other day, there was a group of people forming in front of my house around a small child, concerned about where his mother was (his father came walking down the street as I arrived).

I'm not entirely sure if I like nosy neighbours, but at the same time, I've appreciated this social control from my neighbours. I like people who get involved when things seem to be wrong. I like having people who can tease me or make jokes about whether I'm behaving as we think I should. It shows an interest in me and an appreciation of our being neighbours. And I think this awareness of each other and friendly joking is part of what I'd ideally see neighbours as being.

The surprising part of the story is, of course, my neighbourhood. I have odd neighbours. The question about my being out late was from one of the homeless guys who hangs out beside my house. The question about being out with a guy was from the prostitute a few doors down. The group around the small child were young tourists. All of these are from groups that most of us expect to be very much not concerned about those who live here. Yet, somehow these groups of people - people who don't even live here and who frustrate or annoy many residents - have been the ones teaching me what it means to be a good neighbour.

12 October 2013

Human trafficking, prostitution, and me (3)

There are a number of reasons that I am uncomfortable with equating prostitution with human trafficking

It seems to play with the numbers and understanding of "unwilling" and "being forced" so that anyone doing sex work is seen as a victim. Any woman who might argue that she is okay with what she does, even might enjoy certain aspects of it, and/or is willing to do this out of love/care for another is thus considered to be lying or too traumatized/indoctrined. We, those striving against human trafficking, know better than she does. And her voice and self is irrelevant except in as far as she can receive (and accept) help. I personally find this view simplistic of all the complicated aspects of prostitution. More so, it does not seem to value those in prostitution as being fully persons: imago Dei. 
Linking human trafficking with prostitution also feels like an argument used by well meaning Christians to convince non-Christians, who won't necessarily see prostitution as being against God's good order, to see prostitution as an evil - and thus to join us in fighting against it. I very much believe prostitution is not part of God's ideal, but then shouldn't we be fighting to make things better for the women now here instead of women we imagine are suffering?

Those who have met and talked to the women and who have listened at least some of their stories know that things are not simple. Human trafficking certainly happens, but it is often a strange mixture of bad choices, lack of a future, concern/care/love for others, cohersion and violence, poor regulations, and (country/land) corruption. Sin and evil play a significant role.

I have spent two years meeting bi-weekly with various prostitutes. None has ever told me she was being trafficked or pimped out, although a few have mentioned that they experienced it in the past. At the same time, I have lost count of how many have told me that have been mistreated by clients or those whom they rent their windows from. They feel unsafe - the rent they pay and the alarm bell are no guarantee for help when needed. And so, they are open to alternative means of more effective protection: in other words, a pimp might not be worse that what they know experience.

It seems easy to talk about how we want to stop human trafficking - after all, who wouldn't support that? Yet, it is much more difficult to talk about how we, as Christians, love the women as they now are and as they now experience the world, amidst all the difficulties of now. Amidst the pain of not making ends meet. Amidst not understanding all of the strange regulations (that are only found in Dutch) - and the poor treatment they receive when they try to understand things better, whether it be on account of language, nationality or profession. Amidst not having anyone to tell their story to of how a client tried to force them to have sex without a condom. No one to reinterpret their story to say that that was rape, even if the police won't file a report since "it's your job." Amidst the pain of feeling like they have so little choice - where else can they find somewhere else to make enough money to pay the rent and still send some home? And then, on top of that, not being seen or heard by those who claim to come help?

Perhaps there is also the difficulty of a pimp or trafficking in the midst of all those other pains and difficulties. However, until many of those other pains and worries - from the necessity of making enough to make ends meet and stay safe in the midst of this crazy world to simply being seen and appreciated as a worthwhile person - until these things are addressed, human trafficking is just a strange political word that has little more effect on these women's day-to-day reality than a cup of coffee brought by some well-meaning worker.

10 October 2013

A death gone relatively unnoticed

If a woman working as a prostitute tragically dies, it is likely related to the work that she does for a number of reasons. Perhaps it is a question of money - prostitutites are expected to make a lot and have a lot of cash available. Perhaps it is a crazy who finds it easier to harm those who are looked down in society and/or whom he considers to be less human. Perhaps it is a problem of relationship, whether that be a difficulty with a partner (something that overcomes many women whatever their work or situation) or an unhealthy relationship related to the work (e.g., pimp or traffickers). Sometimes the tragedy is continued in the lack of acknowledgement of her death, as if the media has judged that people are not interested in hearing about her - unless it makes a sensational story (cf. the death from a number of years ago).

Through a number of informal sources, I have heard that a woman from Bulgaria working in prostitution, passed away in a fire about 2 weeks ago. I had heard about it first through a blog from Van der Beer, a boyfriend of a prostitute: Brand! This was then later confirmed by someone doing outreach/rescue work for prostituties: Frits Rouvoet. Others from the Salvation Army vrouwenpastoraat had also heard about her death, including that she had died from smoke inhalation.

The woman who passed away was relatively young and from Bulgaria. Statistically speaking, both her age and, more so, her nationality are stronger indicators that she may have been a victim of human trafficking. Her tragic death also raises questions about how freely she had been here working. Rouvoet has assumed the worst; whereas Van der Beer argues that his girlfriend knows that she was there freely. I don't know; I assume I didn't know her. And even if I met her via the Salvation Army vrouwenpastoraat, it is hard to learn all the factors that led her to working behind the window. I expect the only thing we can say with certainty is that she had come to the Netherlands in the hope of a better life, and that hope has died with her.

It makes me sad that her life has ended so soon, and that her death has generally been ignored. On the one hand, I am thankful that her work has not been used to make a sensation from her death. However, it also seems that she, through a lack of acknowledgement, has been treated as less worthy of the respect that I believe we ought to give all persons, irrelevant of nationality or work.

update: Shortly after publishing this, the police provided a report about her death on 25 September, indicating that she was the victim of a crime for whom they have arrested someone. The article (in Dutch): http://www.politie.nl/nieuws/2013/oktober/10/05-overleden-vrouw-bij-brand-door-misdrijf-om-het-leven-gebracht-verdachte-aangehouden.html 

07 October 2013

Can one create community?

As part of an intentional community, it feels that I should be more of an expert on what community is. Yet, when I came, the community had already existed for 50 years. Community was thus a reality when I arrived and not something that I helped create. At the same time, I am part of the community now, and my participation shapes the experience of community. A phrase I learned in my first month here describes this well: Community is different because you are here.

I don't know if one can actually create community, despite the best efforts of many church leaders, student organisations, and family members. One can certainly harm community: gossip, lying, negativity all damage the trust, safety, peace, and joy that are a part of being a community with each other. Yet, can one actually create community? Or is it rather that one can merely make room for community to happen? 

A shared space, a listening ear, laughter and fun, rejoicing with those who rejoice, mourning with those who mourn, shared meals and worship - all of these are some of the ingredients for allowing community to happen. And there is hard work: fighting against the tendency to get caught up in our own worlds and with our own concerns. And it's hard to make space for people as they really are, especially those who are rather different. But at the same time, community doesn't need programs or an agenda. One of the greatest lessons I have learned about living in intentional community is how much sharing space and meals (and dishes) helps with growing to appreciate others and making room thus for a community to develop.

So one can make space for others, develop opportunities, and pray. By the grace of God, a sense of community will flourish. Chances are, however, that this community will not be exactly what we'd expected. How can it? Community is different with each person who is part of it. Shouldn't community be as full of surprises as the God who made all of these strange and unique people who are part of it?