Breaking the Cycle of Violence
by Sister Kathleen Coll, SSJ
The month of October is a favorite one of mine. Usually, the weather here in the mid-Atlantic is mild with cool evenings. The burst of color surrounding us is amazing! Everywhere you look the trees adorn themselves with beautiful shades of red, orange, brown and yellow. Under the canopy of this beauty exists the reality of what one human being can do to exploit another in order to enrich themselves.
One means of the exploitation is commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) or sex trafficking. It is a serious form of modern day slavery that does not discriminate based on age, class or race. Along with labor trafficking, sex trafficking happens to children, women and men. Pope Francis said, “It is not possible to be indifferent before the knowledge that human beings are bought and sold.” He calls it “a global economic system dominated by profit.” The Pope strongly condemns this new form of slavery urging people of all religions and cultures to denounce and combat it.
As director of Dawn’s Place, a house for women victims of CSE or sex trafficking, I see them struggle daily to heal from the trauma caused by the extreme poverty, neglect and abuse they have experienced. As young children, none of the women ever thought they would grow up to be drug addicts and victims of prostitution. Their stories vary but most share the same experience of being sexually abused as children with no adult in their lives willing to help. As soon as they can, they run away to escape the abusive situation. They are not long on the streets when they are picked up by man who promises to take care of them. After a little while of “caring for them,” or romancing them, their “boyfriend” sends them out to make money for him by coercing them to sell themselves over and over. If they try to escape, threats of or actual beatings become a reality for them. I remember a woman telling me that the man she thought of as her “boyfriend” after a few weeks, put a gun to her head and told her what she had to do. Many times, their pimp or “trafficker” addicts them to drugs as a means of control if they are not already addicted and are frequently sold by their pimps to other pimps. The women become a commodity to be bought and sold in a society which criminalizes them for being victims of prostitution. Does it sound familiar? Yes, it is modern day slavery, it happens to American women and it happens every day just under our noses!
By the time, the women come to Dawn’s Place, they are convinced that they are what society calls them. They have been incarcerated and carry with them criminal records. Their human dignity has been stripped from them and they have no voice. They speak of going down a path of destruction and depression with long years of abuse and mistreating themselves. One woman expressed it this way, “I was lost for so many years, feeling like I was destined for a life of drugs, abuse and self-loath. I just accepted that I deserved that way of life. Now, I’m a survivor of abuse and sex trafficking. I’m proud of me and how far I have come.”
Another woman who graduated from our program, tells of running away from her family because of he addiction that led her to being prostituted – she knew no other way to survive. She lived for years on the streets or in abandoned buildings, controlled by a pimp. She then was sold to a man who beat her so badly she was in intensive care for three months. After being hospitalized, she was determined to work a program and get clean. To get help for the next step on her journey off the streets, she was referred to Dawn’s Place. She has a job now and an apartment with a future and is earning her own way.
Our desire for every woman who comes to Dawn’s Place is that she will find the courage to break the cycle of violence, recover from trauma, reclaim her dignity and go on to live as a healed, independent and productive member of society. Do we succeed with every woman who comes to Dawn’s Place – no, but we try!