NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, March 31st. We’re glad you’ve joined us today for WORLD Radio.
Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.
Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a story that you may want to come back to later if you have young children around. You’ve got a few seconds to press pause before we start our story.
Lausanne, Switzerland sits on the shores of Lake Geneva. It’s known for its beautiful views of the lake and the Alps. But it’s also known for something ugly: legal prostitution.
World’s European Correspondent Jenny Lind Schmitt recently joined volunteers from a ministry that’s reaching out to women in prostitution. Here’s their story.
JENNY LIND SCHMITT, CORRESPONDENT: It’s 11 p.m. in Lausanne, Switzerland. With the wind chill, the temperature is 17 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s a night to bundle up and stay inside. Instead, Vanessa Randewijk and volunteers of Port’espoir, are heading out to bring warm drinks and hope to women who work the streets.
Lausanne has a long history of street prostitution. More recently authorities have said sex work should be considered a “normal job.” They claim it’s the social stigma that causes the problems that go along with prostitution. With regulations and social aid, they’ve attempted to make working conditions better for women. Vanessa Randewijk says that’s like trying to wear nice clothes over gangrene.
RANDEWIJK: Because it is not a real job.
The Covid crisis has shown just how much of a sham the system is. Because it’s legal, women working in prostitution pay taxes and unemployment insurance. But because they’re considered independent contractors, they never benefit from the system they pay into. Randewijk says vagueness around their legal status is convenient for the local government.
RANDEWIJK: Because if they open that can of worms to try to figure that out, they will realize this is not a decent job. You know? But so has been prostitution for ages. It was always the last resort for a woman.
Randewijk first reached out to the women in Lausanne after attending a seminar on showing compassion in your own city. She had no experience with this kind of ministry, but she knew God was calling her. So, she figured if this was the ladies’ “job,” then they should also have a coffee break from that job. She loaded up thermoses of coffee and hot chocolate and bags of snacks.
RANDEWIJK: It’s the weird gift of small talk. If I meet her for the first time, I’m like, do you want tea and coffee.
Most of the women were receptive and happy to have someone to talk to. Many say they are Christians and are grateful for prayers..
AUDIO: [rolling bag]
Out on the street tonight, the roller bag containing the thermoses echoes loudly from the warehouses in this part of town. At first volunteers wondered if they should carry the bag instead, to be quieter. Then they realized the women welcome the sound announcing their arrival.
VOLUNTEER: Tea? Hot Chocolate? Yeah, yeah, yeah. Chocolate or tea?
A group of young women appear and gratefully take steaming cups of tea. They accept the snacks and hats that friends of the ministry have crocheted for them.
WOMAN: Il fait froid! Thank you so much.
When they dash off again, one stays behind. She says her name is Anna, and readily accepts when volunteer Olivier Raess asks to pray for her.
RAESS: Jesus we bless Anna. Thank you because you love her.
Raess makes sure she knows about local assistance to help victims of human trafficking. They have a trailer set up in the next street.
RAESS: You know if you didn’t choose to come here, there is an association that can help you get out.
Anna says she knew what she was getting into, but later Randewijk says that’s likely only partially true. Many women are brought from impoverished countries with promises of jobs, then are forced into prostitution to repay “travel fees” to pimps.
RANDEWIJK: That’s why I prefer to talk to them individually because probably one of them is watching the other ones also. They all live in the same apartment and probably one of them is the ‘mama,’ you know.
Women from different countries stick together: Romanian women on this corner, Bulgarians one street over, Africans further up the main street, and women from Latin America across the boulevard.
RANDEWIJK: This is the line. So that is the limit, that red thing. Here you can prostitute yourself, but here you can’t prostitute yourself.
Red corners painted on the sidewalk show the limits of the zone of legal prostitution.
Across the street we meet Camille, who accepts the offer of a drink and conversation. She takes a yellow hat, then asks if she can have one for her daughter as well. She has three young children who stay with her mother in Romania. Her father doesn’t work and has health problems. When she talks about them, her face betrays her worry. She wants to go home to visit, but says she doesn’t have enough money.
AUDIO: [street sounds]
While potential customers drive up and down the street eyeing the women, Randewijk prays for Camille and her family.
RANDEWIJK: We want them to connect with who they are when they are not a prostitute. We usually ask questions about families, Do they have children? What did you want to do when you were growing up? What did you dream about? But our goal is really for them to have that break.
The legalization of prostitution here has made it harder to fight for change. When something isn’t against the law, society tends to think it’s acceptable, even beneficial. But tonight all it’s highlighting is how it allows the abuse of women from poor countries.
RANDEWIJK: When you look at prostitution in Switzerland, suddenly you are looking at issues in Romania and issues in Nigeria that lead those ladies to come here.
The name of the ministry is Port’espoir, or door of hope. In French it can also mean “carrier of hope.” Randewijk says being a hope-carrier means that Port’espoir will continue, whether or not women eventually change, because God says they’re worth it.
RANDEWIJK: We bring hope. We want to be the friends that they need at that moment. Sometimes it’s to laugh, sometimes it’s to cry. Sometimes it’s to complain. We just make ourselves available for a time.
AUDIO: [rolling bag]
Later, when it’s time for us to go, we pass Camille again. She’s getting into the passenger side of a customer’s car, no longer wearing the yellow hat.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jenny Lind Schmitt in Lausanne, Switzerland.