In my book, they are heroines. Listening to survivors of sex trafficking tell their stories, often for the first time, is a privilege that I don’t take lightly. These beautiful women amaze me with their strength, their perseverance, and their determination to survive extreme injustice and exploitation. These women were prisoners of a war, but few recognize the battles and sacrifices they have made. When death might have looked like the easy way out, these women remembered loved ones and chose to endure. But shame has carved threats of disgrace on the walls of their hearts and the last thing in the world they want is for their families to find out. When these women are sent home, there will be no hero’s homecoming bands and no medals of honor. The scars they bear are too intimate to share. Fear has suffocated their voices so they suffer in silence. Their stories are not easily told, so when I get to look in their eyes and get to hear their stories in their own voice, I consider it a sacred privilege.
Janelle is very articulate. The bottled up tale of abuse, and exploitation is a deep and fermented well of crushed hopes and brutal betrayal. A family friend in Africa seduced her with promises of success through a job in Asia. Janelle arrived in Asia, excited for the new opportunity at hand. When she got to the apartment she was confused to see other women already there who were scantily dressed. She was then told there would be no jobs. She was to go out on the street and get men. Shocked, Janelle refused. She went down the street determined to find a job teaching English but she found none. She decided to go home but the agent had cancelled her return ticket. Now she owed the agent $5000 and had no money to eat, sleep, or support her family. After a couple weeks of resistance, Janelle felt trapped. Pressure was coming from every side and she was even threatened with witchcraft. When Janelle finally gave in and put on the skimpy clothes to follow the others to the street, her heart was heavy and afraid, but she saw no way out.
That was nearly two years ago. Since then, Janelle has been to the edges of hell in China, Thailand, and Malaysia, even surviving an attempt on her life. Janelle tells us her story slowly remembering detail after detail. She pauses in between the horrors, glancing up with sorrow to check if we can handle the weight of what she wants to say next. We nod, encouraging her to go on and she does. We realize though, that there are some things that are still just too intimate and feel too shameful to share. Embarrassed she tells how she discovered the tip of a condom was stuck inside of her for days. She shivers in disgust at the memory and fear of what it might mean. Only she can visualize the experience that goes with the memory. Some things will never be shared.
Janelle tells us that she had begun to lose hope. She even thought of turning herself in to the police in hopes of being deported but she found out that she couldn’t even afford that. She would be kept in a prison cell until she had a ticket to go home. There was no way for her to go home except to continue to work illegally through prostitution.
Then one day, Janelle overheard a conversation about a group that could help. She was doubtful but desperate. She asked for the contact and called. Jennie (NL volunteer staff) listened to the request and set up a time for us to meet and talk. Janelle said she woke up this day of our meeting with a strange feeling inside of her. Janelle realized she had dared to hope again.
After talking for nearly 2 hours the release of pent up sorrow has opened up a vulnerable place that had been buried deep inside. Janelle drops her head and cries silent tears. I hand her my only napkin and use my fingers to wipe my own moist eyes. My heart physically aches with a longing to hold her in my arms. She is the age of my oldest child. I ask her if I can hug her and she leans in. I hold her tight and feel the tears falling on my shoulder.
We tell her that she is done with going out on the streets and taking customers for sex. Relief floods her and her body relaxes for a moment. But she looks somber. “I think God must be annoyed at me. I have sinned. I don’t know if he can forgive me.” She says it quietly with deep sadness. Oh honey… “Of course he forgives you. He already has.” My heart aches. I know that she was sinned against! She was deceived and exploited, raped and demeaned. She didn’t choose this. She was forced. But she feels the shame of the sin and she wants to know – needs to know, that God forgives her. She wonders aloud, if God isn’t upset why did he leave her in it for so long after she cried out to him for help?
My heart sinks under the weight of the question. Where is God when injustice happens? Why does it sometimes take so long before God intervenes? Any answer falls short of comfort and feels insensitive. We’ve all wrestled with this question in the struggles of life. We don’t answer the question but we do tell her that God has heard her cries and He has answered.
As Jennie and Paulina reassure her, the words of the prophet Isaiah come to my mind, “God’s eyes roam the earth looking for someone to intervene.” It’s not Janelle’s “sin” that prevented her being rescued sooner. It’s not a lack of compassion from God that delayed response. God sends out the call – actually commands His people to intervene. His eyes roam the earth looking for those who will respond on His behalf. In many if not in most situations, there are people who could have stopped the evil, who could have spoken out for justice, who could have intervened on behalf of the exploited, who could have said a loud no to the injustice and a firm yes to God’s call. Instead by their silence and non-involvement they allowed the evil to continue.
“All that’s needed for evil to continue is for good people to do nothing.” This familiar quote of Edmund Burke rings true. There are still millions trapped in sexual exploitation around the world crying out to God, “how much longer?” “God’s eyes roam the earth looking for someone to intervene!” Is that someone you? If we all do our part, large or small there is hope. If we all do our part, in the morning another woman who has been taken to the edge of hell will wake up and say, “I have hope again.”