Lighting up the darkness of trafficking

by Sister Michele Morek

U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking pray outside of the White House in Washington, D.C., Oct. 9. (Michele Morek)

Trafficking victims live among us. They may grow our food, make our clothes, serve us in a restaurant, do our hair or nails, or build our electronic devices.

Trafficking occurs in every state in every nation. The number of networks of sisters working against trafficking around the world is an impressive force, but the problem of trafficking is getting worse: In the United States alone, there was a 35 percent increase in sex trafficking reported in 2016, according to Polaris, while labor trafficking reports rose by 47 percent.

Catholic sisters all over the world have been increasing their efforts to fight trafficking. One effective anti-trafficking group is the U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking (USCSAHT). It was my good fortune to be a charter member of the first board of directors, since I was doing anti-trafficking advocacy at the United Nations at the time.

The 15 sisters on the board are from different congregations and from all over the country, but they do have one thing in common: They are engaged in a wide variety of ministries that involve work against human trafficking.

Some of the board members offer services for survivors of trafficking: rescue, protection, education, rehabilitation. Others create newsletters, maintain websites, act as the justice representative for their congregations, or do advocacy in Washington, D.C., in their state capitals, or with local officials. All have created prayer services and educational resources for their congregations or other organizations they belong to; many of these resources and prayer services can be found on the organization’s website.

The organization was legally incorporated within the past year, so the original informal board is now the first official board. We met Oct. 8-10 at the Washington Retreat Center, a ministry of the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement. The meeting was devoted to planning, capacity-building and setting the vision for the next three years in leadership, membership, program and services.

U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking board meeting in October (Michele Morek)

The second night of the meeting, we board members gathered in front of the White House for a prayer service. Holding candles and posters, we prayed for homeless youth. (In March, a month after vowing to end human trafficking, President Donald Trump proposed through his budget to eliminate the Interagency Council on Homelessness.) We also prayed for people on the move, especially the 22 million refugees. The president wants to wall them out, deport them, ban then and turn them away.

As we prayed, other people would slip in, indicating their support by whispered word or expression. A Hasidic Jewish family, a tourist couple and several others hovered quietly around the edges of our group. An evangelical minister walked into the middle of the circle and with extravagant gestures to heaven loudly called down the blessing of God, to which we all enthusiastically agreed, “Amen!”

Many religious congregationsindividuals and coalitions are members of our anti-trafficking coalition, but everyone has access to anti-trafficking resources on the website: curriculum, teaching modules, faith resources, newsletters, video, information about slave-free goods and services, and suggested actions.

Besides providing a networking tool for members and a source of education for everyone, U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking was founded to be the official U.S. representative of a global network of sisters working against human trafficking. The global umbrella group, Talitha Kum (from Jesus’ Aramaic words, “little girl, get up”), works with its director and with national and regional coalitions of sisters around the world that are engaged in anti-trafficking work.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently mentioned our group in its anti-trafficking newsletter, noting, “U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking utilizes social media to showcase positive efforts and victories of women and men working tirelessly to combat trafficking.”

Work against trafficking is not a single-issue ministry for the sisters, as trafficking has many root causes:

  • Poverty and lack of decent work drive men and women to seek work to support themselves and their families. Desperate parents may sell their children. Most trafficked people work in commercial sex trades or forced labor. They are also exploited through involuntary domestic servitude, bonded or debt labor, child soldiering, begging, crimes, forced marriage and organ removal.
  • Migration puts refugees and other people on the move into harm’s way, making them vulnerable to traffickers. According to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, there are more than 65 million people currently displaced worldwide, more than at any time since World War II.
  • Political upheaval is a major cause of forced migration as desperate people flee from persecution or violence. Trafficking is the end result of complex interconnected social factors.
  • Climate change disasters and other natural disasters can be causal factors for all the issues above, increasing poverty, migration and political instability.
Sisters from U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking pose in front of the White House during a prayer service outside Oct. 9. (Provided photo)

The logo of the U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking is particularly apt: It shows a green shoot growing out of the darkness from behind prison bars. It is coming out crooked at first, but as it leaves the cage, it straightens and grows up toward the light. All sisters who have worked with survivors of trafficking can see the victims’ journey in that little shoot. We are all doing what we can to light up the darkness and take away the bars.


This story first appeared on Global Sisters Report


The Worldwide Debate About Sex Work: Morality Meets Reality

The streets of Pattaya, Thailand, one of the centers of sex tourism (GSR photo / Gail DeGeorge)

Public debate on prostitution can be tough, passionate, even angry.

Advocates for differing views cannot even agree on shared language: Those who defend their way of making a living as sex workers embrace their identity, while those, like Catholic sisters, who decry the term “sex work” as demeaning, argue that there can be no dignity in a relationship where sex is exchanged for money.

“I think all prostitution represents violence against women,” said Sr. Winifred Doherty, who represents the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd at the United Nations.

The passion Doherty and others bring to the topic has been on display during the last year at the U.N., where space for debate about social topics is frequently honored. The topic of prostitution was addressed at several U.N. forums during the March meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women.

And inevitably, the U.N.’s upcoming World Day against Trafficking in Persons on July 30 may prompt debate. The commemoration was designated by U.N. member states beginning in 2013 as necessary to “raise awareness of the situation of victims of human trafficking and for the promotion and protection of their rights.”

To read the full story by Chris on Global Sisters Report: Click Here

Collaboration Boosts Sisters’ Anti-Trafficking Efforts

A woman code-named “Blessing,” a Nigerian victim of human trafficking, was working as a prostitute on the streets of Italy in the fall when police arrested her and took her to a detention camp because she had no documents.

