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.
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.
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.
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.]
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 email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @soli_salgado.]