EMMA BREWSTER was born in Bermuda and grew up in the UK. She trained as a primary school teacher, moved to South Africa in 2009, and is currently working for SIM (Serving in Mission), advising organisations and churches globally how best to serve their local universities. Here, she talks to JEAN ALFELD about her involvement with Word on the Street, a project in Cape Town that reaches out to women involved in prostitution…
‘My prayer is that we’d look at these ladies differently’: Emma Brewster feels called to serve women involved in prostitution, many of whom she says are very lonely and fragile | Photo: Tonya Hester
‘When I moved to Cape Town, my heart went out to the ladies in prostitution that I saw walking along Kenilworth Main Road. I felt sick when I saw clients cruising up in their cars to pick them up and started to pray about what I could do for these vulnerable women. Soon after, I heard about Word on the Street, a group of people who meet every Thursday evening and reach out to such women in the Kenilworth and Wynberg area. They’re part of a citywide initiative that falls under the umbrella of an organisation called Straatwerk. I went to investigate what they were about, and soon became committed to serving on the team.
We meet at a local church to pray, then spend an hour and a half on the streets: one group heads to Wynberg, and one towards Claremont. We chat to the women, getting to know them, giving them hope for a future, ways in which they could leave the work they’re currently in. We always offer to pray with them and hand out scripture verses on laminated cards; some have stuck them on the walls above their beds, others have got a scrap book they put them in to remind them of God’s promises. We leave them with our team phone number so that they can arrange to meet up with us away from the street if they want to chat further and consider their options. We return to the church as a team and pray for each lady individually
While this work isn’t easy, I’m motivated by the fact that they are loved by, and precious to, God. Some have managed to walk away from the street; one is now in a part time job, receiving on-going counselling and life-skills training and is really seeking to understand how to live a fully integrated life in her community and society. This is no mean feat after a life of living on the street where it was just about getting through that day, and drugs and drink were a daily reality whilst her toddler played in the dirt of the street. Others have come off the street for anything between four and 18 months but are now back again, and this is so very hard to witness. But each one is known by God and we trust them to His care, for we believe that it’s only in His strength that any of these ladies can be made whole.
There are complex challenges facing these ladies; often their journey begins with sexual abuse at an early age, then involves drug and/or alcohol abuse. Some are victims of trafficking. Caught in a downward spiral, the ladies can’t imagine a different lifestyle. In a strange way, the work becomes their security and the thought of leaving it is terrifying. Some have been on the street since they were 14. There’s a lack of shelters and care homes for them to go to as a first base. Good counselling and support are desperately needed to help them equip themselves for, and find, alternative work: not so easy with unemployment in the country being so prevalent. With the lure of a reasonable income on the street, it can take many attempts to walk away from prostitution completely. Most of these women don’t want to be where they are. It’s a dangerous place and they often suffer violent abuse. As one lady said, ‘It’s like playing Russian roulette each night.’
A few years ago, I chatted to a young girl who arrived in Cape Town, lured by the hope of a job from a man she met in a nightclub in Johannesburg. Before she knew it, she was given a short dress, a pack of condoms and left on Kenilworth Main Road. We met her in her first week, timid and fearful, longing to get on the next bus home to Johannesburg. Four months later she was totally immersed in the world of prostitution and caught up in the spiral of evil around her. We’ve no idea where she is now, but she’s often in our prayers.
While many may look at these women and criticise them, I believe they’re precious people made in the image of God, just like you and me. One lady said she runs from her flat to the shops to get a Coke, convinced that everyone is looking at her in disgust, even when no-one could know because she’s not dressed for work. It’s a terribly lonely life for many of them. My prayer is that we might look at these ladies differently. They may be a closed lily in the messiness and smell of a stagnant pond, but they have the potential for their petals to open and to be transformed into something beautiful.’