EL ALTO, BOLIVIA
When she was eight, Janis and her family moved into a simple home in downtown El Alto, a chilly urban outgrowth of Bolivia’s administrative capital, La Paz. In some regards, Janis and her three sisters loved the new neighborhood, where the streets were often jammed with public transportation and market stalls.
They were a vulnerable household however; just five women. From inside the new house, they often overheard people being assaulted out on the sidewalk. A few years after moving in, Janis’ pre-teen sister was walking on the street when men grabbed her and forced her in a taxi. She quickly escaped, but trembled every time she needed to leave the house again. It wasn’t until years later, that Janis learned the true nature of her neighborhood.
As a teenager, she began to arrive home later. One evening, a man approached her and asked, “How much?” She hurried away, confused. Another day, her high school boyfriend mentioned concern for his reputation when being seen on her street at night. Soon, enough pieces came together, and Janis realized that the unmarked doors stretching on for blocks were, indeed – brothels.
The red-light district gradually expanded, and by the time she was 18, a woman stood outside Janis’ home each night for solicitation. The woman wore traditional Bolivian dress, and covered all but her eyes with a scarf. Men now gathered nearby, drinking beer and buying herbal aphrodisiacs.
Janis’ mother, frustrated by the growing danger for her daughters, often remarked, “How can those women do that?” As the industry enveloped more and more of the neighborhood, Janis’ family placed the blame on the prostituted women. One night, Janis’ mother demanded the woman outside the door leave, and the woman began standing a few blocks away. Soon thereafter, a man took her place, also selling sex.
When Janis was 25, the pervasive danger in the neighborhood became unbearable. Janis’ sister now had a young son with special needs. They found a house on the other side of the city, and were relieved by the withdrawal from the underworld of the red-light district, and from the people found there.
By 2013, El Alto had exploded to 2 million inhabitants and Janis had earned a degree in Accounting. As is customary in Bolivian culture, she continued to live at home, helping care for the house and for her beloved nephew with Autism. The house where they lived had a leaky roof in rainy season, but was otherwise workable for their needs.
Janis’ local church was an unlikely place to meet a foreigner. But there attended Alicia Bunch, a single woman with a U.S. passport but born and raised in Panama. She was in Bolivia serving as a therapist for Word Made Flesh. Janis and Alicia’s friendship grew, and when the Administrative Assistant position opened up at WMFB, she encouraged Janis to apply.
Janis did apply, and qualified. She knew that the organization provided services for women, but knew few details. Mostly, she looked forward to learning more about her position and responsibilities.
In her first days of work however, she learned that WMF Bolivia offered services to a specific set of women – those affected by prostitution. In fact, as a member of the team, she would interact with these women and their children, and even visit the red-light district where her family had lived a decade prior.
She was involved in a ‘formation group’ with other new staff, where they studied God’s heart of compassion, and the reality of prostitution. She learned how more than 90% of women in prostitution suffered sexual abuse as a child, and Former Executive Director, Mauricio Meneses, shared with her how most of the prostituted women that WMF Bolivia knows struggle to provide food for their families. She also began to see the responsibility of men in this issue of prostitution, instead of only focusing on the women.
“It’s transformed how I see them,” Janis says. “They’re my friends.” She has led an aerobics class for the women when she’s able to step away from the numbers, and enjoys meeting up with the women outside of the ministry center when she has the chance. And the transformation isn’t just for her: Janis went home and explained to her mother what she had learned. Her mother cried, repenting of blaming the women for bringing danger to their neighborhood and their family. She prays for them now, and knows that we all are in need of God’s grace.