Friday, January 8, 2021
In preparation for the International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking on February 8, 2021, Global Sisters Report offers this conversation with Srs. Gabriella Bottani and Jean Schafer, both leaders among Catholic sisters working against human trafficking. [In the picture: Sr. Bibiana Emenaha conducts a human trafficking awareness campaign at a rural school in Edo, Nigeria. (Courtesy of the Committee for the Support of Dignity of Woman).
Learn more and register here]

Presented by Sr. Gabriella Bottani and Sr. Jean Schafer: They will help us understand the multiple ways that trafficking manifests itself around the world, how the coronavirus pandemic has affected this issue, the long journey victims face in recovery, systemic solutions being pursued and how networking and spirituality buoy the sisters who work to stop this evil.

Sr. Gabriella Bottani,  Comboni Missionary Sister and International Coordinator since 2015 of Talitha Kum, the international "network of networks" that unites Catholic sisters in 92 countries in the fight against human trafficking. The organization's effectiveness has been recognized by the U.S. State Department, which publishes an annual Trafficking in Person (TIP) Report, the world's most comprehensive source of information on human trafficking and in 2019 the TIP Report recognized Bottani as a TIP Hero for her role as the international coordinator.

Sr. Jean Schafer, Sister of the Divine Savior and board member of U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking and founder and editor for 17 years of the Stop Trafficking! Newsletter, a monthly publication that educates about the crime of human trafficking, and advocates for changes to address the needs of victims and the elimination of modern-day slavery across the world.

Catholic sisters lead the way
in the anti-trafficking movement

Catholic sisters from the Los Angeles area demonstrate
against human trafficking in Hollywood, California.
Front to back: Sr. Eleanor Ortega, Sr. Judy Molosky, Sr. Celia DuRea,
Sr. Suzanne Jabro and Sr. Margaret Farrell.
(Courtesy of Talitha Kum/Photo by Lisa Kristine)

Editor's note: To observe the United Nations' World Day Against Trafficking in Persons on July 30, we are publishing this excerpt of a longer essay by Sabrina Wong, program officer for the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation's Catholic Sisters Initiative. To read the full essay, go here. The Hilton Foundation is a major funder of Global Sisters Report. To learn more about the work Catholic sisters are doing to end human trafficking we direct you to GSR's anti-trafficking coverage.

Commentary: Human trafficking has many faces. Imagine a teenage girl pressured into prostitution by her boyfriend to pay the rent; a foreign national tricked into domestic servitude with promises of a better life; a fisherman trapped at sea working for wages that never materialize. These are just a few accounts of the estimated 40 million people who are enslaved across the world today.

July 30 marks the United Nations' World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, a time to raise awareness around human trafficking and amplify efforts to stop it. With the COVID-19 pandemic contributing to the re-traumatization of survivors and increasing risk among individuals experiencing disadvantage, the need is even greater to shine a light on the work Catholic sisters are doing to address the realities of human trafficking, both domestically and abroad.

Human trafficking is commonly defined as the exploitation of another human being for commercial sex or labor through the use of force, fraud or coercion. Broader characterizations include child soldiers, the sale of organs and forced marriage. Human trafficking is notoriously difficult to expose, and yet the International Labor Organization estimates that it is a $150 billion criminal enterprise — the third largest illegal activity in the world, behind drug trafficking and arms dealing. Traffickers may elude authorities by crossing international borders, or they may be part of domestic networks that crisscross regional lines.

Although many people are just beginning to recognize human trafficking as a critical human rights issue, Catholic sisters have championed the anti-trafficking movement since the first widely recognized case of human trafficking in the United States surfaced over 20 years ago. In 1995, over 70 Thai nationals were found enslaved in a makeshift garment factory in El Monte, California, shocking an array of human rights leaders, including sisters in the Los Angeles area. Sister-led ministries, such as the Good Shepherd Shelter and Alexandria House, as well as congregations, such as the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, all rallied around survivors. Nonprofits, such as the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (Cast),were founded to support anti-slavery efforts.

