A few years ago a good friend of mine talked me out of my customary sloth and into agreeing to run the mini marathon with her. Seems a work colleague of hers was involved with a charity called Ruhama and was keen to raise much needed funds. I’d never heard of them but agreed to participate more for the laugh and the much needed exercise than for the worthiness of the cause. As it happens the cause is worthy in the extreme.
Along with tens of thousands of other women a small group of us donned the tee-shirts and took to the streets to raise what money we could whilst enjoying a really great day out. Later, as we rewarded ourselves with chilled white wine and barbequed food in Lynn’s back garden she chatted about her involvement as a volunteer with Ruhama (Hebrew for renewed life) and the practical, no-nonsense and dignified approach that this non-judgemental organisation takes to supporting women affected by prostitution and human trafficking in Ireland.
Lynn regularly volunteers with the Ruhama outreach service operating in Dublin city centre and the Dochas Centre and providing a safe haven for women working on the streets. A small group of women volunteers travel by dedicated bus offering their clients respect, cups of tea, advice and practical follow-up support. She herself has taken bewildered young Eastern European girls into her own home, providing them with shelter and safety as they tried to break free from the horrible, sinister situation they found themselves in whilst alone, far from home and often unable to speak English.
Although established in 1989 as a joint initiative of the Good Shepherd Sisters and Our Lady of Charity Sisters (and I must admit that as a committed secularist I am deeply suspicious of and resistant to all things religious) the organisation appears to be not in any way proselytising in nature and in fact may well embody all that is good and laudable about a Christian ethos. As such it is a welcome antidote to the repugnant underbelly of organised religion that has been exposed here in recent years.
Taking the stance that prostitution and the social and cultural attitudes which sustain it are deeply rooted in gender inequality and social marginalisation, Ruhama unequivocally affirms that prostitution represents violence against women and a violation of human rights. On a macro level the organisation engages in vital advocacy work directed at legislators and brokers of change and also liaises with the various drug and housing services that their clients will come in contact with as they move towards a safe and stable life.
On an individual level the approach is more nuanced. Ruhama engages in befriending women involved in prostitution and supporting them practically and emotionally as they attempt to move on and reintegrate successfully and happily into mainstream society. Treating women with dignity and working with them in a way that best suits their personal circumstances is a core principle. For example Ruhama volunteers will often accompany their clients through our intimidating and adversarial courts system; offering them legal advice, friendship and solidarity as required.
Education is a cornerstone of their vital work and Ruhama offers classes ranging from basic literacy and English to financial support for those participating in third level education. Holistic therapies afforded to women including art therapy, stress management and relaxation.
In recent years this organisation has had to adapt to the changing nature of prostitution in Ireland, most notably the increase in the number of migrant women, most of them trafficked into prostitution. When my husband, inspired by my stroll around town, ran the marathon for Ruhama in 2005 he raised €2000 and received a lovely letter telling him that he had paid the bill for their vital interpreter services for that year. How wonderful to know that you have made a real, tangible difference to the betterment of people’s lives!
The roll-the-sleeves-up-and-get-stuck-in approach adopted by this organisation has impressed me greatly ever since I first encountered them almost a decade ago. However, they still have the capacity to stop me in my tracks. Just when I thought that they were doing all that is imaginably possible to help women caught in the mire of prostitution, including shaping government policy, they surprise me yet again.
“5th Year boys from Belvedere College visited Ruhama today. Great to see the men of the future interested in combating the sex trade”
Last week I received a tweet from @RuhamaAgency (I urge you all to follow them) outlining a new and incredibly laudable initiative. It read “5th Year boys from Belvedere College visited Ruhama today. Great to see the men of the future interested in combating the sex trade”. This represents yet another forward-thinking and utterly practical policy. In my experience the vast majority of young (and not so young) men are incredibly respectful towards women and have a strong sense of the injustice of discrimination. Helping women find their way out of prostitution in no way represents a battle of the sexes. More fundamentally it is a battle of the right thinking against those who would profit from the misery of others.
So if you’re looking for a cause to fund or even one to rally behind then don’t forget Ruhama. Every cent raised will be efficiantly and effectively used for the betterment of the lives of women who really need our help.