Below is a letter I received from a nun who I support who does some amazing work in the field of Counter-Trafficking. If you were unsure of your plans this year in the realm of donations to charitable organizations, I would suggest the ones she mentions in the letter.
“Women Helping Women”
The Prophetic Role of Women Religious
in Counter-Trafficking in Persons
Delivered by Sr. Eugenia Bonetti, MC
At the British Embassy to the Holy See, Rome, Italy
International Women’s Day, March 8, 2012
2002 – 2012
Marking the 10th Anniversary of the first
Human Trafficking Conference
with Ambassadors Accredited to the Holy See
Your Excellencies and distinguished guests, I feel grateful for the privilege to have been invited today – on International Women’s Day – to share my personal experience in response to the plight of trafficked women and children, imported and exported all over the world like commodities mainly for the “sex market.” We need to acknowledge that “slavery” still exists in the year 2012, and that the majority of its victims are women and children who do not choose to become prostitutes, but are forced into it by different circumstances.
I am aware that “trafficking in persons” does not refer only to women involved in the sex trade. Modern slavery takes many forms today, such as trafficking for unpaid/unfairly paid labour, illegal child adoption, organ smuggling and begging; however, for several reasons, I will focus mainly on the phenomenon of forced prostitution and the prophetic role of women religious in counter-trafficking, as well the need of networking with political, social, private and religious organizations to stop its trend.
A Brief History:
A conference held at the Gregorian Pontifical University on June 17, 2004, entitled “A Call to Action: Joining the Fight Against Trafficking in Persons,” organized by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, marked the conclusion of the first phase of a project which had as its aim the training of 80-100 women religious from different countries already active in the trafficking field, or willing to commit themselves to the fight against the trafficking of human beings — with a primary focus on women and minors — in the various forms that started to emerge with great force all over the world.
The training programme for women religious was the fruit of a perceptive and courageous intuition of then-ambassador Jim Nicholson, who saw in women religious a great resource for effective networking against one of the most humiliating forms of contemporary slavery.
A Pilot Project
This project was based on the outcome of the first international conference “21st Century Slavery: The Human Rights Dimension of Trafficking in Human Beings,” held in Rome, May 15-16, 2002, organised by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See together with several other members of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, with the Gregorian Pontifical University and the Pontifical Councils for Justice and Peace and for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants.
The conference on the phenomenon of trafficking wanted to expose the problem as slavery and consequently focus on the violation of a person’s fundamental rights. Some 70 speakers from all over the world analysed various aspects and implications of the problem, sharing their research and personal experience.
The 400 participants were members of different international organisations, institutions and NGO’s, religious and lay associations. The presence of women religious from different congregations and of different nationalities, already in the forefront of prevention and social re-integration of women victims of trafficking, was significant.
Speakers and participants brought into focus problems and strategies, noting strong and weak points in working towards a unified approach to the phenomenon. A wide variety of interventions was presented and, above all, suggestions were made so that the meeting might not be an end in itself. The publication of the entire proceedings of the conference served as a valid and important reference tool. Despite these positive and significant outcomes, nevertheless there was a need for some concrete projects moving forward. The slogan “Stop Trafficking in Human Beings. Together It’s Possible,” has provided a good guideline for continuing work and today, after ten years, we are asked to reflect on the work done and moreover consider what still needs to be done.
A Singular Project
The phenomenon of present-day trafficking in persons is still very complex and is in constant flux. Religious and Christian organizations have an important role to play in this field, given the richness of their ministries and charismas; yet in this area it is not possible to improvise. It is rather a ‘must’ to have people adequately and professionally prepared to deal with this issue.
After the conference of May 2002, the first target group to be given priority was a training programme for 87 women religious from different countries. The programme proposed by the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See himself, Jim Nicholson, was financed by the U.S. Department of State and organised by the IOM (International Organisation for Migration). USMI (Unione Superiore Maggiori d’Italia/Italian Union of Women Major Superiors), UISG (International Union of Women General Superiors) and the Foundation ‘Migrantes’ were also invited to be partners and to collaborate in the concrete realization of the project.
In Italy, the experience of different Congregations of women religious already at work in this field or willing to get involved in it, was extremely significant. Together with the sisters, there was a growing commitment of civil society with national legal structures to address this growing problem. Of all the lessons learned, the need for appropriate formation of personnel focussed primarily on prevention in countries of origin has been found to be a priority. Providing assistance to victims to help their re-integration into society, has also been seen to be essential.