Today, Cast is a well-known anti-trafficking organization that has received accolades from the U.S. State Department and the United Nations. However, when Cast first began, Catholic sisters were among its only allies. While others didn't want to believe that slavery still exists or were afraid of getting involved, sisters immediately recognized the significance of this issue and provided trafficking survivors with long-term shelter in their houses and convents. As the anti-trafficking movement has grown, Catholic sisters have faithfully led the way. Sisters, who serve people without regard to religious beliefs, provided Cast with the first shelter in the U.S. exclusively dedicated to trafficking survivors, who have distinct needs due to the nature of the trauma they have experienced.

Watch this news video by Rome Reports to learn more about Talitha Kum. (YouTube)

At an international level, Catholic sisters have also pioneered the prioritization of human trafficking as a top line issue. In 1998, the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), the worldwide leadership association of Catholic sisters, initiated a formal study of and collaborative effort against trafficking in persons. Two years later, the United Nations adopted its landmark Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons. Within six months of the U.N. resolution, the UISG officially made a commitment to address human trafficking "insistently and at every level" through working in solidarity with other congregations across the world. Catholic sisters have taken this mandate to heart. Today, UISG ministry Talitha Kum has an active membership of 2,600 sisters and their collaborators located in 92 countries, making it the largest anti-human trafficking network in the world.

Talitha Kum is translated from Aramaic as "Little girl, arise!" and is a reference to the biblical passage Mark 5:41, in which Jesus heals a young girl who is thought to be dead. The expression speaks to the possibility of transformation and wholeness even in the most extreme situations. The effectiveness of Talitha Kum has been recognized by the U.S. State Department, which publishes an annual Trafficking in Person (TIP) Report, the world's most comprehensive source of information on human trafficking. In 2019, the TIP Report recognized Comboni Missionary Sr. Gabriella Bottani as a TIP Hero for her role as the international coordinator for Talitha Kum.

Restoration of human dignity

Catholic sisters, also known as women religious, have unique qualities that make them especially apt foils for human traffickers. Trafficking intersects with the extreme and abusive drive for money, sex and power. Through vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the lives Catholic sisters lead are a testimony to the futility of subjugating people to abuse in order to gain power and control. Thus, sisters possess a piercing moral authority and clarity that is underscored by their life-long commitment to the restoration of human dignity. Catholic sisters, who are grounded in years of prayer and personal reflection, are experts in exposing the lie that any human being is worthless or can be forgotten.

One of the most insidious aspects of human trafficking is the way traffickers break down the self-worth of victims to the point that force is oftentimes no longer necessary to keep them enslaved. Traffickers attack the human dignity of victims through abuse, unspeakable degradation, and threats both to the person and their loved ones. Catholic sisters are committed to lives of compassion and mercy, and are attuned to recognize people under duress. In fact, when sisters conduct awareness campaigns, it is not uncommon for them to be in conversation with young people who suddenly realize that they themselves are victims of human trafficking. Women religious instinctively see the wounds of others and, through acts of kindness and attentiveness, are able to awaken a sense of common humanity within survivors, who may be numb to their own reality.

Sr. Piyachat Boonmul, left, and Sr. Apinya Sornjan conduct outreach in Pattaya, Thailand, in the bar district where the sex trade is prominent.
(GSR file photo/Gail DeGeorge)

Related: Good Shepherd Sisters empower women to escape Thailand's sex tourism trade

The root causes of human trafficking are complex: forced migration, domestic abuse, profits from commercial sex, armed conflict, and even climate change are all factors that contribute to human trafficking. However, the most common factor is poverty. This lack of basic necessities makes people vulnerable to predators who use psychological tricks to build false trust and hope. With their sacred vows of poverty, Catholic sisters can look people experiencing extreme disadvantage in the eye, rightly recognize them as equals, and walk with them side by side into wholeness. This act of accompaniment — physical, emotional and psychological support — contributes to a healing process that nurtures the resilience in survivors to deal with past trauma.

