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Women are forced to sell their bodies to survive: EXIST brings light to an industry of darkness

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EXIST is an organization of volunteers that tries to help women in need. (Photo: Ida Söderholm)

How can you help women that are victims of human trafficking and are being exploited mentally and sexually? Student writer Ida Söderholm has dedicated a large part of her free time to aid these women of the streets through the organization EXIST. Read about her experiences, doubts and fears.

News |   25. May 2022

Ida Söderholm

Student Writer

I don’t know if you have noticed, but every night of the week, victims of human trafficking can be spotted working on and around the streets of Istedgade in Copenhagen.

Most of them are women who have been enticed to Denmark by the promise of work or education and have put themselves in debt as an investment in future opportunities.

On arrival, they are told that the only way to pay the money back and ever return home is to sell their bodies.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t noticed. I too, was oblivious to this fact until a few months ago.

Having to sell your body against your will is a reality most of us are unable to grasp. Even though, hopefully I will never be able to comprehend what that emotional and physical pain feels like, I still know that being exploited in that way is one of my greatest fears.

EXIST is an organization here in Denmark that works to empower women trapped in prostitution to change their lives and improve their conditions. I have been volunteering there together with many others for the past few months. Together, we try to bring light and hope to an industry full of darkness and despair.

Eliaskirken at Vesterbro

Eliaskirken works as a place of refuge for women on the streets of Copenhagen. (Photo: Ida Söderholm)

Every Wednesday night, EXIST holds the doors to Elijah´s church at Vesterbro Torv open for women in prostitution who are out working the streets.

This initiative is called the Night Light Café and is based on the incentive to create a safe space for women who spend many hours of the day in places that must feel like pure chaos.

Volunteers gather at 23:30 and walk around in pairs handing out tea and condoms and spreading the word that the Night Light Café is open.

If their schedule allows for it, the women often come in a bit later to get something to eat and drink, play games, paint their nails, or simply just take a break and just exist.

More Ukrainian women have begun selling their bodies to earn money for themselves and their families

Ida Söderholm

Most of the women we encounter during our nightshifts are from Nigeria.

Unwritten rules regulate which nationalities of women are allowed to work at which specific times. Eastern European women are often seen working their shifts during the day, and since the war imposed on Ukraine commenced, more Ukrainian women have begun selling their bodies to earn money for themselves and their families.

Purchasing sex from vulnerable victims is an act of violation. While such violators, in different scenarios and under varying circumstances, continue to show no empathy or pity for their victims, it is also true that those of us witnessing such suffering should do what we can to help.

If you wish to sign up as a volunteer at the Night Light Café, donate, become a member for DKK 200 a year, or contribute via other competences to EXIST, visit https://exist-ngo.org to find out more.

Istedgade at Vesterbro

The red lights at Istedgade in Copenhagen reveal an industry where women sell their bodies to be able to bring food on the table. (Photo: Ida Söderholm)

In disregard of the truth, peace cannot exist

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t leave my shifts at the Night Light Café with a heavy heart. But I know that when the clock turns 3 AM and I make my way home, I can take a shower and wash off the despair of seeing men purchasing sex from vulnerable women.

I know that I can cleanse away the imagined feeling of how it would be to walk in those women’s shoes for just one night. I crawl into bed, fall asleep, and wake up in a place that feels safe.

But reality for the women I meet during the night is much different.

I have seen how they try to create safe spaces for themselves and each other. But you simply cannot wash off the feeling of being violated or the feeling of being treated as if you don’t matter.

One realization that my time working at EXIST has taught me is that a heavy heart and contentment can coexist. Facing the truth and taking action can give you a sense of peace to some extent.

Closing our eyes to evil practices happening outside our reality doesn’t mean that they disappear. Nor does it mean that they have nothing to do with us.

For years, I have had nightmares about being trafficked. I wake up feeling nauseous just at the thought of it. Every time, I decide to get up the next day and take steps to help those trapped in the reality of my bad dream.

giphy illustration of woman crying
(Illustration: Giphy.com)

Is it OK for me to think of my own problems?

But as I wake up the next morning, my own problems begin drowning out the painful revelations of my nightmare.

And yes, my problems matter, and so do yours. I cannot stress that enough.

Yet, I find that the best way to heal my own pain is to acknowledge and validate my problems, no matter how small and insignificant they might seem to someone else.

And then, in the space I have left, turn my attention to others who need to be listened to and cared for.

Night Light Café and the EXIST organization are both places where I feel seen, listened to, and valued.

It is beautiful to be around people who share my passion for similar causes and who show up with openness and love.

The organization has very diverse members. They come from different areas of study and have different personalities.

One of the things I appreciate most about the work that we do together is the way in which our differences are considered strengths and are celebrated, welcomed, and valued.

I feel as if that is the key to almost everything in life – to facilitate love wherever you go and go wherever you are loved.

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