Women Religious at the Service of Women’s Dignity
Trafficking in human beings for sexual exploitation, a very grave violation of human rights, is a global problem. An appropriate response requires several forces—lay and religious—to operate in this field, to come together and to provide adequate strategies to safeguard the dignity and the sacred nature of each victim.
The trafficking of human beings for sexual exploitation brutalises the victim, depriving women of their deepest values. It destroys women, annihilating their self-esteem, concept of love and self-oblation. The victims are stigmatised. They fight to recuperate their sense of marred and denied feminine values. Besides being forced to live clandestinely in absolute submission to criminal organisations, these young women are also subjected to the dangers of the streets – such as road accidents, physical abuse, forced abortion, and even assassination.
Over the past years, we have witnessed the murder of hundreds of young women in the streets. Many also died during their voyage to the “promised land” (countries of transit or destination where they were abused), disappearing into nothingness instead.
The commitment of the Italian women religious belonging to USMI (Italian Union of Major Superiors) has increased over several years, in communion with the commitment of civil society and institutions. In 2000, USMI created an office of “Counter-Trafficking of Women and Children” to coordinate the service of hundreds of religious facing the challenge of this new kind of slavery, providing immediate assistance to the victims. In fact, the Religious Congregations, together with the Diocesan Caritas and groups of volunteers, were among the first to interpret this phenomenon in the early 90’s and to offer alternative solutions to enslaved women — at that time, mostly Albanians and Nigerians who were victims of sexual exploitation on the streets.
Religious Congregations opened the “holy doors” of their structures to offer protection and help, to assist in supporting the creation of a new life for the young victims who courageously rebelled against their exploiters.
In recent years, due to increased awareness and effective interventions, the phenomenon of trafficking in persons has changed faces, routes, modality, criminality and led to new methods of assisting and reintegrating victims. However, the danger of women’s exploitation is ever present, with the risk of victims falling into slavery and submission because of their vulnerability and an absence of alternative opportunities. The various criminal mafias constantly change their strategies to ensure and protect the enormous financial earnings they reap through the recruitment of young victims for the highly sought after market of consumer sex.
In Italy, USMI works in the following ways:
- Outreach units coordinated by parish groups in the streets as first contact with victims;
- Drop-in Centres to welcome women who seek help;
- Safe Houses or Shelters for projects and social reintegration;
- Professional preparation, including language and work training courses;
- Legal assistance, to aid victims in processing required documents and rectifying clandestine status through obtaining a residence permit;
- Collaboration with the relevant ambassador/embassy personnel to obtain required identification documents;
- Psychological and spiritual assistance to victims sheltered in the Centres for Identification and Expulsion in Rome, as they await forced deportation after being arrested without documents.
A Globalized Market
Prostitution is not a new phenomenon, but what is new is the development of a global and complex trade which exploits the extreme poverty and vulnerability of many women and minors who have emigrated. They have become the 21st century slaves. Tricked, enslaved and thrown onto the street, the “prostitute” is the living example of the unjust discrimination imposed upon women by our consumer society.
Trafficking of human beings for sexual exploitation has developed into a global market, involving countries of origin, transit and destination.
- Countries of Origin represent the “push” or “supply” side of the equation. That is to say, they provide the breeding ground of poverty which traffickers comb to find potential victims. The women are easy targets, vulnerable from utter poverty, lack of education and job opportunities, gender inequality, discrimination and war.
- Transit Countries offer several routes through which trafficked persons are taken to reach their final destination. Traffickers have perfected ways to import and export their victims without risk of being stopped and sent back to the country of origin.
- Destination Countries represent the “pull” or “demand” factor, and even though the main culprit here is the “client,” other factors must also be considered in deciphering the global net of the sex industry – such as gender, desire for profit and power by the mafia, and other forms of international and trans-national organized crime. Nevertheless, the main protagonist of the perpetuation of trafficking for sexual exploitation remains the “client,” or “consumer,” who plays a key role in this business. He regulates the demand factor, and the supply corresponds to his demand.
USMI organised various courses of professional formation for religious in several origin and transit countries, in collaboration with the UISG (International Union of Major Superiors), IOM (International Organisation for Migration) and the ICMC (International Commission for Catholic Migrations). We aim to contact and sensitize the Religious Conferences of other countries, especially in countries of origin with a particular risk of exploitation.
