Pat Jones tells us about the Women at the Well charity, and how its work goes to the heart of Pope Francis' vision for the church.
Women at the Well (W@W) is one of the three charities that parishioners voted to support in the recent Christmas 10% collection, which was wonderfully generous. I’ve come to know the charity because they participated in the research I’m doing, and so I wanted to explain why I think their work is so important.
In his first major letter, Pope Francis said ‘I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets…’. It’s a tough challenge because we’re mostly pretty comfortable here in Guildford. But we can be in solidarity with those who can go ‘out on the streets’, which is exactly what W@W do. Their main priority is to help women whose lives are affected by or at risk of prostitution – which means being able to help women struggling with addiction, the impact of abuse, domestic violence, mental health problems and other forms of insecurity such as homelessness. Some have also been trafficked. So often these things are connected. They reported to a government inquiry, for example, that some women stay in relationships that are exploitative or violent because at least they have a roof over their head.
Their aim is to support women to change their circumstances, and in particular, to escape from the exploitation and abuse associated with prostitution. But they recognise this can be a difficult journey. The help they provide is practical, flexible and long-term. In the day centre, it starts with home-cooked meals, access to showers and laundry facilities and just very ordinary activities – one volunteer told me about a quilt made of squares knitted by lots of the women when one of them had a baby. (Many of them lose their children, who are taken into care.) There are also activities for health and well-being, such as massage and complementary therapies. But perhaps what makes the most difference is the expert one-to-one work to help the women sort out housing problems and tackle addiction and other things which keep them on the streets. W@W know that exit from prostitution is a long hard step by step process. So they need the relationship of open-ended support and respect, combined with practical kindness and care, that W@W provide.
I suspect most of us don’t know very much about prostitution – I certainly didn’t. W@W don’t just help the women involved – they also campaign about trafficking and about how society treats those involved in prostitution. They’re committed to what’s called the Nordic model – which means a system in which women who work as prostitutes are not criminalised, but buying sex is a criminal offence. The aim is to reduce the demand that drives sex trafficking. A number of countries have adopted this model, including the Nordic countries, and most recently, Ireland. Sister Lynda Dearlove, who founded W@W, has spoken at the UN, in the Vatican and at many other levels, advocating for laws that protect women more effectively.
W@W is only a young charity. It was started ten years ago, by Sister Lynda, who is a Sister of Mercy. She sees it as a new expression of the work that the sisters have always done with vulnerable women, part of the reason they were founded in Ireland by Catherine McAuley. The Sisters of Mercy have had to change their work as they have aged, and vocations have declined, so it’s courageous to start a new charity and generous to provide the resources and revenue to get it going. They know that they will probably hand it over to laypeople at some point. Sister Lynda is still the director, and several older religious sisters work as volunteers, but the staff include people motivated by Catholic faith and people who don’t belong to faith communities but are motivated by feminism and other values to work on behalf of some of the most excluded women in society. Although they come from very different viewpoints, they share a common vision and commitment.
One of their clients said this:
I was searching about for support and I came across this place. Stepping through these doors I was welcomed with open arms. The support I’ve had, even up until now, was amazing. Every meeting I had, every court case; someone came with me. I fought 3 years through the courts and everything to get my kids back, and all with the help and support of here.
Where I was 4 years ago to where I am now: I was sticking needles in my arm 4 years ago, I was lying on a bus and waking up on the floor with people just stepping over me. Now it’s like looking over at a different person. I’m this side of the table now, I make my own decisions.
Women at the Well website: http://www.watw.org.uk/