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Providing a Refuge from the Red Light District

Chinese Church Voices is a weekly column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.


This article from the journal Territory details the difficult but powerful work of one Christian ministry in China’s red light districts.

They Helped 150 Escape the Red Light District:
Observations from Rescuing Sex Workers

In a couple of urban villages within City B, the main streets are lined with street girls and salon girls. They are dressed dazzlingly, but their eyes are empty and faces expressionless. Similar scenes are easily spotted on the streets of many cities and towns.

“In the past few years, we started divisions in two or three cities, and all together have helped 150 women leave such places and start a new life. But 150 people, compared to this group of millions, is merely a cup of water in the face of a raging fire! And each year, so many women are forced into or willingly join this group,” says Sister Xiaoyuan, managing worker of Team H. This team was one of the first non-profit organizations within the country to start working for the rescue of sex workers.

Start by Making Friends with Salon Girls

In 2006, a few Christians in social work noticed that only a 10 minutes' walk away from their own office were women[1] who stood on the side of the street with the same professionalized smile repeated over and over again. These Christian sisters felt very sad, because they noticed the vibe coming from deep within these women: pain, confusion, and helplessness not easily noticed by others.

The sisters later learned that there are several million women working in the sex industry in China. They can be found in salons, bars, saunas, nightclubs, and even high end business clubs. And the world’s attitudes towards these people are often crude, disdainful, or merely treating them as after-dinner conversation topics.

“But Jesus was different. The New Testament records many times how Jesus responded with mercy and kindness when he encountered prostitutes. Then, as Christians today, should we not imitate Jesus, and show unbiased concern for, pray for, and provide true help to these people?” In addition to their sorrow, the sisters were moved to pray for these people, and hoped to use what little ability they had to save these women from the powers of darkness.

Even though the efforts of these sisters were small compared to the size of many millions of women caught in the sex industry, they believed that God had placed this burden in their heart. The sisters compared themselves to the story of a child rescuing fish on the seashore.

In the shallow pools on the beach were many little fish who had been beached by the storms the night before. They were caught in the shallow pools on the beach, and could not return to the sea. They struggled and flopped in the shallow waters, slowly dying. It would not take long before the sun dried out the little fish. Passers-by paid no attention. Only one little boy stopped at puddle after puddle, picking up the fish and flinging them back into the sea.

A passer-by curiously commented, “Child, there are hundreds and thousands of little fish in the pools. You can’t save them all.” “I know,” replied the little boy without looking up. The man was even more curious, “Why do you keep tossing the fish back? Who even cares?” “This fish cares!” the boy answered as he picked up fish after fish and flung them back into the sea. “And this one cares! And this one cares! And this one!” The passer-by was moved, and stood quietly for a moment. Then he, too, stooped down to pick up the little fish and fling them back into the sea. Every time the two of them lifted their arms, another little life was saved.

This story has always deeply encouraged the sisters in Team H. For this reason, they started an outreach division, to recruit, train, and send out volunteers or part-time staff to do outreach work. And then, with humble love, they approached this group of people, and befriended a few street girls and salon girls. Once a woman expresses the desire to leave, the sisters invite her into their small home—which they call “The Refuge.” Here, there are people who see to the woman’s room and board. But more importantly, it is a warm and safe place.

Soon after, the sisters started a care division and crafted a holistic development plan for women who are willing to leave such places of trouble and come to “The Refuge.” Not only do they achieve physical freedom. But they also receive emotional and spiritual counseling. From their childhood to their youth, these women have experienced many hurts and misdirection. They need healing, renewal, and building up. They need to build up their courage, strength, and self-image.

But that is not enough. To fundamentally rescue these women from the violent and exploitive sex industry, they need help to achieve financial independence. Because many of these women are of lower education, the team provides relevant education and technical training, such as accounting, photography, producing graphs and tables, handicrafts, and others. They are also actively introduced to related work, so that they can have equal opportunities of employment.

