by Sr. Sheila Campbell MMM Ireland 21.11.2023
It often happens that the first step in exercising solidarity is exploring the lack of self-esteem among people who are marginalized. In one women’s group in Brazil the participants were asked to draw something that expresses “who am I?” Elizabeth complained that she couldn’t draw. “You don’t have to be an artist”, it was explained, “just any rough picture that helps you say who you are, or how is your life just now.” She drew a cockroach.
The discussion began. Why did she choose that? Her reply came softly at first until she was secure enough to express the real anger she was feeling. “What do you do when you see a cockroach?”, she asked. “You step on it and try to kill it. This is what has been happening to me all my life.”
Starting from this low point, it takes a lot of patience to help women to accept their true worth, to realise their potential and begin to explore their talents. This was the reality of my work with women in prostitution in the city of Salvador. Many were trapped in prostitution by illiteracy and poverty and traumatized by violence since childhood.
The health of these women was my special concern. As well as the sexually transmitted diseases you would expect, most also suffer from stress-related illnesses – hypertension, gastritis, cardiac problems. Many suffered from the violent behaviour of their clients or home partners but they were reluctant to go to the police to complain, as their complaints were not treated seriously.
Once we set up a literacy class for the women. This gives women a better chance of integrating with the wider society. Lucia was one woman who taught me this. She was 46 years old and came to Salvador as a teenager from another State. She worked all day in brothel near the port. Lucia told me how excited she was when she managed to join up her letters and how much she enjoyed the literacy class. The previous year, she bought a long-distance bus ticket to go to visit her mother, but missed the bus because she could not read the name of the destination written up on the front. “I will never miss my bus again,” she said happily.