Not Who I Expected to Meet in a Red-Light Area

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It’s possible she’s in her late 60s, but she appeared to be at least 80. Her hair was bright orange, dyed with henna, but the roots were snow-white. Standing at about 4’10", she was thin and frail, and her hands shook with a mild tremor as she reached out to hold mine. As she looked at me through coke-bottle glasses, her grin was kind and welcoming. This woman is not who I expected to meet when I visited the Hope for Life drop-in center in a red-light area on the edge of a large city in India. 

As difficult as it is to fathom, I knew I’d see teenage girls and young women in their 20s. I expected to see women in their 30s and 40s. I also supposed I would see little girls who might one day be expected to follow the same path as their mothers. However, I did not expect to see a feeble woman who is likely at the end of her days sitting on the ground outside a room, alongside a row of other women on display for men to purchase. 

When I looked into the deep brown eyes of little girls living in this red-light area and thought about what might become of them in the future, I felt a range of emotions: anger, sadness, and a desperate hope for something else. When I spoke with a teenaged mother who was sold into prostitution at puberty, I felt similar emotions. When I looked into this older woman’s eyes, which were dimmed by cataracts, thugh, I felt a deep sense of helplessness. It’s possible she no longer takes “customers.” I pray that’s the case, and I hope her room here was offered as a kind alternative to living on the street once she passed her usefulness to a brothel owner. Still, this life is all she has known. She wasn’t given the chance to become fully human, fully who God created her to be. And it was surely no kindness that brought her here.

Experts examine the “push” factors, or root causes, that make people vulnerable to human trafficking, including commercial sexual exploitation. In many areas of the world, including India, poverty is a primary driver. Sometimes desperate parents buy the lie that there’s a legitimate job for their daughters in the city. Sometimes they believe there’s no other way when there are too many mouths and not enough food. Sometimes family members or friends take advantage of girls looking for a way out of difficult circumstances. 

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Still, while we need to address the poverty that pushes people over the edge of desperation, it won’t solve the problem. That’s because the root causes go deeper. The reality is, forced prostitution happens in large part because the exploitation of women is considered acceptable. And that’s true in both the poorest communities in the world and the wealthiest.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asked people to dig a little deeper, too. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’” He said. “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28, NRSV). It would be easy to hear these words simply as a call to marital faithfulness, but what if the call was — is — to stop viewing women as objects? What if Jesus’ words pointed toward seeing women and girls as individuals who are equally made in God’s image?  

When faced with stories about widespread evils like human trafficking, it can be easy to become overwhelmed and assume there’s nothing we can really do because the problem is too big or too complicated. But what if God isn’t asking us to fix the problem? 

What if God is asking us to fix ourselves?

What if God is asking us to see every person as equally deserving, as equally valuable?

I believe the Church is called to fight against injustices, including human trafficking. I believe we should support efforts to care for survivors, prevent people from becoming victims, and prosecute traffickers. But right now, I’m thinking about a different way to respond. What if we each decided to view people in a different way? What would happen if we chose to look at those around us and those we see in the news and remind ourselves, “This person is equally made in God’s image and equally deserving of the opportunity to experience something better”?

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Beth Clayton Luthye is Grants Manager and Anti-Trafficking Coordinator for Nazarene Compassionate Ministries.

On September 23, 2018, churches around the globe will pause to pray and advocate for victims of modern slavery. We invite you to set aside this weekend to bring attention to human trafficking and raise awareness and funds for projects like the Hope for Life center in India. Learn more about Freedom Sunday and find free materials to help you host the event here.

To read more about the Hope for Life center in India, check out the Summer 2018 issue of NCM Magazine.