And so, as time passes and the ministry deepens, the three visions God has given become more and more clear—help these women enjoy physical freedom, spiritual healing, and opportunities for career development. In the blink of an eye, the sisters are in their twelfth year of serving this group.

I Once Rejected an Opportunity to Help Them

“At the very beginning, I thought that I lived in a completely different world from them. And that we’d never cross paths,” Sister Xiaoyuan, manager of Team H, shared openly.

I majored in English, and became a Christian at university. After graduating, I taught in a college in a second-tier city, and everyone I encountered was a college student or an intellectual. I thought of myself as a cultured woman, and I lived a leisurely and comfortable life. On the surface, I did not discriminate against sex workers, but in my heart I was biased. I thought that, of course, they chose their own profession, probably because they were lazy and wanted easy money.

I randomly encountered an older social worker in Team H, and came to learn of their experience in serving this group. My biases lessened. I really admired the organization’s commitment to marginalized communities. But I stopped at admiration. When they asked me if I wanted to join, I immediately said no. I thought to myself, I don’t have such courage, or such interest. But a mature Christian whom I really respected told me, don’t rush to say no. Try praying first. And so, I went home and prayed, and slowly came to realize that this really seemed to be God’s will for me.

I remember one day, I was walking through campus, and I came on a familiar little path. I suddenly remembered how, when I first became a Christian my freshman and sophomore year, I would often pray in tears on this little path. At the time, many of the hurts I had experienced in my birth family were healed in the Holy Spirit. God helped me understand the value and meaning of being a woman. At the time, I made a prayer of thanksgiving and a vow: Lord, I am now healed today. And there are so many women still experiencing all sorts of hurts in the world today. Lord, please send me. . .

That prayer from a couple years ago was fresh before my eyes. I suddenly started blaming myself: how could I forget God’s blessing and calling from those years? How can I pay attention only to my own calm and quiet years, and ignore those suffering in deep waters and fires? And so, I decided to give up my comfortable career, and enter this ministry full of challenges.

When I first joined, I had a heroic sense of pride. I felt that I had given up a lot in terms of material possessions, but on a spiritual sense I was much glorified. I was like vigilante knight, rescuing prostitutes from deep waters and fires. And yet, after a couple years of handling many cases, I no longer have a shred of pride left. I realize how limited my service is, and how massive this group is. My heart is often full of sighs and helplessness, asking God for more strength in him.

They Had No Social Support Network When They Were Hurt

Building relationships is the first step to serving. We pray for the surrounding hair salons, foot massage parlors, and massage parlors, and we have considered and tried various ways to build relationships with them.

For example, giving gifts during holidays. Whenever a holiday happens, we will send gifts, so that they can feel our sincere love. I remember on International Woman’s Day, we bought many roses, and gave them out one by one to the street girls. They were so happy. We also take initiative to ask them for tips on nails, hair, make-up, etc. And we offer to teach them English.

Also, we have done questionnaires. We once compiled a “Survey on Risk and Pressures Faced by the Modern Woman,” and handed it out for them to fill in so as to get to know what they really think. Most of them are willing to share about their current situations.

Now we often enter a shop and tell them directly that we are Christians, and that we want to care for them. They often reply, “There are many Christians in our village.” Then we will ask where they are from. When did they come to this city? Who do they have at home? And so, just having common conversations, back and forth a couple times, and friendships are built.

As our relationships deepen, the women are willing to share their own experiences, and the hurt they’ve experienced at various stages of maturing. They each have different experiences, but there are many commonalities. For example, many of the women faced all sorts of problems in their birth families. Also, because they come from villages, there were not opportunities or resources to become educated. They are easily fooled into coming to such places by friends, villagers, or relatives. Initially they fight back fiercely, but eventually become resigned to their situation. They are brainwashed by the people around them, and slowly their hearts give up hope, become numb, and adjust to their current situations.