A Model Partnership
The collaboration between USMI and the Women Religious Conference in Nigeria has been very positive. It began in 2000, when the President and two religious sisters visited Italy to observe the phenomenon of trafficking for sexual exploitation with their own eyes. They were deeply upset by what they saw. Upon their return to Nigeria, they immediately initiated strategies of intervention and an array of actions aimed at prevention and reintegrating the victims of trafficking.
Of the many actions taken, it is important to mention one of the most effective: the institution of a “Committee for the Support of the Dignity of Woman.” It was instituted with the goals of running a significant public information campaign, seeking and protecting the families of the victims, welcoming and assisting victims—those who choose to return home or are forcibly repatriated due to not having required official documents—with social reintegration through projects financed for this purpose.
At present, Nigeria and Romania remain the countries at greatest risk. The first is marked by a high rate of illiterate women and the second a large population of minors. Both countries need adequate structures for projects of prevention and reintegration of victims—for those who want to return home voluntarily, as well as for those victims who are expelled from countries and need support for their reintegration into family and society.
Women religious in this sensitive field offer to many young victims the possibility of finding assistance to regain their desire for living, and the courage to start from zero after their terrible ordeals. They need this help to recuperate an active role in their family and in society, to witness to the possibility of a revival in every situation and to collaborate with a more humane respect for the dignity of each person.
Building a Global Networking:
Throughout the past years, much has been achieved in giving voice, protection and hope to many voiceless women; however, much more still needs to be done to break this new and invisible chain, to rescue our young girls and give them back their stolen dignity. This can be achieved only by:
- Joining efforts for more informed consultation and greater cooperation with government, NGO’s, Caritas, religious and faith-based organisations and law enforcement in order to be more effective in eradicating this 21st century slavery, with the goal to eliminate corruption, illicit profits and the great demand from millions of “consumers” of paid sex. Unfortunately, even today, the issue of “demand” from consumers is very seldom addressed or highlighted.
- Networking with Origin/Sending Countries will allow for the formation of a strategic alliance. Aware of the great richness of our charisms of charity and of the reality of our presence in all parts of the world, Religious women need to work in synergy between origin/sending and destination/receiving countries. Our natural network and our motivations could be of great help in preventing the exodus of so many young women in pursuit of better opportunities which quickly dissolve into real slavery.
Other networking initiatives carried out by inter-congregations:
v Anti-trafficking educational kit for religious communities, seminaries, schools, parishes and youth groups, available in seven languages (English, Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Polish, and Romanian) has been prepared by a working group on Counter-Trafficking in Women and Children of the JPIC Commission of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG/USG).
v Weekly visits to Ponte Galeria, Rome, Italy, by a group of 16 nuns (from 12 congregations and of 13 different nationalities), one of the many Centres of Identification and Expulsion on the Italian territory. Women religious address the pastoral care of 180 immigrant women awaiting deportation because they have been arrested with no official documents. 
v Training programme for religious women carried out between 2004 – 2011 in various countries touched by the phenomenon of trafficking in persons: Italy, Nigeria, Albania, Romania, Thailand, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, the Philippines, Portugal, South Africa, Senegal, Perù and Kenya. The training sessions were proposed by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, financed by the U.S. Department of State and executed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in collaboration with UISG. At the initial stage, USMI and Migrantes were also involved in execution of this programme.
v A shelter in Benin City: On July 11, 2007, as a result of concrete cooperation between Italy and Nigeria, a “Resource Centre for Women” was officially opened, the first such shelter to be built in Nigeria and run by women religious. It was fully funded by the Italian Bishops Conference (CEI) and run by the Nigerian Conference of Women Religious. The shelter can accommodate 18 women at a time and will benefit Nigerian victims of human trafficking who have either been forcibly repatriated or chosen to return home for several reasons, including physical and/or mental illness. For the official opening, an Italian delegation of 14 people (8 nuns, 6 lay people) visited Nigeria, attended the celebration and strengthened mutual cooperation of networking.
v An International Training Seminar was conducted in October 2007 in Rome by USMI, in collaboration with the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, and financed by the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (G/TIP), for 33 sisters coming from 26 different countries. The aim of such an important gathering was to strengthen our network, make local Conferences of Religious aware of the phenomenon and help Congregations to live our Prophetic role. The participants launched the international network INRATIP/International Network of Religious Against Trafficking in Persons, the first of its kind. Later on INRATIP merged with the new international network Talitha Kum.
