ROME — Long before an Argentine pope made human trafficking a global Catholic Church concern, one German nun took the fight against sex slavery to the streets in the 1970s — and 50 years later, she’s still going strong.
Sister Lea Ackermann grew up in Klarenthal, Germany, and after working as a banker in both Germany and Paris decided “to have a whole life dealing with money was not very interesting.”
Ackermann would go on to become a global crusader in the fight against prostitution. While in Rome this week for an anti-trafficking conference sponsored by the Vatican’s section on Migrants and Refugees, in an interview with Crux, she recalled tackling the problem decades before there were official Vatican conferences on the issue.
At age 23, Ackermann joined the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, known as the “White Sisters.” After making the decision to join religious life and entering the convent at age 23, she said she feared she would “end up as a secretary to a bishop,” and so she told her superiors she wanted to work in education.
By age 31, she was working as a teacher in Rwanda, and soon thereafter, was assigned to Mombassa, Kenya, where she “marveled at the beautiful surroundings” but was, at the same time, horrified by “tourists who had enough money to enjoy them, but then also use to take advantage of women in misery.”
In Kenya, Ackermann recalls walking into bars and provoking conversation with the women working there by saying, “I am here for women who have problems but you have no problems, you’re beautiful and young.” Immediately, she said they came forward to speak of the ways in which they were exploited — admitting that they were only working in prostitution out of desperation.
Ackermann adopted a personalized philosophy of dealing with “one girl at a time.”
“One girl said she wanted to go back to school, but had no money, so I found her a job gardening so that she could use the money to pay for school. Another said she could bake, so I found her an oven,” Ackermann said.
As her ministry developed, she said she approached the bishop and told him she wanted to formalize her work with the women.
“I would like to do something for these women, but I need a house,” she informed him.
While she said the bishop joined her in the search for a property and described the work she was doing as “important” and “marvelous,” she said he also told her he had no money to help support it.
“I remember thinking that if I were a man, and I said to him I wanted to be a parish priest, he would never say ‘fine, but I can’t pay you,’” she told Crux.
Consequently, she worked with a team of women who made clothing and jewelry, which they sold to tourists to pay for the house and their work with women they were liberating from sex slavery.
Yet as Ackermann’s work grew in both prominence and need, she attracted the attention of local law enforcement. While one might consider them a natural ally in her line of work, they proved to be an obstacle.
Government officials claimed that Ackermann was a nuisance to tourists — alleging that she interfered with their time in the country — and after several visits from police officials, including one 5 hour interrogation, it became clear to both the local bishop and her religious superior that it was too dangerous for her to stay in the country and she was sent home to Germany.
In 1987, Ackermann went on to found SOLWODI — Solidarity with women in distress — that provides support for women and girls, specifically migrants in Germany who may be victims of trafficking and are at risk of exploitation and violence. In addition, SOLWODI has opened a home for women who are rescued from the trade and children who are turned away or abused.
Over the last thirty years, she has returned to Kenya every year and today there are 18 SOLWODI counseling centers throughout Africa and more than 30 throughout Europe.
Just last month she hosted a “World Congress Against the Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls” for the third year in a row in Mainz, Germany. Much of her attention today is focused on her homeland where in 2002 the law was changed to decriminalize prostitution.
As she goes around the world, she tells countries that “you don’t want to be like us in Germany.”
Reflecting back on when she first started in the fight against sex trafficking, widely considered the world’s first religious sister to confront the issue in an institutional way, she told Crux she’s amazed that the Catholic Church now has a pope that has put the issue front and center.
“I’d often give talks to priests who would say ‘that’s interesting,'” but wouldn’t give it any further attention. Now, she says, they can’t ignore it.
Last year alone she gave 80 talks, and at age 82, she says she’s not slowing down.
“I still have things left to say,” she concluded.