Wendy Brown, director of Ellilta International, said little girls never dream of being forced to live on the streets and offer strangers sex in exchange for money.
That was one of the reasons she was inspired to start Ellilta International, a nonprofit organization based in Cleveland that seeks to prevent women from choosing or being forced to become prostitutes and to help them recover from the prostitution lifestyle.
“Ellilta” is a word in the Amheric language, which is spoken in the African country of Ethiopia. The word means “shout of joy” and is meant to describe a sound a person makes when they are celebrating something — the way Americans might say “hooray.”
Brown said it is “the joy that kind of starts deep inside and it just bubbles up.” That is the goal of Ellilta International and the organizations it partners with in Ethiopia and Uganda. She said the hope is to help women caught up in prostitution find joy by building relationships and helping them see they can accomplish more than “sex work.”
“You have to walk with someone,” Brown said. “We’re all on the same journey.”
Originally from Cleveland, Brown traveled to Ethiopia with a missions organization and worked there for three years after college. During that time she wrote and produced a radio show for the organization while seeing firsthand the effects of prostitution on women in Ethiopia. She later helped co-found an organization called Ellilta Women At Risk. In 2008, she founded Ellilta International. Both are completely separate organizations, but Brown said they work to accomplish the same goals.
While the Ellilta Women At Risk primarily focuses on directly working with women in Ethiopia, Ellilta International provides support both here and abroad. The Cleveland-based Ellilta International provides training for people working with women in or at risk of being involved in prostitution. One of the organization’s most recent projects has been shooting a film called “Sisters in Slavery” to be shown in African schools in an effort to prevent prostitution.
So far, the organization has seen successes in Africa, and Brown said she hopes to also continue the success in the United States.
She told the story of Sheila, an Ethiopian woman who overcame sexual abuse and a life of prostitution that had begun for her at the age of 8.
Brown said Sheila, whose name had been changed to protect her identity, told her that she grew up on the streets without parents and had been sexually abused at the age of 6. A man would buy bread for her and other children then take them home with him to abuse them. By the age of 8, she was on the street both begging and taking part in prostitution.
“Sometimes, I wished I could disappear,” Sheila said to Brown.
But Brown said Ellilta helped Sheila overcome her abuse and find new ways to support herself. While it does not operate as part of any church denomination, Ellilta International does its work from a Christian perspective. As such, some of the women who have been impacted by the program also mention their faith as part of their journeys to find their own shouts of joy.
“It’s really amazing, a woman like me being able to tell you my story,” Sheila said. “But most of all, what makes me cry is the amazement at what God did. If God had not come after me, I would not be alive right now.”
Brown said situations like Sheila’s were not uncommon.
One thing she said she wants people to know about prostitution is it is most often not something a woman has chosen to do.
“I don’t think the choice to become a prostitute is ever a choice,” Brown said.
Often, Brown said, a woman who has turned to prostitution was abused as a child. She said abuse — whether it be verbal, physical or sexual — can change how a girl perceives herself and her abilities.
“She grows up believing all she has to offer is sexual in nature and the only way she can make money is by providing sexual favors,” said Brown. “Then prostitution becomes a natural ‘choice’ — if you want to put it that way — for her.”
Though prostitution is often illegal and has negative perceptions attached to it, Brown said it can be a “gray area” for some women and girls. A woman may not have the adequate education or job skills to find work. Some single mothers may see the decision of whether or not to sleep with someone for money on a given night as the decision of whether or not her child can eat a meal that night. She argued that, in some cases, the choice presented to a woman at risk of prostitution is the only possible option the woman sees.
But for some, prostitution isn’t a choice at all. Human trafficking is another factor. Slavery doesn’t always look like a big, burly man kidnapping a woman off the streets, Brown said. It can also look like broken promises and lies. For example, someone may lure a woman from the country into a city with the promise of work. Once she arrives, she finds she was lied to about the nature of the work. She is often forced to stay and perform sexual favors to earn money for those who are keeping her captive through various means such as drugs.
Another thing Brown said she wants people to realize is activitiess like prostitution and human trafficking have happened in and around Bradley County.
“It’s very hard to convince people that it’s here,” Brown said. “You don’t see it on the street corners like you would in Las Vegas, but it definitely does exist.”
While prostitution in Cleveland is less common than in larger cities, Brown said women here face many of the same issues that make some turn to lifestyles of prostitution, and preventative measures are necessary.
She added that both Ellilta organizations have worked with more women who have been at risk of being caught up in prostitution than those who have actually taken part in it.
“We want to work with any woman with any risk factor in her life so she doesn’t have to make that choice,” Brown said. “We tend to think of prostitution as a nasty, dirty thing and forget the people and their stories that are involved in the vice of prostitution.”
Brown said she hopes to begin to help women in the Cleveland area overcome lifestyles of prostitution. Future plans include the possibilities of partnering with the Christian Women’s Job Corps to teach women new job skills and looking for ways to connect women to other resources they might need, such as counseling. While Ellilta has focused most of its efforts overseas, Brown said there is a need in Bradley County.
She said she is looking for volunteers to serve with her on an advisory council to assess how to best help women overcome things like sexual abuse, human trafficking and prostitution. She also hopes to compile a list of resources to share with women in Bradley County.
For more information about Ellilta International, visit its website, www.ellilta.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 505-9191.