Although women religious work on behalf of victims of human trafficking regardless of gender identity, Catholic sisters stand in special solidarity with fellow women. The U.N.'s 2018 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons estimates that over 70% of all human trafficking victims are female. The low esteem that many cultures hold for women and girls contributes to their risk for being trafficked, often through the complicity of family members and people in the local community. With 700,000 women religious serving in over 200 countries, any statistical analysis would show that a percentage of Catholic sisters have had first-hand experience with the same discrimination and exploitation that affect women and girls worldwide. Sisters can identify with the pain of other women, and they possess a deep understanding to offer practical, compassionate support.

On the frontlines

In Pastoral Orientations to Human Trafficking, Pope Francis declares, "We are facing a global phenomenon that exceeds the competence of any one community or country," and therefore, "we need a mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself." Pope Francis himself has recognized women religious as "Super Nuns" who are a mobilized network of global frontline actors. While sisters do provide first-rate direct services, they differ from international non-governmental organizations in their life-long commitments to the communities where they serve. Moreover, sisters work in remote villages and poverty-stricken areas that are especially prone to trafficking, and where large international NGOs do not often reach.

To show the scale of Catholic sisters' ministries, the Arise Foundation estimates that at least 900 women religious are working against exploitation in the state of Assam, India, a region known for its eponymous tea. Tea plantations require intense physical labor, and are often sites of forced child labor. In addition, poor living conditions in rural areas such as Assam make villagers prone to the deceit of human traffickers who promise better lives in the city. By sheer numbers, the 900 Catholic sisters in Assam alone match the workforce of the largest anti-slavery NGO in the world.

Related: Sisters support Nigeria's migrants traumatized by trafficking

The ministries of Catholic sisters typically include one or more components of the internationally recognized anti-trafficking framework of prevention, protection, prosecution and partnership. For example, in Nigeria, Talitha Kum member Committee for the Support of the Dignity of Woman (COSUDOW) is a partnership formed among more than 50 congregations of women religious. COSUDOW members unite to disrupt a familiar, heart-rending narrative: a young person in poverty seeking a better life encounters someone who seems trustworthy. Honest employment is offered in Europe or the Middle East, but the young person is instead trafficked for labor or sex.

To prevent this tragedy from gripping youth in their communities, Nigerian sisters conduct awareness campaigns in schools and churches, and provide job training so that young people can find livelihoods in their hometowns instead of seeking employment abroad. Nigerian sisters also offer hope and restoration for survivors who have been sent back home to Nigeria through psychological support and shelter. In addition, COSUDOW leaders have partnered with civil society in drafting and passing anti-trafficking legislation. This legislation provides the necessary framework for human traffickers to be prosecuted for their crimes.

Because poverty is the most prevalent risk factor for human trafficking, the ministries of many Catholic sisters intentionally include practical job skills as part of a holistic continuum of care for survivors. Southeast Asia is a known hub for sex tourism, where the boundaries between the sex trade and human trafficking are often blurred. In Pattaya, Thailand, Our Lady of the Good Shepherd Sisters run the Fountain of Life Women's Center, where young women who have been involved in commercial sex can learn skills such as hair dressing, jewelry-making and computer literacy. In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Maryknoll sisters direct the Horizons Vocational Training Institute, where former commercial sex workers take part in a two-year residential program that employs a skills-based curriculum developed for the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Participants take classes in basic math, science, reading and English, as well as classes in essential hotel operations, such as reception, catering and housekeeping.

In India, where the sex trade also thrives, Sisters Adorers manage the Nava Jyoti Dan center in the red-light district of Kolkata. At the center, young women learn skills like tailoring and making handicrafts. Likewise, Las Adoratrices Sisters provide sewing and cooking classes for sexually exploited women at the Kredita no ba center in Cape Verde, an island off the west coast of Africa that has been a historic stopping point for the slave trade into Europe. The faith of women religious has led them to envision these centers, dotted across the globe, in which former sex workers can "arise" to more fulfilling lives.

