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The abolitionist

"The abolitionist" Continued...

Issue: "Demsnami," Nov. 4, 2006

Hyperbole aside, Thompson has not only irritated traditional foes but influenced them: feminists who believed faith-based programs did more moralizing than good on prostitution. "When you first meet her, it's easy to underestimate her," said Donna Hughes, a 20-year anti-trafficking warrior. "She's a thin, attractive young woman. Only when you get to know her [do you see] she has a compassionate personality and a will of steel."

Faith and family help an abolitionist cope with the job's strains, and for the single Thompson, that comes from her Wesleyan church and her Kentucky home.

Thompson grew up in a close-knit family, on the same country road as both sets of her grandparents. She remembers their farming days, when she would ride a tractor-pulled hay wagon or hang tobacco leaves to barn-dry. Ask her how she is, and she might still say, "Fine as frog fur."

At Thompson's office at the Salvation Army's National Headquarters in Alexandria, Va., family photos surround her desk. On it is a copy of the Falmouth Outlook, from the closest town to where she grew up in Kentucky, carrying a story about a local beauty queen who had once dated her cousin and now wants to combat sex trafficking. Also on the desk are encouraging cards sent by her grandmother's country church, and Prostitution, Trafficking and Traumatic Stress, a book fringed with neon-pink stickies for bookmarks.

Artifacts of her work and travel are arrayed on bookcases: a set of four African wooden elephants; a sculpture of Christ with a crown of thorns from Ecuador; a chance picture of her with defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld; a framed invitation to U.S. Ambassador John Miller's swearing-in. Miller is head of the State Department's Trafficking in Persons office.

As part of her work now, Thompson trundles through dozens of sex-trafficking articles a day, then sends the choicest stories to a hundreds-strong e-mail list. She signs off every one with, "Abolition! Lisa." The practice inspired Miller to start speaking of "abolishing" trafficking. Recipients sometimes complain that Thompson's mailings overwhelm them, but she sends only a fraction of what she runs across.

Breast ironing is only one horror Thompson handles almost daily. Other abuses are better known, such as female genital mutilation, or FGM, practiced in parts of eastern and northern Africa. The goal is to reduce a woman's sexual pleasure, and therefore make her less likely to seek illicit sex, by removing part or all of her genitalia. The operations are often done with a blunt instrument and without anesthetic.

Severe FGM can lead to obstetric fistula, where days-long obstructed childbirth causes the soft tissue between the vagina and bladder or rectum to die, creating a hole. Not only does the baby die, but the infant's mother is left incontinent, unable to control leaking urine or feces. Communities often ostracize fistula sufferers, leaving them to fend for themselves.

The list of abuses runs long: genital mutilation, child brides, honor killings, weak rape laws. All, Thompson said, "boil down to violence against women. . . . There's no culture that doesn't have violence."

With all these flashpoints, Thompson knows abolition is a consuming battle. Sometimes she despairs at all the work that needs doing to help abused women. But she falls back on her trust in God: "At the end of the day, it's not my fight, and He loves these people more than I could ever conceive of."

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