Lourdes Perramón: "Something that characterizes us as a Congregation is our permanent dynamism".

Re-elected in 2019 as Superior General of the Oblates, Lourdes Perramón, born in Manresa in 1966, has worked as an educator, social worker and a reference in the work of raising awareness of the world of prostitution, especially through the Congregation's own projects. As she points out: "Among the women in prostitution themselves, there are not only different discourses, but also different experiences" to which the Oblates offer their closeness and help. 

Maria José Atienza-September 16, 2022-Reading time: 6 minutes

Interview with the Superior General of the Oblates of the Most Holy Redeemer in Spain, Lourdes Perramón.

"Let all our hearts overflow with charity for the girls whom heaven entrusts to us. May we also be their mothers without any partiality, and with holy love and boundless patience, may we strive to make them abhor vice and love virtue, even more by our examples than by our words.". This is how Antonia María de Oviedo y Schönthal, foundress of the Oblates of the Most Holy Redeemer, whose bicentennial will be celebrated in 2022, conceived her work more than a century ago.

Together with Bishop José María Benito Serra, the young María Antonia, who had been a tutor to the Infantas of Spain, dedicated her life to the reception and liberation of women who had been prostitutes. What today we call "feminine empowerment" was, for this committed and courageous woman, a path to holiness and the materialization of the love of God. 

The Oblate charism is a "peripheral" charism. Since it began more than a hundred years ago, what changes have you noticed?

-Since then, the reality of women, and above all the way of understanding and approaching them, as well as the tools we have to intervene, have changed a great deal. However, I would say that the essentials in the way we approach and accompany them remain the same. 

It remains in terms of the deep sense of welcome, something that is born from our charism. There remains the attentive and honest listening to reality, letting it speak and welcoming what it tells us, overcoming preconceptions; and there remains something that for us is fundamental, believing in women and believing in their possibilities, accompanying from what we call the pedagogy of love. This has many nuances, but it goes hand in hand with understanding, tenderness, patience, mercy, complicity..., and everything that favors the empowerment of the person. 

Perhaps we could summarize it in that ability to see the woman beyond the activity she performs, and seeing her for what she is, walking together. 

How has your work adapted to the changing needs of this world?

-In broad terms, I would point to four major changes. 

One, perhaps very visible, is from a more inward work, since the congregation was born with what were then called asylums, to a work that, without ruling out residential support, starts from the "outward", from stepping on the reality, from touching the concrete situations where women find themselves, with the approach to clubs, prostitution apartments and other places where they are.

Another relevant change would be the passage from the sisters working practically alone, to a rich dynamism and experience of the sisters. shared missionWe have a team of professionals, volunteers, but also, and more and more, lay people who receive, and with whom we share, the same Oblate charism permeating and shaping their lives. This means that today we could no longer understand our mission if it were not in the context of the Oblate charism. shared mission, nor understand the charism if it is not lived, celebrated and enriched in the joint journey between religious and lay life.

It has also changed from defining projects and offering responses locally and quite autonomously to working in a network, with many other projects or institutions, both public and private. A network of articulations, support, alliances..., where complementarity and addition arise and which allows us to offer a more comprehensive and integrating intervention to women. 

And perhaps the last great change would be to combine the accompaniment of women in their vital processes in the work also the dimension of awareness, social transformation and political action, to influence the contexts, go to the causes and defend the rights of women as citizens. 

What kind of projects do the Oblates carry out in the world?

-The type of project varies somewhat according to the reality of the city, the country, the culture and, of course, the needs of the women. However, there are some characteristics that are taken care of and remain in the different places where we are. 

A first element would be this approach to women in their reality of prostitution. This involves regular visits, either on roads, greenhouses, bars, streets, clubs... where, overcoming the feeling of distance that they experience due to rejection and stigma, a progressive relationship and links are developed through listening and empathy, which makes it possible to know their desires and needs. An individual and personalized welcome to each woman without restrictions that, little by little, in the exchange of information, opens up a world of possibilities usually unknown to them. 

