Demand for sexual services persisted last year despite the pandemic, creating huge threats for vulnerable women, according to Ruhama.

In 2021, the organisation that fights sexual exploitation, prostitution, and human trafficking engaged with 369 women.

This marked a 21.5% increase compared to 2020.

Its annual report says there were 136 victims of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

The number of service users that participated with Ruhama's Education and Development team increased by 15%.

The Bridge to Work programme also supported 40 women last year in job coaching, assistance in commencing employment and supporting women to maintain employment.

The report shows that the ongoing development and expansion of Ruhama’s Counselling and Trauma Therapy service was a key strategic priority for 2021.

It is said 69 service users accessed the service, representing a 68% increase on 2020.

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Alerting those likely to encounter trafficked victims was key to intervening in this exploitation, Chairperson of Ruhama, Ian Carter said.

"We need frontline workers to understand that trafficking isn't a social concept, but rather a day-to-day reality they may encounter in their work," he said.

"Training on prostitution and sex trafficking reached 600 participants in 2021, providing them with the tools to identify and signpost potential victims of sexual exploitation.

"Training was delivered to gardaí, schools, social care students, domestic and sexual violence services, addiction and homeless services, direct provision staff and residential care staff."

Concern Ukraine war will lead to rise in people trafficking

Ruhama has said it is concerned that the war in Ukraine will see a rise in people trafficking.

"We know women are much more at risk of being trafficked because of the war, so we're expanding our services, we're training frontline staff in reception centres and we're providing more supports to all the various different services and potential victims," according to the organisation's CEO, Barbara Condon.

She said that women who go into sex work are often vulnerable, forced into the industry by poverty and desperation and the industry is exploitative and dangerous.

Two women who worked in the sex industry and have benefited from Ruhama's services spoke at the launch of the charity's annual report this morning.

Megan is from Dublin and was first exploited when she was a young teenager. She said that the effect on her mental health was devastating.

"Everything was on the floor, and just slowly, slowly, six years later I still have to be reminded, you're doing well Megan," she said.

Megan said the volunteers and staff at Ruhama were the first people she had met who offered help without anything in return, saying that up to then her whole life had been a trade. "You need something, you have to give something in return," she said.

Vanisanne was trafficked to Ireland from Nigeria, and had wanted to escape an abusive marriage. She was offered a chance to get out by someone she had trusted. Vanisanne said that working in the sex industry devastated her.

"It was causing me so much pain and trauma, and I think that was when I did not realise, I was drowning and dying inside every day I was going through these experiences," she said.

She went to gardaí who helped her and put her in touch with Ruhama.

The charity has given her access to wellness classes and helped her to get back into education.

"So they've helped me work on my mental health and given me a chance to make something out of my life," Vanisanne said.

Ms Condon said that the staff at Ruhama hear of horrific abuse from many of the women who use their services, and that can be difficult but they are also inspired by the resilience of many who come through their doors.