Among the women we’ve interacted with, over half were tricked into coming here by relatives or friends, and some were even sold by pimps or traffickers. Even those women who were not forced into this, who came on their own, often it is because of some great hurt or shock they experienced in relationships with men. They believe that men are not trustworthy, only money is. So they stop caring and keep going down this road till they end up in this profession. Their self-worth has been trampled to the point where there’s nothing’s left.

They have experienced a lot of hurt, and this is something I can empathize with. For example, being neglected as a child, given the cold shoulder. But there are also others I have difficulty understanding, such as being betrayed, sexual assault, domestic violence, abuse, and other terrible experiences. But I try my best to empathize with their experiences as a women. Over the past few years, more and more I feel like they are a part of my life—if I had grown up in the circumstances they had, then perhaps I would fall into the same fate as them.

When we notice that the women want to escape from their current situation, we let them know that we are looking to hire female employees, and we ask if they would be willing to join. But, it is very difficult to leave. It usually takes at least half a year of visits, and sometimes even three or four years.

Typically, the younger women have an easier time escaping, because they are single, they have no financial responsibilities, and they have more future opportunities. On the other hand, older women whose husbands don’t work—but rely on their wife’s income, or women with two or three children at home, it can be very difficult for them to leave, because they want to earn more money. For the women who do leave and come to believe in Christ, their hearts are touched, and often really desire to help and encourage other women who are still in deep waters to walk out. So they often join our outreach work. This is something I really respect and am really moved by.

As their services reach more deeply, Xiaoyuan and her co-workers understand the cultural and systemic background of this group at a deeper level. They do not exist on their own, but are simply a ring in a chain of many closely related social problems, such as left-behind children, migrant workers, class stratification, wealth gap, patriarchy, and the sex industry.

Some academics and journalists who have a deep concern for others have conducted a partial survey of this group, calling for the decriminalization of prostitution. Advocating for the protection of sex workers is different from encouraging the buying and selling of sex. Sister Xiaoyuan thinks that the ideal, of course, would be to completely eradicate the ancient societal phenomenon of prostitution. But the ideal is too far from reality. In the current situation in the country, this group is easily exploited and harmed by clients, pimps, husbands, or stable partners, and even the police, because they do not have legal status, and there is no societal support network for them when they are harmed.  

Sister Xiaoyuan said:

Last summer we visited a new shop, and met two women, one aged 17, one aged 19. The women both showed a willingness to leave. But when we visited a second time, the shop was closed. After asking around we learned the 19-year-old woman died, supposedly because a client got drunk and was beating people up. He got in an argument with the girl, and killed her in his rage. This made me particularly sad.

But abroad, and in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the social workers serving this group do alright. For example, they will offer classes to these women, teaching them how to prevent AIDS, sexual violence, drug addiction, and how to best protect themselves in terms of women’s health. But there are very few social workers working with this group within the country, and we are not professional enough. Of course, in recent years there are some local organizations that have begun paying attention to this group of people, and this has been very encouraging for us.

I Didn’t Believe That My Life Could Really Change

Most of the women Team H rescues were born in the 90s, but some were born in the 60s or 70s. Below are the true experiences of three 90s women who were rescued: Zhi, Maan, and Teng.

Zhi

I was born in 1990. My father abandoned us when I was still very young. My mother did her best to raise my brother and me, but had a very difficult time. My mother re-married, but my step-father was very violent and abused us. My mother and I often cried ourselves to sleep. When I was fifteen, I decided to run away from home, naively thinking I would make my own way. Because I had little education, nobody was willing to hire me. I was tricked into working at a hair salon. It seemed like all over society, people’s relationships were based on taking advantage of each other.

When I had nowhere to turn, two social workers showed up. At first, I didn’t believe that my life could really change. But the kindness, sincerity, and friendliness of the social workers really touched me. I tried to re-build my faith in others. Later, I left that ugly environment, and started working with the team.

