ROME – While journalists often get bogged down in the failures and weaknesses of the Catholic Church, there are times when compelling examples of service, mission and faith should get the attention they deserve.
What one Catholic religious order is doing to help underage girls working as prostitutes, “the most vulnerable among the vulnerable,” in the African nation of Sierra Leone, is precisely one of those cases.
Aminata, identified only by her first name, had her first sexual experience at 13. Essentially an orphan, her grandmother was too old and sick to take care of her, leaving her no choice but to survive on her own. At a local dive called the Liberia Bar, two men offered to pay her $5 for sex. She accepted, beginning that day what she described as a “living hell.”
“I always tell myself that I would not have wanted this life for myself, because in the end I will get sick and die,” she said in a documentary telling her story and that of many other girls like her.
The film, “LOVE,” artfully directed by Goya prize winner Raúl de la Fuente, was presented in Rome a stone’s throw from the Vatican April 12. It captures the work of Salesian missionaries in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, in helping hundreds of girls forced into prostitution by poverty, misery or neglect.
The Salesians of Don Bosco – officially the Society of St. Francis de Sales – were founded by Italian St. John Bosco in 1859 to help youth struggling in poverty. They are spread globally, and they’re the third largest Catholic men’s religious order in the world.
Between 1991 and 2002, Sierra Leone went through a bloody civil war that resulted in over 200,000 deaths. Ebola decimated the country further in 2014, resulting in four thousand dead. One of the main results was an abundance of orphans, some having survived Ebola themselves and living with the stigma associated with it.
Many of these youths, some as young as nine, have turned to prostitution as an easy way to make money.
Answering Pope Francis’s call to be a “Church that goes out,” the Salesians decided to get on a bus and look for the girls on the streets where they lived, worked, and sometimes even died. Eventually they created a center, the Don Bosco “Fambul Girl Shelter,” to offer them food, medical assistance, refuge and even a chance to escape and have a better life.
Salesian Father Jorge Crisafulli, director of the center, said that when he found the first girls and brought them back to the mission, he was surprised not only by their poverty and hunger but also by the fact that, despite all the things they had gone through, they were still just children.
“We realized immediately when we contacted them, that they are children,” he told journalists at a press event in Rome. “They feel like children, think like children, behave like children, and so the streets and prostitution are definitely not for them.”
Crisafulli described them as “the most vulnerable among the vulnerable,” and soon learned that they were in need of not just economic help, but also medical and psychological attention. He said that 100 percent of the girls carry STDs, since most of their clients refuse to use protection, and some even have the HIV virus or Hepatitis B.
According to the priest, there’s a “cash and carry” policy at hospitals in Sierra Leone.
“If you don’t have the money, you die like a dog,” he said, adding that the regard shown toward animals by far exceeds the care given to the young prostitutes of Freetown.
“Nobody cares for me” was a constant refrain spoken by the young women in the documentary, who sell their bodies for as little as $1.50 a day. Nor can they rely on the police, which often employs brutality and violence to clear the streets. It’s also not uncommon for police officers to rape the girls they arrest.
“What we can’t swallow is the fact that they punish the girls and bring them to the station, and they don’t punish the mafia behind it,” Crisafulli said, adding that the mission still tries to work with authorities as closely as possible.
The Salesians offer the only refuge for the girls. According to Crisafulli, everyone knows that the shelter is “a lightning rod” in the community.
“We are the face of the Catholic Church in Sierra Leone,” he said.
Since the shelter was founded in September 2016, over 146 girls have been extracted from a life of prostitution and reunified with their families or adoptive ones. Many parents, upon hearing about the life led by their children, don’t want to welcome the girls back home. But Crisafulli said that grandparents “are amazing, and always welcome them with open arms.”
That was the case for Aminata, who at the end of the documentary we see transformed, made anew, living with her grandmother and learning to become a hairdresser.
There are only four Salesians working day in and day out in the poor quarters of town. They are assisted by about 110 staff members and three volunteers. They have already invested in a department with counselors and psychologists, costing over $678,000, which caters to the severe traumas many of these young women face.
The money for the group comes mostly from missionary aid societies, especially a Salesian foundation in Madrid, Spain. They also receive individual donations, but nothing from international organizations or NGOs. The documentary, costing about $50,000, is a marketing attempt to raise funds and awareness to the important and difficult task of helping these young women.
During a trip showcasing the film, Crisafulli and his team will attempt to persuade the European Union and the United Nations to support the initiative. In the short term, they hope to employ doctors and gynecologists to be on site to provide medical attention.
Prostitution is not the only problem in Sierra Leone, and Crisafulli reported that over 110,000 youth are victims of human trafficking every year. In response, the Salesians have launched a phone number that anyone can call for free if they witness, suspect, or have information of instances of human trafficking.
But in a Muslim majority country, where Catholics represent only 3 percent of the population, he said interreligious dialogue and cooperation is essential for creating lasting results.
For Crisafulli, these young women “are the heroes of this story,” and he hopes for the project to expand and become a model to help save many other young people suffering from abuse and exploitation all over the world.
If you have 30 minutes to spare, watch the documentary below with English subtitles.