Established in 1989, Ruhama is a Dublin-based NGO which works on a national level with women affected by prostitution and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation.
Ruhama (Hebrew for renewed life) regards prostitution as violence against women and violations of women's human rights. 'Prostitution and the accompanying evil of trafficking for prostitution, is incompatible with the dignity and worth of every human being' - UN Convention 1949.
We see prostitution and the social and cultural attitudes which sustain it as being deeply rooted in gender inequality and social marginalisation.
Ruhama works from a position of respect and uncritical acceptance of the women and seeks to actualise belief in their inner capacity to effect change in their own lives.
Origins and development
Ruhama was founded as a joint initiative of the Good Shepherd Sisters and Our Lady of Charity Sisters, both of which had a long history of involvement with marginalised women, including those involved in prostitution.
Initial Outreach Work:
Ruhama's initial street outreach service was based on the identification of women's needs for the opportunity to discuss their issues and problems with someone who could understand their situation and accept it uncritically, and from that perspective to offer advice and support.
The street outreach service, which still forms the basis of Ruhama's contact with women involved in prostitution, aims to build relationships with them, treating them with respect and dignity, nurturing their self-esteem and offering them the opportunity to engage more deeply with a process that could lead to the development of other options and life choices. Operating from a mobile unit ('the van') which visits red-light districts at night, the service offers women hot drinks, a friendly ear and a neutral safe environment in which to talk with Ruhama staff and volunteers.
The Growth and Development of Ruhama:
From these modest beginnings Ruhama has grown into an organisation with 14 staff, over 30 volunteers and a range of services.
As well as the outreach service, Ruhama offers an in-depth casework service and a range of development programmes which help women exit prostitution.
Our work has evolved over the years, with many of the women we initially worked with exiting prostitution. We continue to offer long term aftercare support to women who have exited and help them reintegrate into mainstream society.
Our services now include support to women who are currently involved in prostitution; women with a history of prostitution; victims of the crime of sex trafficking and women at high risk of prostitution.
Allied to our direct services to women Ruhama has developed programmes aimed at raising awareness of the issues that keep them involved in prostitution and which limit their opportunities to move on. Ruhama staff respond to requests to speak to relevant organisations on issues related to prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation. Increasingly, Ruhama uses the media to highlight concerns about the growth in sex trafficking and the needs of women involved in the sex industry.
Ruhama also works to influence policy development in the area, networking with relevant Government Departments and agencies, lobbying for better services and seeking to influence the enactment of appropriate legislation, protocols and directives. In particular Ruhama has been very active in lobbying the Government for adequate legisation to address the issue of sex trafficking. After many years of lobbying, the Irish Government published the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Bill in October 2007. This Bill included a clear definition of human trafficking and tough penalties for the perpetrators of this crime. Some amendments were accepted by the Government during the legislative process and one ammendment which Ruhama welcomed was the criminalising of people who purchase sexual services from victims of sex trafficking. In June 2008 the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Bill was enacted and made human trafficking a crime for the first time in Ireland.
The changing context of the Irish sex trade and Ruhama's work
Ruhama's analysis of the situation regarding prostitution, the position of the women involved in it and other aspects of the sex industry has developed steadily over the years. We are aware that the context in which we operate is changing rapidly, demanding new responses from the organisation.
When Ruhama was set up, most women involved in prostitution were in street prostitution, often to cover additional expenses for particular events - Christmas, first communions etc. Generally from socially and financially deprived backgrounds, with low levels of education and little marketable skill, they had few employment opportunities. Many had been brought up in care, had weak family and social networks and few support mechanisms. Rarely younger than their early twenties, their substance abuse was generally limited to alcohol.
Over the last ten years the profile of women in street prostitution has changed significantly:
>some 95% of women in street prostitution are drug users; their drug of choice heroin or cocaine.
>the incidence of homelessness has increased sharply
>while the age range remains broad, the numbers of very young women involved in prostitution is increasing rapidly, with most living extremely chaotic lives without the support of their families or community networks.
Their vulnerability, isolation and powerlessness to take control of their lives are very apparent, and this is reflected in the level of support they need from Ruhama staff and volunteers.