v UISG/IOM Congress: Two important seminars were organised in Rome, June 2-6, 2008, and June 15-18, 2009, for representatives of women religious who have previously attended one of the training courses for sisters. Once again the aim was to evaluate the need of such formation courses for sisters and create a strong international network to involve and connect National Religious Conferences and Congregations dealing with this ministry. Talitha Kum is the name of the new international network of Sisters dealing with counter trafficking. The network was officially launched in June 2010. For more information visit: http://www.talithakum.info.
v RENATE - Religious in Europe Networking Against Trafficking and Exploitation is a European network established in March 2009. It is an inclusive network of Religious from eastern and western Europe. RENATE held its first major meeting with 100 Religious from East and West Europe to take place from September 4- 9, 2011, in Krakow, Poland. For more information visit: www.renate-europe.net
A Call for Action: “Joining the Fight Against Trafficking in Human Beings to Free People”
If the annual TIP Report of the U.S. Department of State, which assesses the efforts of foreign governments to fight trafficking, highlights the “three P’s” – prevention, protection and prosecution – as part of the States responsibilities in the fight against trafficking of human beings; we, too, as members of the same human family are equally called to action and to commit ourselves by implementing the “three R’s” – rescue, rehabilitation and reintegration.
According to their specific roles and positions, we call upon:
- The global family to develop a strong economic system to offer women opportunities for a better life without being forced to sell their bodies;
- The States with proper legislation to suppress and punish trafficking in people and protect, legalize and reintegrate victims;
- The society to legally press for effective measures against the demand, to rescue men from greed and lust and safeguard the family values of fidelity, love and unity;
- The Church with its Christian vision of sexuality and man-woman relationships to safeguard and promote the dignity of every woman created in God’s image;
- The schools by teaching and advancing the right values based on mutual respect;
- The media in projecting a complete, balanced and accurate image of women that restores her to her full human value, presenting her as a subject and not as an object.
In responding to the demands of a world that is constantly changing and in search of justice, solidarity, dignity and respect for the right of every person, especially the weak and the vulnerable, we are all called to offer our contribution.
Only by working together can we find success in our ministry to break this invisible chain of human trafficking — a crime against all humanity. Like prophets, we, too, have been called and sent on a mission ‘to set the downtrodden free.’
What are we called to do today to end slavery? What is our role? What are our practical proposals? How can we mark with significance and value for victims the 10th anniversary of the first international conference on the global phenomenon of trafficking in persons?
The discussion is open and responses are urgently needed, as we are still strongly challenged today by the phenomenon, just as we were in the year 2002.
May God help us to make His and our dreams of a slavery-free world become a reality.
Thank you for your attention and efforts.
Sr. Eugenia Bonetti, MC
“Counter-Trafficking of Women and Children” Office
USMI National – Rome, Italy
 USMI is the Italian Union of Major Superiors, comprised of 627 women Congregations working in several fields in Italy and abroad, consisting of 90,000 members. Currently, there are 250 nuns – belonging to 80 congregations – who operate mainly in small shelters and in counter-trafficking ministry. These nuns are forming and informing, supporting and stimulating, encouraging and sustaining this network of activity. Working together is their strength.
 There are roughly 100 family houses managed by nuns for programmes of human, social and legal reintegration, many of which welcome mothers with children or pregnant women to protect them and safeguard the gift of new life; the number of “girls” staying in any one community never exceeds seven, and the length of stay varies from 12 to 24 months, the time necessary for an adequate social reintegration to complete autonomy.
 Application of Article 18 of the Testo Unico on immigration of the D.Leg 286/98. About 5,000 residence permits were obtained since Article 18 came into force in 1998.
 Since the beginning of our collaboration with the USMI Office of Trade in Human Beings, more than 4,000 passports have been issued by the Nigerian Embassy to comply with the procedure of residence permits according to Article 18.
 Every Saturday afternoon a group of 16 sisters from different countries and belonging to 12 Congregations visits the Centre in Rome to meet immigrant women waiting deportation to their countries because they were found in Italy with no documents.
 In the year 2000 USMI has invited three sisters from the Nigerian Conference of Women Religious to come to Italy to see what was happening to thousands of their young women displayed on all our streets. The experience was shocking but very useful because channels of communication and cooperation were created between the two countries.
 For the past eight years Sisters have been offering this ministry of mercy and comfort for religious and pastoral assistance, moral and psychological support to the many women in despair who do not want to go back home empty-handed and labelled as “prostitutes.”