After coming here, I have learned a lot of vocational skills. I didn’t know how to use a computer, but now I can confidently work on the computer every day, and can use various computer software programs. I have even taken classes in English and math. I work very hard, and I hope I do not disappoint everyone who has supported me.

Maan

I was born in 1991, in an ethnic minorities’ area in the northwest. Perhaps because I am a girl, my parents really looked down on me. Before I even graduated from middle school, a friend brought me into a hair salon. Later I started dating a guy, and he often beat me. Only after being found by social workers did I come here.

At first I didn’t know anything. But here there are various vocational training programs, and community teachers taught me different kinds of computer software, and also taught me photography. At first I did not know how to utilize light and shadows, or how to edit and beautify photos. But after four years of hard work, my practice has become second nature, and I am an event photographer. Also, I can help train other girls who come to us after being rescued.

I am now married, and have a baby. I take care of my child and work. I am so thankful that the managers here have discovered my hidden talents. We are a team that cares for and supports one another.

Teng

I was born in 1992. My family was very poor, and both my parents died when I was very young. My sister and I were raised by my grandparents. I started school late, and couldn’t understand what my teachers were teaching. I left school before finishing primary school. Because there was not enough money or labor at home, I started helping my uncle out in the fields. My uncle was later severely injured in a car accident, and had a lot of medical bills. He could no longer help us. I had to face the cold, complicated world on my own.

When I was 16 years old, I met a man. He was initially very kind to me, and slowly won my trust. Later he told me that there was a job very suitable for me, and that could help alleviate some of the difficulties at home. I believed him, and he brought me to another city. In the end, he introduced me to that kind of massage parlor. When I tried running away, they would find me and beat me. I was so miserable I could neither live nor die.

I obediently worked in the massage parlor for a couple of years, and the boss believed that I wouldn’t run away again. After getting to know the social workers, I snuck away, and came to “The Refuge.” Now I can do basic reading and writing, and have earned my Microsoft Word certificate. These skills have helped me become more confident of myself. I am so thankful for meeting the team. This is a place full of love.

Who Is My Neighbor or Sister?

Under the influence of patriarchy and moral law, many people, including Christians, discriminate and show distaste for this group of women. Sister Xiaoyuan also mentioned that not many social workers visit red light districts. Co-workers sometimes even attract criticism from busybodies, and they really need prayer for their work.

For Christmas 2014, singer Vivian Chow wrote a Christian song “Rain of Rocks,” inspired by the story of Pharisees who wanted to stone the adulterous woman in the Gospel of John:

A rock in hand, tossed into the air, who could it hurt?

A rock wandering through the air, harassed by wind; it falls as rain; a fierce accident

Words are lighter than a feather, but can hurt so bad

Even the most hated sinner in this world; why should we hate publicly?

What are the scales from which you moralize? Inviting so many passersby to leave their burns

But there is one who quietly walked close, quietly listening to her stories and sorrows, gifting her a kiss of pity and love; she picks up the strength she was born with

Who can make no mistake? Can a glance tell right from wrong?

Flippant judgements fall like rocks; crowds cornering a stranger

It seems good to emphasize right and wrong, yet only when faced with judgement do we know its terror

Think once more, how changing words can be. Can I toss love instead for her benefit?

“But if one quietly walked close, listening to her stories and sorrows, can I toss love instead for her benefit?” Who is my neighbor? Who is my sister? This is why the social worker sisters of Team H hold firmly to their calling.

Original article: 她们帮助150位女子逃离红灯区—性工作者救助观察, Territory.
Translated, edited, and re-posted with permission.

Notes

  1. ^ Translator’s Note: The author refers to the prostitutes often as 女孩 (girls), which reminds the reader of their youth and helplessness. However, to use the phrase “girl” in English can sometimes be seen as demeaning. For most of the article the translator used “women” instead, a more neutral term. 
Image credit: Territory

ChinaSource Team

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