From West Lothian, Scotland, Ann Gray worked as a primary teacher and spent a year as a lay missionary in Sierra Leone before joining the Columban Sisters in 1978. Following her formation as a Columban Sister she obtained a BA in Theology at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland and was then assigned to Hong Kong.
For many years Ann has worked with women who are used and abused by the illegal entertainment industry. It was while she was in Sierra Leone that Ann, the oldest of three girls, began to have a sense that she was being invited to dedicate her whole life to God and to the service of the poor and marginalized. On her return from Africa, she joined the Columban Sisters and following further studies she was assigned to Hong Kong, at the Southern tip of China.
Ann says that from the beginning she felt called to work with those who are probably among the most rejected and abandoned by society, a call that was only reinforced when, in 1986, still in the process of learning Cantonese, a Hong Kong friend took her to Mong Kok where, for the first time, she saw sex workers waiting on the streets for clients. It was clear that the residents in this area preferred not to acknowledge the existence of this group of women in their midst. To the men, these women were obviously no more than objects to be stared at and commodities to be used for pleasure. For some reason, Ann realised that this was the group of women that she wanted to work with.
In 1991, Ann began by walking around the areas which were known as unofficial Red Light districts, in particular the Mong Kok area of Kowloon. As a Westerner in a predominantly Chinese area, she seemed to be considered a tourist and no attention was paid to her. After many weeks of wandering around and no sight of any “working women”, it seemed that this was the wrong place until one night she happened to be there during a Police raid. Many young women of various Asian nationalities had been arrested and were being herded into the Police truck. While the pimps used their mobile phones to warn the minders to move other girls from the area, Ann walked up and down and listened in to the telephone conversations, none of the pimps suspecting that she understood what was being said. It was clear that many women were working in this area but invisibly and obviously under the control of this group of pimps.
In the early days, Ann met women who had come to Hong Kong and were then forced to enter the illegal entertainment industry. Young women from some of the poorer nations of Asia were often tricked into thinking that they were going to Hong Kong for a good job, but when they arrived, they were, instead, forced to work as sex workers and become virtual slaves of those who had brought them there.
Ann tells of one young woman who, upon her arrival at the airport in Hong Kong, was taken to a house where she was held under lock and key. She was allowed out only when accompanied by a guard. Each night she was taken to a restaurant where she had to wait until a client approached her. This young woman cried so much that they decided to get rid of her and sold her for a large sum of money to a person in Thailand. Fortunately, she was able to elude her captors at the airport and so escaped. Eventually, she was able to return to her native country.
“Having heard some of their life stories, I have to say that I admire these women,” Ann says. “Some of them are married, others are separated, but there is always the constant struggle to support their children, and sometimes even other family members, including aging parents. One of the women I know is taking care of the children of her ex-husband even though they are not her children.”
In order to help women forced into this kind of work either by physical force or through economic constraint, Ann set up an organisation and opened a centre for them which came to be known as:
For the story of the Development of ACTION for REACH OUT click this link
Ann is presently the Congregational Leader of the Columban Sisters since 2011.