The sex workers’ friend
ROWAN MANTELL meets a woman who went from executive networking to befriending prostitutes and, at 70, is still finding new ways of helping.
A young woman was led into the dock. She looked very like Theresa's daughter. But instead of being secure and loved, with high hopes for the future, this woman was a prostitute. 'She was wearing dark glasses to hide the shame,' said Theresa Cumbers.
In an instant, Theresa's life changed.
She was a businesswoman and magistrate. But it was that appointment to the bench, in Norwich, which made her life veer dramatically from its course.
Soon, instead of sitting in judgement over the girls and women charged with prostitution, Theresa was out on the streets herself, desperate to work out how to help.
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In 1993 the Magdalene Group was launched in Norwich, to support street workers and give them the chance to change their lives. Theresa said: 'Many of these women have lost everything – home, children, contact with family. They are alone, without hope, facing desperate situations. The physical, sexual, psychological and emotional abuse, to get cash, is a continual battle that could end in death.'
For 12 years Theresa literally walked the streets herself, winning the trust of the working girls with chocolate, compassion, hot drinks and a willingness to listen and help. But she was also getting involved in high profile local, national and international initiatives to try to reach and rescue prostitutes.
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The Magdalene Group opened up ways for many women to regain control of their lives. And when Theresa retired four years ago, it was simply to continue the work, writing a book about her experiences, and setting up new projects.
Her experience of reaching out to prostitutes began in her 50s, but her experience with poverty began at birth.
Brought up in the East End of London during the pre-war Depression she said: 'We were poor, we were very poor. I'm one of nine children. But we weren't poor in love.'
It is lack of love that she sees in prostitution. And the philosophy underlying all her work is based on her Christian faith. Sitting in court, being asked to deal with women caught soliciting on the streets of Norwich, she said: 'I really didn't feel that was the place for me. I was most concerned about these young girls coming before me with no support, no hope.
'One girl was a similar age to my daughter and tall and blonde. The only difference was she had dark glasses on, to hide the shame really.
'I just thought I can't sit up here any longer. I have got to go out there.'
And what she found, frightened her – not the physical dangers of being out at night alongside an underworld of pimps and drug dealers, but how frighteningly quickly girls could become trapped in prostitution.
'I have never, ever been threatened and neither has anyone working with me, although I have been in pretty horrendous situations,' said Theresa.
'But it's getting people to understand the seriousness of it, and how easy it is for young people to get into that lifestyle. I know some people won't agree with me, but they are victims of circumstances. I'm talking about street workers in particular. I have only ever known one woman who said she had chosen to be out there.'
Once caught up in prostitution Theresa said even those women desperate to escape often find themselves dragged back by addiction or coercion or overwhelming need for cash.
She is a big believer in prevention and is working alongside professionals to reach young people, teenagers and parents.
'The heartache I have seen from parents and grandparents, it could happen to anyone,' she said.
Her own family has seen heartache too. Twenty eight years ago Theresa's husband was killed.It was only the need to look after their children that forced her through the shock and grief. 'They were eight and 11 when their dad died. They were in a road traffic accident with him. He was struck and killed instantly,' said Theresa.
She also turned to her new faith. 'Six months previously I had been invited to a Christian business dinner and met such wonderful people,' said Theresa. 'No-one thrust a Bible at me. It was my own search. I had been what I would call a special-occasion Christian,' she said. But she became convinced that she could help do some good.
Theresa, who lives in Beccles, hopes her book, Low Cost – High Price, might change attitudes towards women working in the sex industry. It tells the story of her work with the Magdalene Group, alongside the stories of the women helped into new lives, the women still searching for a way out and the women unable to escape in time.
Theresa is now a grandmother, a trustee of Street Pastors and still works with local, national and international organisations dedicated to helping people caught up in exploitation.
She recently helped set up another project for women struggling out of prostitution, violence, drugs, poverty or homelessness. STEP (Standing Together Encouraging People) is based at the New Hope church in Lakenham, Norwich. Specially trained volunteers offer support, shared meals, advocacy, accommodation and more.
'I'm focussing very much on routes out,' said Theresa. 'To stop is easy, but it's the next levels they need support for. Sometimes it seems they are on elastic bands. They go out, they give up, they go out again. But we are seeing them come away from that revolving door mentality.'
Volunteers have supported local women facing court appearances, debt, and housing and family problems. This summer the group appointed Maria Landon, herself once a victim of exploitation in Norwich, and now a best-selling author, as outreach manager. Soon it will become a new charity and set up a social enterprise business.
'STEP is growing so fast. It's as if we've been fast forwarded!' said Theresa.
Low Cost – High Price is on sale at Jarrold, Amazon and the Norwich Christian Resource Centre.
For more information on the book or some of the Theresa's other projects visit www.theresacumbers.co.uk