Monday 18 December 2017

Dining in for a good charity cause is the new dining out

Hosting a dinner party is a great way to help women affected by the sex industry, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan

DINNER parties and the sex trade would not normally be associated with each other. However, this autumn, Ruhama, a voluntary organisation that works with women affected by prostitution, sex trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation, has come up with a great fundraising initiative, 'Come Dine at Mine', based on the popular television series Come Dine With Me.

The idea is that participants can not only have a fun night in their homes, and perhaps win a prize for their menu on the night, but they can also help to make a difference in an area that is not usually a topic of conversation at the dinner table.

Described as the oldest profession, prostitution has indeed always been around, but the growth in the industry in Ireland in recent years is extraordinary. It is also extraordinary that "we have no garda vice squad in Ireland", according to Gerardine Rowley, communications and policy manager of Ruhama.

With shortages and cutbacks, she says, "it is not a policing priority . . . there are only two officers assigned to this area in Dublin, it is totally under-resourced for the scale of the problem".

Grounded in a Christian perspective which emphasises the value and dignity of every human being, Ruhama (a Hebrew word meaning renewed life) was founded in 1989 as a joint initiative of the Good Shepherd Sisters and Our Lady of Charity Sisters. Both of these orders have a long history of international involvement with marginalised women in countries such as Thailand and Brazil.

Their role is that of support and stretching out a hand of comfort, a listening ear, a cup of tea, to women who might have no one else to talk to. They reach out to these women by going into red-light districts at night and operating from a mobile unit known simply as "the van". This provides a neutral, safe environment where the women can talk freely to Ruhama staff and volunteers who understand their situation, accept it uncritically, and from that angle can offer advice and support.

When Ruhama was first set up, it was dealing with Irish women who maybe were short of money, or needed cash for their children's First Communion or Christmas. The women were largely poorly educated. Drugs were not a problem at that time, if it was anything it was drink, with many of the women being brought up in care with weak family and social networks.

Gerardine recalls that in the late Eighties, when they first set up education classes, one woman in her 40s said "people were saying to her, 'isn't it great you have a second chance'. She replied 'no, this is my first chance'". She and many others regained their self-esteem and moved on.

However, in the past 10 years, the whole scene has changed with some 95 per cent of women in street prostitution being drug users -- on heroin or cocaine. At the same time, indoor prostitution and other forms of exploitation are growing including lap-dancing clubs, massage parlours and escort agencies.

With this indoor trade, the trafficking of women and children has thrived -- 99 per cent of all suspected victims of trafficking assisted by Ruhama were based in off-street prostitution. There is the added danger that this side of the business is predominantly organised and controlled by criminal gangs, both Irish and foreign. Ruhama's view is that trafficking for sexual exploitation is a contemporary form of hidden slavery, with women held in brothels or private premises. They are moved frequently around the country to prevent them making any contacts. The women come from impoverished families maybe in Nigeria, Romania, or Brazil, not realising what they are facing into.

"We are constantly still shocked," says Gerardine. "But maybe it is good that we are still shocked by what we hear, because it is important that you also have a heart in this work."

When they arrive in Ireland, the girls are told by the traffickers that they owe enormous sums, something like €60,000, for their travel and so on, and that they have to work this debt off through prostitution. People might query why they don't run away but they often have seen the violence that these men can do. The women are the 'product' and these criminals will do everything to keep them.

Ruhama says that most of the women its workers meet would like to change their lives but don't know how to go about it. To this end, Ruhama also offers education and practical courses in IT skills, literacy, art, English language classes, cookery and nutrition, budgeting, life skills and so on. It also offers holistic therapies such as counselling, art therapy, reflexology, stress management and relaxation. Ruhama also supports and accompanies women who may have to go to court, or to meetings with statutory agencies or health-care appointments.

Ruhama is the only organisation in Ireland that offers support to women in prostitution and it has a great depth of experience over its 21 years.

Now, to help Ruhama raise awareness of what is going on, you don't have to get in training and run a marathon, or give up anything. This is a really enjoyable way to do some good now that dining in is the new dining out. All you have to do is apply for your hosting pack to Ruhama and plan your evening, or a number of evenings, with your fellow diners over the months of October and November.

The format is that the host invites his or her friends as guests to dinner. The host can choose his or her favourite style of cuisine and cook as many or as few courses as they like. After each course, guests give marks out of 10 using the score cards provided in the Ruhama Hosting Pack. Their mark also represents how much they are willing to donate -- so five marks equals €5. There will also be a prize for the best overall menu on a 'Come Dine at Mine' evening. And you will be thrilled to know that your favourite restaurant critic will be one of the judges!

To get your Hosting Pack, just email or call Roisin on 01 836-0292.

Sunday Independent

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