Maryknoll Sr. Helene O'Sullivan has seen a lot. Drug-wasted women sleeping under bridges and in public bathrooms in Hong Kong. A 25-year-old left dead in the gutter after an overdose.
"Why do you bother with this trash?" the director of the funeral parlor had scolded when the Maryknoll Sisters arranged a burial that no one attended for the woman.
But the worst case, by far, was the woman from Poipet. Every time she had tried to leave the Cambodian brothel where she was imprisoned, the owner beat her and pulled out a tooth with pliers. One extraction per attempted escape, beginning with the molars. By the time the woman reached the shelter in the Cambodian capital of Phnomh Penh, where O'Sullivan worked, she was toothless.
The 70-year-old nun from Manhattan, N.Y., has devoted much of her life to empowering poor women through education. Since 1991, she has focused on women and girls trafficked in the sex trade. "No man is going to grow old with his prostitute," she says. The demand for prostitution requires trafficking, and it is poor young women lacking economic opportunity who are "fed into the prostitution machine."
Last fall, O'Sullivan launched a program in Phnomh Penh that provides basic education and intensive job training for formerly trafficked women and girls. O'Sullivan wants "none of this pink-collar stuff" for her graduates. No hawking vegetables in the market or shampooing hair in male-owned barber shops or working in factories where the higher wages always go to the men.
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