Italian sisters who belong to an anti-trafficking group called Slaves No More visit this detention camp every Saturday and encourage the young women to come to them for assistance upon their release from the camp. While at the camp, the Italian sisters gave Blessing the contact information for St. Louis Sr. Patricia Ebegbulem, director of Bakhita Villa, a safe house in Lagos, Nigeria.

On Oct. 12, Blessing learned she was to be unexpectedly deported that day. She managed to get word to the Italian sisters, who called Ebegbulem. The next morning, Sisters of St. Louis met Blessing at the cargo section of the Lagos airport. There were about 40 deported women and 60 deported men in the plane.

Ebegbulem took Blessing to Bakhita Villa, where she still lives, receiving counseling, taking computer classes, and building the skills she will need for a productive life. In 2016, the Bakhita Villa sisters rescued nine victims, including Blessing.

Looking back on my 14 years in community leadership and five years of working with anti-trafficking groups at the United Nations, I think the work against trafficking and the support of its victims are the most powerful issues that unite women religious today. It is all of “one piece” with issues of migration, violence against women and children, and many of the other social justice ministries we pursue.

According to the U.N., there are 2.4 million trafficking victims worldwide at any given time. However, exact numbers are difficult to find because trafficking is “chameleon-like” and overlaps with forced marriage, migration and other social phenomena. Sometimes people don’t even know they are trafficked.

(GSR graphic / Toni-Ann Ortiz)

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime recently published its Global Report on Trafficking in Persons for 2016. In the preface to this report, Yury Fedotov, executive director of the office, said, “Perhaps the most worrying development is that the movement of refugees and migrants, the largest seen since World War II, has arguably intensified since 2014. … Within these massive migratory movements, are vulnerable children, women and men who can be easily exploited by smugglers and traffickers.”

The report states that in 2014, while most victims of trafficking were still female (71 percent), the percentage of trafficked men and boys had risen in the last 10 years.

This year, the focus is on children who are exploited through trafficking. The United Nations estimates that almost one in every three victims of trafficking is a child; UNICEF reported that 30 million children have been sexually exploited over the last 30 years.

Talitha Kum at the jubilee celebration for the International Union of Superiors General (Courtesy of Talitha Kum-Rome)

Long before trafficking became widely known as a “popular cause,” sisters were forming local, national and international networks against trafficking. In the 1990s, they began integrating their networks. In 1998, the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) agreed to initiate “greater collaborative efforts against trafficking in persons.”

They studied the issue, produced training materials for member congregations, and developed more joint efforts against trafficking. A training program developed in collaboration with the International Organization for Migration led to regional networks being established in Italy, Albania, Nigeria, Romania, Thailand, Brazil, Portugal, Philippines and South Africa, according to the UISG website on anti-trafficking efforts.

In 2009, UISG created an organization called Talitha Kum (from Mark 5:41, when Jesus says, “Little girl, get up”) to serve as “the International Network of Consecrated Life Against Trafficking, with a representative at the UISG,” according to the Talitha Kum website. Talitha Kum continues to provide training courses and materials, to set up new networks, and to collaborate with other organizations working against trafficking in persons. There are 17 regional Talitha Kum member networks in more than 70 countries and on five continents.

The sisters’ regional and national organizations provide a supportive network for many smaller groups and ministries of sisters already engaged in a variety of anti-trafficking activities. One example of how the networks resulted in stronger advocacy groups is the Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans, which has allied with the Australian government and receives government funding for its activities against human trafficking and modern-day slavery.

“One of the most positive results of our work … is the breadth and depth of collaboration that is now taking place,” said Humility of Mary Sr. Anne Victory, a member of the national U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking working in the Cleveland area.

An anti-trafficking protest in South Africa (Courtesy of Kadir Van Lohuizen (NOOR))

“What started as a collaborative effort of seven religious congregations in the area to raise awareness through education and advocacy,” Victory wrote in an email to GSR, “has extended to a wide variety of social service providers, health care systems, law enforcement, the courts and others who share in awareness-raising and also address the real needs of victims along with efforts to prevent this crime.”

There have been some positive international gains, such as the adoption of the U.N. Agenda for Sustainable Development, with some goals and targets directed at trafficking in persons. In 2016, the U.N. Summit for Refugees and Migrants produced a groundbreaking New York Declaration that addresses the consequences of large movements of refugees and migrants.

The U.N. has taken many steps to bring attention to the crime of trafficking in persons and designated July 30 as the U.N. World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. The Vatican also has been actively working against human trafficking: Pope Francis dedicated his message for the World Day of Peace 2015 to this theme, making it a priority of international diplomacy for the Holy See.

The pope has spoken about trafficking to international religious and church leaders, diplomats, police chiefs and mayors, social scientists and scholars, judges, and various conferences throughout the world. And he has not just been talking. He has hosted conferences, spearheaded the 2014 Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders Against Modern Slavery, and catalyzed the creation of the Santa Marta Group, which brings together Catholic leaders and international law enforcement officials to battle trafficking.

(GSR graphic / Pam Hackenmiller)

Anti-trafficking days are also observed in the United States. In 2012, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration designated Feb. 8 as an annual day of prayer for survivors and victims of human trafficking. Former President Barack Obama designated January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and the U.S. National Human Trafficking Awareness Day is observed annually on Jan. 11.

To read the full article by Michele Morek, OSU, on Global Sisters Report: Click Here

Michele Morek, OSU, is a member of the Board of Directors for US Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking.