Michelle Lanspa

Michelle Lanspa (Transnational AIDS Prevention among Migrant Prostitutes in Europe Project – TAMPEP): Michelle is from Omaha, Nebraska. She graduated from the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown university, where she majored in science and technology in international affairs with a concentration in international health. Michelle participated in many social justice activities and groups at college, including the Georgetown-UNICEF club, Education Without Boundaries (Project Argentina), and Global Justice Now (the Student Campaign for Child Survival). Michelle loves learning language learning. She learned Italian and Arabic, and had a chance to practice her language skills as an intern at the US Embassy in Rome and while studying abroad at the American University of Cairo in Egypt.

One Person at a Time

10 Jul

Written: 3 July 2007

Last Thursday, I went with two TAMPEP colleagues and AP fellow Leslie to help participate in TAMPEP’s street outreach. This activity, called Unità di Strada (UDS, or mobile street unit in English), is the heart and soul of TAMPEP’s work. A small combination of TAMPEP employees, cultural mediators, and volunteers (usually two or three persons) pack the van with pamphlets containing information on our office hours and services, AIDS, other health concerns, and TAMPEP projects. Another basket nestled into the back seat contains lube, condoms, and Gildo – our rubber friend that comes in handy when we must demonstrate to the girls how to properly use the condoms.

I have to admit, I did not feel prepared for this at all. After enjoying a nice relaxing dinner at the director, Rosanna’s, apartment, she suggested I go with Leslie to do UDS. With all the other summer interns in the office, and me staying here until October, it had been informally decided that I would wait to join in on this activity.

I expected the women to be very closed, and perhaps bothered or offended by us approaching them. I realized, however, after seeing my colleagues in action after the first few girls, that all it takes is a warm smile, openness, and flat-out honesty to get the job done. We sit down next to them on the curbs, exchange names, and begin the conversation. We tell them about our office – when to stop by, what other materials we can offer for free, how we can accompany them for medical exams or advice them on other legal issues. We ask them what they know about AIDS, whether the police or their clients give them problems and meanwhile take in information about their personal situation in Italy.

I didn’t feel like any of the information exchange was condescending. I felt like it was the perfect way to really reach a population of women so in need of many things – medical care, information on their rights, the possibility to go home… Despite the many other problems I know migrants face in host countries, especially sex worker migrants, I know that access to information is key. I thought, yeah, information campaigns are great and often effective, but this, this really reaches out to each individual. This is a conversation with every woman on the street, the only dialogue that discovers personal and collective needs. And each girl did have her own story – one had been on the same corner for six years, for another it was only her second night in the country. Each beautiful girl had a different personality that you could discern from her hair-do, her conversation, her side comments about the work.

The point I want to make is that, while I thought this before, it never became so urgent for me to shout it out until this week – being a prostitute does not equal being a moral monster. Trafficked or not, having chosen the profession or not (more on this argument in blogs to come), sex workers, and dare I say it, even their clients, are still human beings. The bigger point being that addressing questions like whether to legalize prostitution or not, how to stop trafficking and violence against women, or how to cure the male clients and society of their psychological and/or physical need for love with a stranger, according to me, requires realism. And seeing TAMPEP work has made me think the best way to realism is by dealing with individuals.

That night we were in an industrial part of town, streets where mostly Nigerian girls kept the pavement warm. To over a dozen girls in their 20s and 30s we explained TAMPEP’s relatively new project Turnaround. I think this project also highlights TAMPEP’s concern for individual girls. Within Project Turnaround, TAMPEP will visit Nigerian girls that might have been incarcerated in the CPT (see my blog “Don’t Come – The Italians Want to Destroy You” for more information on the CPT) because they were without documents (not because they were working as a prostitute – my next blog will address this legal situation). TAMPEP will also greet these girls at the airport in Nigeria and provide them with something to eat, a phonecard, and other assistance.

The major work of Turnaround and Tampep’s office in Nigeria involves helping girls in Italy that have decided to leave their work in Italy and go home to Nigeria. Some of these Nigerians are girls that do not want to denounce their traffickers for various reasons and therefore cannot really stay in Italy due to the difficulty of finding a job without documents. In Italy, with each girl, they have various meetings with her to make sure she is ready for the return. They also call the girls’ family, or have staff in Nigeria visit family members. Once in Nigeria, they assess each girl’s goals and help her enroll in an appropriate course.

TAMPEP has not just organized a program and found people to stick in it; rather, they have found girls in need and have helped them to access programs and available resources to help them help themselves. While it would be ideal to have the power and knowledge to stop trafficking or prostitution all at once, I really think TAMPEP’s effort to understand each person’s situation, and to move case by case, is moving societies in the right direction.

Posted By Michelle Lanspa

Posted Jul 10th, 2009

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