The Reverend Margaret Fowler takes a pragmatic approach to the heart-wrenching issue of human trafficking and prostitution: “We will never stop prostitution as a whole, but if you have skills to draw from, you can make another choice.”
Rev. Fowler makes this statement from her second-floor office at the Hope United Church in Kingston, where she has lived for 25 years. Rev. Fowler was a social worker from Scotland when she arrived in Kingston, where she studied at the University of West Indies, eventually becoming a Minister. She worked in Negril for a decade, combatting prostitution and helping vulnerable girls get off the streets.
The Reverend set up the Theodora project in 2004 to this end. “To take anybody out of anything, you have to provide alternatives.” So through the government’s HEART TRUST/NTA program, the girls are offered education in English, maths and some practical training in skills such as cosmetology, housekeeping and computers. The program has also expanded to include boys, who were trained as lifeguards. “This has been very good, because they could get jobs,” she says.
In addition to focusing on practical matters, the girls and boys receive counseling and life skills training, like how to dress for a job interview.
This program has since expanded to include the construction of a safe house in Negril, where, unfortunately, a lot of prostitution and trafficking occurs. “The project has been quite successful,” says the Reverend. In fact, it is poised to expand into a formal partnership with the Ministry of Justice.
The issue of prostitution and trafficking is not a new one, but Fowler says minimal research has been conducted. She would also like to shed more light on the issue of missing children.
According to the web site http://www.missingpersonsjamaica.com, hundreds go missing every year. There is also a constant flow of girls between the rural and urban areas, Rev. Fowler says.
Horrifically, the reason can usually be attributed to the mother, who is seeking to improve the family’s economic status. “The mothers send them out,” she says, adding that the girls are usually vulnerable in the sense that they lack education. “They have difficulty reading and writing,” she says.
As a result, another common scenario is that “taxi men” in the community end up taking care of these girls, in exchange for companionship. “The mothers tell them to go and be nice to these men because he’s going to take care of you.”
But the Reverend does not focus on these dire circumstances. “I believe that everybody has to have opportunity. I am motivated to provide opportunities that these girls might otherwise not get. I want to keep them away from older men.”