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Sr Lea’s great network

· Since 1985 the SOLWODI project helps women victims of trafficking in Kenya and in Germany ·

Sr Lea Ackerman is the most famous woman religious in Germany. For 20 years now she has been fighting beside women deprived of their rights, who have fallen prey to trafficking and to forced prostitution. She is a cheerful and pugnacious woman, described as a “recalcitrant saint”.

Lea was born in Saar in 1933. After working as a bank clerk, she entered the Order of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa. She earned a degree in pedagogy with a thesis on education and formation in Rwanda. In Mombasa, Kenya, in 1985 she founded the Solidarity with women in distress (SOLWODI) project, a work providing assistance to women involved in prostitution. Today SOLWODI has dozens of centres in Africa and in Germany.

Egon Schiele, “Girl seated” (1917)

The feminist magazine Emma once described her as “an infuriated sister”. We asked her what infuriated her. “The incredible injustice and brutality to women and children. I have cared for these women for 30 years and I see that they suffer harm and traumas from it, which are wounds in the body and in the soul, and that they have many diseases. It is monstrous that it should be even recognized as a profession and defined as work”.

Sr Lea is referring to the law of 2002 which completely legalized prostitution in Germany. This law applies to women who work freely in the red-light district. However, forced prostitution obviously continues to be forbidden. But is it truly possible to separate these things? “In Germany nine out of ten prostitutes come from abroad”, she explains. “Many of them don’t understand our language and don’t have anyone to turn to. If they are accompanied over a long period – for three, four or ten years – and helped to integrate, they will tell you their whole story. Through SOLWODI I have met thousands of women. In 30 years there has not been one who said: I chose this life, it was my own free choice”.

For a long time Sr Lea has been the unofficial spokeswoman in Germany for forced prostitutes and victims of trafficking. But what released the spring of her commitment? “I once visited a Carmel in the Philippines. In front of the building there was a tree trunk on which was carved in large letters: “Dedicated to the dreams of the Father”. I asked the Carmelite what this meant. “We Christians”, they explained to me, “believe that God is the Creator of all human beings, father and mother of all men and women. And we Carmelites say we want to be the love in God’s heart; so we must ensure that the dreams come true for all his children. And there are some of God’s children, especially daughters, who are children of God without opportunities”. And do you know something? This was my second conversion. I had already been in the convent for 20 years, but at that moment I thought: that’s right! I had trained teachers, women who had already had an opportunity. But there are some daughters of God who have no opportunities”.

She then arrived at the SOLWODI Foundation in 1985. “My community”, Sr Lea recounted, “sent me to Mombasa, in Kenya. There I saw masses of sex tourists. A 16-year-old prostitute told me: I am not young, I already have a three-year-old child, but in the room behind there is a 14-year-old girl and yesterday she brought a child into the world and drowned him in the lavatory. So it is impossible to put the girl in the stocks, but one has to ask: in what situations do those children end up finding themselves? These tourists who can permit themselves to travel round the world arrive in Mombasa, they see the poverty and neediness of these women and children and buy them cheaply for their own wretched amusement. I asked the women how they felt. They answered me angrily, asking me in turn: do you think it is fun to go with every cretin who passes? To contract diseases? To get money sometimes but at other times none? Then it was clear to me: let’s think together about what else you could do. At the time I said to the good Lord: I want to dedicate myself to these daughters of yours who lack opportunities, but do not abandon me”.

God didn’t abandon her. “I started with nothing: I didn’t even have a typewriter. Today there are 34 counsellors and contact centres in Kenya and 17 in Germany, plus seven sheltered houses for women and children who live in situations of violence”.

What is the classical example of trafficking in Europe today? “For the most part women come here lured by false promises”. One of them told me her story in these words. ‘We lived in an Eastern European country; my father and mother had jobs, money was very scarce but I received an education”. Then her father had a heart attack and her mother started drinking, there was no money for medicines, everyone looked to her. In that situation she read an advertisement: three months in Germany, 30,000 euros. She had guessed that it had to do with prostitution. But she thought: for three months I can stand it, thus I can help my parents. In Germany she was raped on the first evening. She no longer had her passport, she didn’t know what city she was in, she didn’t know the language. She was taken to a brothel. There she saw a woman who wanted to get out being dragged down the stairs by her hair and raped with a broken bottle. This served to show them what would happen if they tried to escape. And I asked her, freely? To what point, freely?”.

Catholic women religious fight in the front line against trafficking and forced prostitution. In recent years networks such as Renate and Talitha Kum have come into being. I asked Sr Lea, do you see others in civil society who are likewise worried about the victims of forced prostitution? “There are female groups, often left-wing, who like us are against prostitution and its recognition as a profession. However, what the women religious and the networks do goes beyond lobbying and consists of practical action. We help these women to find a profession, to have protected spaces, to care for their children. My principle is: we cannot say “Oh, what a horrible thing you do”, and limit ourselves to this. We must seek with every effort alternatives for each one of these women”.

What are the roots of the commitment, of Catholic women religious in particular, against trafficking? “Religious have always been concerned with tragic situations and with shortcomings in society. The education of girls started with the women religious. For centuries hospitals existed because religious threw themselves headlong into them. We exist to begin building, already here and now, the Kingdom of God. Jesus belongs to all those who are in need. I was naked and you clothed me. I was in prison and you came to see me. Our task is to identify this wretchedness in its ever new forms and to lessen it.

Because of this kind of wretchedness she also took on some foster children, together with the Pallottine Father Fritz Köster, with whom for decades, until his death two years ago, she lived in celibate communion in a parish house. “We often gave hospitality to women who wanted to continue their education but had just had babies. Then we sought foster parents, and we ourselves became the foster parents for four children. Today these children are all between 25 and 27 years old, they have all followed their paths and their mothers have done so too. At Christmas and Easter we would always have a full house with at least 20 people, the mothers, other women with children. It was so lovely! This is Christian communion. I would like there to be far more parish houses open to this service. It was a true gift”. It is a particular form of religious life.

What does the time you spent with Fr Köster mean to you today? “It was marvellous. We strengthened each other in our respective religious commitment. Fr Köster was a theology teacher, reflective, open to the world, a good man and deeply loved also by the smallest. For many people, and not only for me and the children, he was a person who really knew how to respect others. One woman once said to me that he had restored her dignity. Fr Köster helped me to build SOLWODI. He was committed from the very first moment”.

A mixed celibate coexistence of a woman religious and a man religious: did the religious superiors or bishops ever raise disciplinary objections? “No, never. Our foster children were so to speak also witnesses of our form of life. They would have noticed, once they had grown up, if we had not behaved to each other as a sister and a priest. They would have found themselves in a community of lies in which many things happened secretly. Instead it was quite the opposite. We had a very open house. Everyone could come. Come and see! It was exactly this which made Christianity so attractive from the outset”.

The foundress of SOLWODI is 78 years old. Where does she find the strength to continue her work today? “I certainly have a robust constitution”, she answered. “Of course, I ask myself how long it can go on for. Then questions also arise and sometimes the doubt that what I believe in is all true. And then I immediately apologize and say: dear God, forgive me. When I look at everything that is born from nothing, without even knowing how it was born, then I can only say that on my own I would never have done it. It could only have been done with God’s help”.

Gudrun Sailer

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