nconspicuous places by day: chatty school children amble past; the elderly sit out the front waiting for the bus; couples walk by hand in hand. But behind the doors of these unremarkable exteriors is an industry as much secretive as it is exposed.
Brothels on the Central Coast of NSW are dotted throughout its city hubs; they sit above or behind these centres of activity—a little bit down the road, above the shopfront, down the alleyway—some more concealed than others.
And once a month, on a Monday night, a pair of women carry baskets filled with beauty products and Bibles and walk down those alleyways, knocking on the doors beneath the big numbers and fluorescent lights. Neither worker nor client, these women are visiting with a new purpose—to show genuine friendship to the prostitutes inside.
These are Rahab women.
Rahab is the only service for sex workers of its kind on the Central Coast. Fleur Duke, a Seventh-day Adventist, began leading it in mid-2011 after reading the conversion story of American woman Harmony Dust in her book Scars and Stilettos. After finding freedom from her own life as a stripper, Dust established Treasures—an outreach and support group for women in strip clubs. Duke was itching to find someone in Australia participating in this kind of ministry. And that’s when she heard about Rahab.
Rahab began in Adelaide in 2003, founded by Paullette Cairns, a woman passionate about showing sex workers another way of life. Outreach teams are made up of Christian women willing to visit local brothels. Their goal is to offer help to sex workers in a variety of ways: friendship, gifts, prayer, English lessons or a way out of possible slavery or trafficking.
Cairns began the non-denominational organisation following visits to sex workers in Southeast Asia.
“But I had a weakness for languages,” she says. “I told a friend that I wanted to work with Vietnamese women but (couldn't) pick up the language . . . she said, ‘Why don’t you work here in Adelaide? No-one is working with the sex workers in Adelaide.’ And a coin just went click into my spirit. And I pursued it."
Cairns found her calling on the streets when she met a sex worker for the first time.
“The very first girl I met said to me that every job she did, she died inside. That spoke volumes to me. So that was the key that God was putting in me—that girls were dying on the inside while they were servicing a man,” she says. “Women are built to be loved, especially through sex, and to have no love and just cold sex is very empty.”
A report in 2012 about the NSW sex industry by the Kirby Institute, affiliated with the University of New South Wales’ Faculty of Medicine, estimates between 1500 and 10,000 sex workers are working at any one time in NSW (a specific number is hard to determine due to the secrecy and high turnover of the sex industry). The report also shows that two-thirds of sex workers in NSW come from Asian (53.2 per cent) or other non-English speaking (13.5 per cent) countries. Nearly half of these workers rated their English as "fair" or "poor". Many of them remain on the margins of society—uneducated and afraid to leave the brothels to go to the shops because of their inability to communicate in English.
They are tentative in their conversations with Rahab women; some haven’t ever seen an Australian woman in the flesh. Rahab offers free English lessons to any worker.
Cairns has seen the power that language brings. “It empowers the women," she says. "A lot of the women don’t speak any English . . . So if they’re abused they don’t know their rights, they can’t shop, they can’t do anything without English.
“It helps them understand why that woman walks past every day at nine o’clock and she goes, ‘Hello', and maybe make a relationship and maybe they won’t be so alone.”
Duke can’t help but talk maternally of the “beautiful girls”. To her the sex workers are family.
“It’s like they’re my own sisters or aunts or friends," she says.
“If my daughter was stuck in a brothel I would want someone to be visiting her. I would want her to know that if she needed to tell someone that she wanted to get out or needed help . . . then there was a face that she knew she could trust.”
Cairns believes in “loving the women for who they are”. Previously a manager of a young women’s shelter and a street chaplain, she is no stranger amongst sex workers in Adelaide. She relates to the girls through a shared understanding of brokenness.
“You realise that they’re just a broken girl, they’re just like you and me . . . because of the brokenness of my life I see what they’re going through. So I think they’re great women.”
Some places do not open their doors to Rahab visitors but Duke believes the sex workers are looked after.
“If we’re praying for the ones we’ve met and even the ones we haven’t met, God knows who they are and he can look after them,” she says.
A closed door does not deter her.
“We don’t fear; we are used to it. We know there are girls down the end of the road who could be needing a lift back or just to be ministered to. To me, God has looked after us all these years,” she says.
Recently, Rahab expanded internationally. From its humble beginnings in Adelaide, it has now opened new outreach teams in the UK, Mexico and Papua New Guinea. The expansion comes unexpectedly and through word of mouth.
“Pretty much everywhere we go it accidentally gets started,” says Rahab program coordinator Sharon Hawke.
She explains how a chance meeting with a stranger on a bus in London led to a Rahab branch opening on the streets of London.
“We were praying that day, then we met someone on a bus who said that we needed to go to the church and speak at the church. That’s how it started in London,” Hawke says.
Cairns believes international growth is vital. “Rahab has to grow because there is a thriving sex industry all around the world and many people don’t believe that the sex workers can be reached. They think that it’s organised crime, they think it’s trafficking, they think it’s far too dangerous. But we’ve got a God who created the heavens and earth and He’s much bigger than we are and He can protect us . . .”
For the outreach teams, it’s the moments of connection that keep them going out every month. Duke remembers one time as she was leaving a brothel.
“A lady grabbed my hand and just wouldn’t let go. And that kind of thing really tugs at my heart big time. You can really feel the connection,” she says.
“I was just happy that we could be there in that moment whatever that meant for her . . . I won’t know I guess but maybe one day. But that was special.”
Both Duke and Cairns attribute the success of these connections to their faith.
“We don’t do a thing without God,” Cairns says.
“People were saying, ‘God is not in places like that’,” Duke says, “and then meeting the women and seeing how God was in them and talking to them through us was unbelievable.
Lara Campbell is editor of Avondale College's student magazine, The Voice and is studying to be a high school English teacher.