Young women at these centers learn job skills but, equally important, they also experience the unconditional love of Catholic sisters, who value them as people made in the image of God. At all of these centers, sisters provide counseling services that support the inner healing necessary to recover from years of trauma and degradation. Women religious have learned that self-acceptance and the ability to generate income work together in the restoration of the dignity and wholeness of women who have been trafficked for sex.

[Sabrina Wong is a program officer for the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation's Catholic Sisters Initiative. With a strong interest in intercultural work that values the dignity of the human person, she has worked in both the fair trade and anti-human trafficking movements. Previously, she served as vice president for a faith-based non-profit sending volunteer teachers to Africa, Asia and Europe. She has degrees from Stanford University and Fuller Theological Seminary.]

To read the rest of the essay, go to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation's Catholic Sisters Initiative website.

Q & A with Sr. Jean Schafer
on the evolution of the anti-trafficking message

In September 2019, Salvatorian Sr. Jean Schafer, second from right, attended the 10th anniversary of Talitha Kum, the international umbrella network
for sisters in anti-trafficking. (Provided photo)

Sitting in a comfortable chair at Barnes & Noble in 2002, Sr. Jean Schafer skimmed a stack of computer books, trying to pick the best one to teach her basic skills for designing a website and newsletter. The Sister of the Divine Savior had just returned to the United States from living in Rome for 12 years, where she served on her congregation's generalate, and now found herself without an immediate ministry. But Schafer did have a new interest: anti-trafficking work.

After being introduced to the phenomenon of human trafficking when attending a talk in 1998, Schafer participated in the "worldwide discussion" in 2001 with the International Union of Superiors General on the exploitation of women and girls. UISG then released its first public declaration, calling on religious women to work on behalf of this vulnerable population, particularly within human trafficking. Congregations, including Schafer's, began making this a mission focus.

Back in the United States, "my idea was to get the word out," Schafer said. "So I just made a resolution: I'd try to put something out every month and see what happens."

Now, with her final issue in December 2019 behind her, Schafer has stepped back from her newsletter after 17 years, handing it off to editor Felician Sr. Maryann Agnes Mueller and designer Felician Sr. Mary Francis Lewandowski. Schafer instead will be focusing her time on various anti-trafficking commissions and coalitions.

GSR: Tell me how you decided what went in the newsletter as well as the process of putting it together.

Schafer: Every month, I'd pray that I'd find something online. My goal was to create a theme in every issue and build the information around that theme relative to awareness-raising information, some kind of advocacy for people who are victims of trafficking, and, finally, the action phase: What can you do to push this forward?

In the beginning, I was like, "Oh, my gosh, will I find anything online?" And then, 17 years later, the prayer is, "Oh, my gosh, of everything that's out there, what will I feature?" It could be book form at this point. The original purpose of it was to help people learn about it. How it continues now is to provide a convenient resource so that someone can further share that information. The newsletter at this point saves people the time of looking that information up. It's like your monthly ready-reference on trafficking on youth, or forced marriage, or the selling of organs, or labor trafficking in the Middle East, or all the themes that emerged over the years.

How have you seen the issue evolve in the U.S. since getting involved? Have changing presidential administrations affected it, whether directly or indirectly through relations with Central America or women's issues, for example?

With each president's administration, through input from nonprofits and social service agencies and so forth, they became more aware of how prevalent it is in the U.S., as opposed to people saying, "Oh, yeah, that's in Thailand."

Secondly, I think the realization that a dark web is influencing a lot of what people do online — this is, particularly now, something that a lot of people, parents and government agencies are aware is affecting youth. The whole phenomenon of pornography is driving trafficking because it lures young people. They become addicted, and then they search ways to act this out with their relationships or strangers.

