By Astrid Søndberg
Neighbours living behind the high hedge don’t know that they are living next to Denmark’s only safe house for women who have been forced into prostitution.
Nor do they know that sex traders have been searching for the house ever since it was established last autumn.
The house looks like all the other homes in the residential street on the outskirts of Copenhagen, with apple trees casting their shadows over an ordinary lawn.
But the vegetable garden is larger than normal. Full of green rows of onions, spinach and other vegetables it has been planted by the women as one of the jobs designed to give them responsibility and skills that can prepare them for a future life in freedom.
Both the training and life in the house are managed by a man in his 50s. His name is Christian – both here in the house and out in the street, although that is not his real name. Ever since Christian met Rose crying on a bench five years ago, he has had to hide his real identity.
Rose became the first of many foreign women Christian has helped escape life as an enslaved prostitute.
Working with the women cost Christian his job, holiday home and apartment, and although it all started by chance he wouldn’t dream of giving it up. Ever.
“I can’t refuse people. What is the price of a life?” he asks.
Voluntary doctors help
Christian has definitively waved goodbye to a normal life and lives on the second floor of the house - next to a small medical clinic where voluntary nurses and doctors are always on call and willing to help if they are needed.
At the clinic, they conduct medical examinations and treatment for venereal diseases, as well as treating girls who have been beaten or abused by traffickers or customers.
Sex traders searching
Christian is well aware that sex traders are searching for his secret address, and he takes great care to explain that neither the house nor the women must be described in precise detail. And despite the constant threat he says it is unlikely that any of his guests will say too much - by accident or even if threatened.
“The girls are incredibly good at keeping secrets. Pain and secrets! They keep mum because it is their only chance to escape. But it is a risk we have to live with.”
A quiet place after a night’s work
In contrast to other organisations that target prostitutes, Christian and the private Safe and Alive fund that helps to pay the bills, have never actively contacted the women.
“They have contacted us, and it is up to the girls whom they feel they can trust. We only see them when they are ready to come forward,” says Christian.
Christian says that 41 women currently have access to the house - about one third of the traded foreign prostitutes in Copenhagen. Five are permanent residents, and 15-20 visit regularly.
They often come for a meal and a moment’s peace when they have finished their night’s work on the street corners around Istedgade in Copenhagen, or at an exclusive nightclub.
“An increasing number of the women are in the process of tearing themselves away from their pimps. They move in secretly with one bag at the time, but there are lot of things that must be worked out before they dare take the final leap,” says Christian.
Maybe a new address
If the secret about the house should leak anyway, the solution is not locked doors and more security.
Instead the Safe and Alive foundation will find another place for the women, explains Christian as he is shows the house and points to portraits of women who escaped prostitution. One is a university student, another is a social and health care worker and so on. Christian is proud of each of them.