Former prostitute and heroin addict Mia de Faoite is possibly one of Ireland’s bravest women, up there with Christine Buckley, who died this week, in campaigning to end abuse and violence and create a conversation on sex trafficking and prostitution.
Mia told her story to a hushed and eventually emotional audience in Nenagh Arts Centre under the title of Inspirational Women, Inspiring Change, as part of the town’s events marking International Women’s Day. It was a story of addiction, despair, abuse, rape but, ultimatley, one of hope and redemption.
“By the time I took heroin for the first time at 33 I had already ticked the boxes for entry into prostitution,” she told the audience. “Money was not an option but I had a body to sell.”
The former health care manager said she was telling her story to “shine a light on the true face of prostitution. It is not pretty and is quite disturbing.”
Her addiction and street life saw her cut off from the rest of her family until eventually “my only human contact became the men who bought me”.
Working the Burlington Road area in Dublin’s leafy Dublin 4, Mia told of being gang raped, raped, doing “favours” for unscrupulous taximen offering her a lift home when she might be in distress, beatings for other vulnerable women on the road.
Describing the connection between rape and men using prostitutes, she said: “They can do it (rape) for real and get away with it.”
Althrough her experiences, heroin was the anaesthetic. “Heroin is an expert at shutting down your feelings.”
Ms de Faoite recalled how she walked off Burlington Road in October 2010 and “knew I’d never be back” after the Gardai “held out their hands” and introduced her to a social worker.
Full of praise for the Gardai and the social worker, she said: “I knew I had found someone who believed in me.”
Working with Ruhama, the organisation the helps women escape from prostitution, and the Rutland Centre for addiction, Mia changed her life around and is now studying at NUI Maynooth.
“Education is the key to freedom. I refused to let heroin and prostitution define me,” she said, and, despite the horrors of her past life, “the desire for vengeance is not mine”.
The Nenagh event was organised by the Waterford-based Men’s Development Network Ltd and was part of its Turn off the Red Light Campaign to end prostitution. The campaign is pushing to change the laws on how prostitution is seen in Ireland, and North Tipperary County Council, following a motion from Cllr Virginia O’Dowd, has joined with other groups in asking for that change.
“I stand alongside the Turn off the Red Light campaign. We need to fine offenders, jail pimps and give the Gardai the ability to deal with the issue. We need to take the female body out of the market,” said Mia, who received a standing ovation at the end of her speech.
Earlier, Rebecca Beegan of Men’s Development Network revealed that 48 women and 23 children were trafficked into Ireland in 2013 for the sex industry.
“Ireland is a destination, source and transit country for women, men and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labour,” she stated.
With only a tiny fraction of women now working on the streets, Ms Beegan said prostitution was being moved inside where there was a “lot of vilence behind doors”.
“Trafficking and prostitution are linked. We need to decriminalise the prostitute and criminalise the purchaser,” she said.
Former Limerick-based garda John O’Reilly, who worked in Bosnia, an dis author of Sex Slavery - the Way Back, revealed that a project he became part of in the Balkans rescued 265 women from prostitution in one year, “but we left a awful lot behind”.
“The women were suffering from fear of their pimps, the police force, traffickers. You can’t separate prostitution and trafficking,” he stated.
However, he said a lot of women remain in abusive situations because of stress, their survival instinct taking over their decision making ability and an unpredicable controlling environment keeping them on edge. “An offer of help could actually be a threat to their life,” he said.
The only way to break the cycle and help was to make a connection, to create a discepancy in their minds about when they felt happy in their past situation and how they feel in prostitution.
“You can’t be happy and sad at the same time. When you see the tears coming you know you have made the connection,” he said. “The more people tell their stories, the more you can bring down the trafficking gangs.”
Alan O’Neill, CEO, Men’s Development Network, oultned why there was a need to end violence against women.
“In one day last November, 537 women required support from a domestic violence service,” he revealed.
Mr O’Neill said it was “extraordinary that in a civilsed country we would allow prostitution to continue. A total of E250m was made by pimps in Ireland. There are brothels all across Ireland. One in four trafficked here is a child.”
One of the most startling figures he revealed was that one in 15 men buy sex. “That sounds like a small number, but that is nearly 85,000 men - about the same as filling Croke Park.”
He praised Cllr O’Dowd for having the motion on the Turn off the Red Light campaign passed at council. The call is now backed by 26 councils, “because of people like Virginia O’Dowd. You are lucky to have someone like Virginia in your community.”
The network is also backing the White Ribbon campaign to end violence against women, and their campaign has been backed by Ireland’s international soccer team, the Gardai, Pavee Point, international rugby players Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan, along with the IRFU, GAA commentator Micheal O Muircheartaigh, the Irish Defence Forces, ICTU and trades unions.
Mr O’Neill finished with the chilling observation: “The reality is there are women for sale in Nenagh tonight.”
For details on Men’s Development Network and the White Ribbon campaign log on to www.mensdevelopmentnetwork.ie