Salvatorian Sr. Jean Schafer, center, with Pope Francis and Franciscan Sr. Marlene Weisenbeck.
Some sisters from the U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking coalition met Francis in 2013
when he held his first meeting on human trafficking at the Vatican. (Provided photo)

Another is the labor trafficking phenomenon. A lot of people who are in the U.S. who aren't immigrants and are working legally are also being exploited through either forced labor or violations of labor laws where people are not paid properly, or they're threatened, or their documents are taken, all these kinds of things. That's a whole area that needs much more awareness-raising and action.

Another interesting thing that has evolved is that different businesses have become aware of how they can help in the anti-trafficking movement. There's Truckers Against Trafficking, the guys that are driving semis around, at truck stops observing, and if that activity is going on, they know how to report it. Hospitals are very involved now because people are coming to the emergency room either with physical or sexual trauma and health issues, and the staff know the red flags, so they can often help someone who can't say anything, and they can find help for them. Same with hotels — a lot of hotel staffs and cleaning staffs are aware of red flags when they go into the rooms to clean and in checking people in and out.

One of the legislative dimensions is taking on demand. They have what's called the Nordic law in Sweden that came in the 1990s, where instead of arresting the woman for prostitution, they arrest the man buying sex, and they provide help to the woman. They cut their forced trafficking and prostitution in half. A lot of countries have taken that up. Here in the U.S., it's not federal yet, but a lot of individual states are looking at it.

Is that the legislative solution, if there were one, that you see being the most effective, as opposed to legalizing prostitution? What in your research, like the Nordic model, has caught your attention?

Legalizing prostitution would be a disaster. Scandinavian countries and the U.S. have done studies on the effect of legalizing prostitution, and what happens is it becomes a real business. But the women involved — and it's usually women — they are not generally the citizens. They are the people smuggled in or lured in from other countries, because even though you're a so-called legal prostitute, you have to pay taxes, you have to have health checks, and all this and that. There's a lot of red tape to be legal. So the legalizing of prostitution actually undoes the effort to diminish human trafficking. It increases it.

Why did now feel like the right time to retire? What's the plan for having the newsletter continue?

I never like to hear the word "retire."

We'll call it "stepping back" from the newsletter.

I handed it on not because I didn't want to do it anymore, but many people said to me, "Jean, you need to update your website," or "You need to get into more social media; you should be sending it out on Twitter," and this and that. And I just don't have the time to be that committed to making it 100% modern. I started thinking I should hand it over to the U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking coalition, and maybe there's a member within that coalition who has the capacity to bring it up another grade and make it more modern, a little bit more out there in the mainstream.

Has being involved in this ministry influenced your prayer life or your outlook on spirituality? Tell me about the deeper, personal side effects.

Going all over the world and seeing the poorest of the poor was the first real conversion step for me.

When our province managed a safe home for survivors, another sister and I lived 24/7 with women who came out of human trafficking, both sex and labor. We've served about 50 women, and about 25 of them were from other countries. Living with them and seeing all the challenges that they've faced, trying to get back on their feet and trying to heal from this trauma — these kinds of things have really gone inside of me to a point where it's a real prayer preoccupation. I'm not thinking about the little insignificant issues of the day-to-day life. I'm so caught up in all the suffering of the world and the realization of how much people suffer through no fault of their own. They're just born into poverty, born into a desperation that puts them on the road to becoming exploited. They have no alternative.

My prayer life is completely transformed from what it would've been 30 years ago. I'm grateful for it, but I suffer from it, because sometimes, it looks very black, and I have to spend time praying to say, "Give me hope and confidence that we can turn this around." Thirty years ago, my issues were narrower; our community is very much Scripture-based, so I'd pray the readings of the day and see how it would apply to my life, but I don't think I reached out into the broader world as much. Now, I feel like I'm a voice for the voiceless, pleading that the Holy Spirit can help us shout out what really needs to be done in our world.

[Soli Salgado is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter: @soli_salgado.]