The Indoor Sex Trade:
At the same time indoor prostitution and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation are growing. The lap dancing club industry, massage parlours and escort agencies are some of the areas which have grown during the last decade.
The trafficking of women and children has thrived in the indoor sector of the sex trade - 99% of all the suspected victims of trafficking assisted by Ruhama were based in off-street prostitution.
Traditionally indoor prostitution has been regarded as more glamorous and acceptable than street work, not least because alcohol and other substance abuse are not tolerated. The portrayal of indoor prostitution as a form of 'work' and using 'escort' or 'agency' to describe its business adds an air of normality.
However Ruhama's experience, suggests, that women involved in indoor prostitution experience more psychological problems and are in some ways more damaged by the process than those who work on the streets.
There is the added danger in the indoor sex trade that Ireland's indoor sex trade has become predominantly organised and controlled by organized criminal gangs, some of which are Irish and others are foreign.
Ruhama Responds to the Issue of Choice:
Ruhama has come to understand that engaging in prostitution is rarely a freely-entered choice. Most women involved in prostitution have backgrounds of abuse, extremely low self-esteem and few, if any, other survival options. These constraints limit the women's capacity to identify alternative income generation opportunities.
Drug addiction is both a cause and a consequence of prostitution, as many women resort to prostitution to feed their habit, while others use drugs to numb them in order to carry out their work.
None of the women known to Ruhama, including those who claim that their involvement in prostitution is voluntary, wants their daughters to earn their living in this way.
Through Ruhama's exiting programmes of education, training, job skills and a range of therapies we continue to open options for women where they can make real choices.
The Growth in the Irish Sex Trade:
Overall the sex industry has grown exponentially in recent years. Pornographic materials are widely available through a range of media. Tolerance of the sexual exploitation of women is evidenced by the spread of lap-dancing clubs to all parts of the country, and in the entertainment and advertising industries in general.
Human Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation:
In addition, human trafficking for sexual exploitation is growing. Ruhama made its first contact with a woman who was a victim of sex trafficking in 2000. Over the past decade Ireland has become both a transit route and a destination point for sex trafficking.
The number of women involved is unknown, due to the secretive and highly organised nature of this business, but it is clear that Ireland is included in an international crime web which extends across Eastern Europe, South America and Africa. Most tend to be young women from impoverished backgrounds who are sometimes abducted, but more usually duped, into undertaking the dangerous and illegal journey to Ireland. Often their traffickers are partners or members of their wider family.
Ruhama's view is that trafficking for sexual exploitation is a contemporary form of slavery, with a distinctly gendered bias. As with all illegal activities it is well hidden, with the women held in brothels or private premises. They are moved frequently to prevent them from making any meaningful contact with outsiders, which might result in disclosure of their circumstances. To maintain control of their victims the traffickers use systematic violence and threats to their families and personal security.
In addition, young migrant women who fail to find jobs or secure asylum or legal status are vulnerable to the exploitative overtures of brothel keepers or club owners, who promise lucrative contracts and the possibility of a work permit. Desperate to stay and with no other survival strategies open to them they accept such offers in the belief that they will be short-term, financially rewarding and provide a kind of bridge to eventual legalisation in the country.
The Emergence of the Lap Dancing Club Industry and Modern Technology's Influence on the Sex Trade:
Lap-dancing clubs are staffed almost exclusively by non Irish women and there has been clear evidence in Ireland of their close links with prostitution. The lap dancing club industry is responding to the growing trend of normalising and desensitising sexual exploitation, seeing it instead as harmless fun and an acceptable form of entertainment.
Access to technology has brought changes to the way in which prostitution is organised, there has been a proliferation of web sites set up by escort agencies. Mobile phones and the Internet has enhanced the ability to operate in secret. But for many women it has increased their isolation.
The Challenge of Access to Services for the Women in the Sex Trade:
For Ruhama the change in the context of the Irish sex trade has meant a reduction in opportunities to make direct contact with women through street outreach work, and has highlighted the need to continue developing other forms of creating contacts. Our multilingual contact pages on our web site is one way of trying to reach out to this new cohort of women affected by prostitution in Ireland. Considering the majority of women in the Irish sex trade are non Irish nationals; with many of them not even able to speak English, it is crucial we find new ways to let them know what supports and help is available to them.