This leads to the development of an individualized plan, oriented towards their dream, their life project, addressing health, educational and legal issues and, above all, providing them with assessment and confidence in their possibilities. 

In our projects, accompaniment, in which different professionals may intervene, plays a fundamental role, sometimes extending to other members of the family, especially the sons and daughters. 

It is also essential to carry out differentiated processes in which, depending on the country or reality of the women we serve, training courses, entrepreneurship, spaces for spirituality or care, shelter and protection for victims of trafficking, job placement or support for their own struggles, building together paths to defend their rights as citizens, depending on the social and political context.

How does one restore an inner and physical life marked by sexual exploitation?

-I would say that each person is different, there is no recipe that can be generalized. It is essential, in all cases, to listen a lot, to help them tell their own story and heal wounds. All this from the reception, understanding and overcoming the feeling of guilt. For this, it is necessary to name and recognize what they feel as a wound, because it does not always go hand in hand with the feeling of exploitation, but it does include in almost all cultures and countries the experience of social rejection and stigma that entails a significant devaluation and, often, shame. 

From there, it is fundamental to help women reconnect with their own person and capabilities, with their vital project, their dreams, because only when each woman is able to enter into her essence as a person, as a woman, is it possible for her to move forward. 

I find very enlightening the words of a woman who said: "You have been my switch, because I had a light inside and I didn't know it". I think that's what restoring a life is all about: making a woman discover that light inside her. 

In a world that looks especially at women, is it not incongruous to accept prostitution?

-Prostitution is a complex, plural reality, and not only in the conditions in which prostitution is exercised and in which women find themselves. From there, we really need a more comprehensive approach that includes, on the one hand, more resources and protocols to detect and protect those who are victims of trafficking, as well as sensitivity and political motivation and police training to prosecute this crime and restore the rights of victims.

On the other hand, faced with the other realities of prostitution, rather than persecution, what should be favored in large part is prevention. A prevention that goes to the real causes, both structural poverty, since in most life stories we discover that it has been the lack of opportunities that has forced women to enter the environment of prostitution, as well as a rethinking of migration flows and restrictive immigration laws, because being in an irregular situation is another great door to prostitution. 

Along with prevention, it is necessary to continue increasing social and training resources, encouraging the labor market, small businesses, and offering protection to single or more vulnerable women so that those who are looking for another option from which to rebuild their life projects can do so. Finally, we cannot forget the necessary questioning of stereotypes and social rejection that continues to force all of them to hide and carry the weight of stigma. 

In this year that marks the bicentenary of Mother Maria Antonia's birth, what are the challenges for the future of the Congregation? 

-I dare to point out three major challenges. The first is to perceive and understand the new codes and emerging realities that are emerging in prostitution and trafficking. From there, to listen and enter into the new frontiers that we are detecting: geographical frontiers, virtual frontiers, a reality that was already happening and that with the pandemic context has been growing and brings us new forms of prostitution, in everything that is being called "Prostitution 2.0"; and also existential borders, those realities that often remain outside of everything, in the margins and peripheries not only of society, but also of the care resources themselves, social policies and ideological discourses and positioning, because they do not fit into the predefined "profiles".

Another challenge would be to encourage more networking at the level of the congregational body. To grow in articulation among the projects in the 15 countries where we are present in order to learn from each other, share good practices and innovative initiatives in the face of new challenges, systematize our own knowledge and offer it, not only to the teams of professionals, but also to society as a whole. To make our efforts profitable in the common cause that mobilizes us. 

Finally, to continue taking steps in the shared mission and the journey with the Oblate laity. Perhaps it would be necessary to strengthen and take more steps in delegating responsibilities, working towards greater equality; with the laity, to take care not only to share mission but also to share life, discernment and, among all of us, to assume bolder responses to new challenges, also together with other congregations.

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