· A conversation with Sr Eugenia Bonetti, involved for 20 years in the fight against trafficking in women ·
Sr Eugenia Bonetti was a river in spate. She talked about her mission, her meetings with “street women and women of the night” with the passion of those who have dedicated a life to them and would dedicate another life too, if it were possible. In the headquarters of the Italian Union of Major Superiors (USMI), where she coordinates the sisters of various congregations who fight trafficking and slavery, she spoke to us of initiatives and projects with the freshness of a young woman. And yet she has decades of work, effort and mission behind her.
For 20 years you have been concerned with trafficking in women, with what Francis has described as the slavery of the 21st century. Why?
It was not my choice, someone else made it for me. I worked for many years in Africa and the women were my teachers. From them I learned acceptance, joy and sharing. African women in their material poverty are extraordinary. When I returned to Italy I plunged into a crisis I felt that I had betrayed my vocation. I wanted to go back to Africa since I had come across someone at the Caritas in Turin where I worked. I remember it well. It was 2 November 1993 when I met Maria, a sick Nigerian prostitute with three children and no documents. She turned my missionary reality and my way of living my vocation upside down. She sent the Lord to me to make me understand that a mission was not a geographical matter. Maria helped me enter the world of the night and of the street. Afterwards I met many women like her: slaves, destroyed, despised and disposable objects. They are exploited by my fellow countrymen of whom, it is said, 90 per cent are Catholics. I realized that I had to be close to these women. And, like Maria, through us sisters they have understood the difference between those who exploited them and those who helped them without demanding anything in return.
So it was the meeting with a woman which triggered your mission?
A new world unfolded. In contact with these women I began to understand that we were not dealing with prostitution but with a new form of slavery. In those years not even the police knew of the existence of trafficking. It was only us, we religious, who realized. In those years in Turin there were 3,000 women on the streets who “served” five different regions. We approached them and made practical suggestions: the study of the language, health-care assistance, work. I made the connection between our world and theirs, my knowledge of their language and their countries made it easier for me.
What was your greatest problem in those years?
We could help them but we couldn’t make them legal. Their passports were in the hands of the traffickers. They had submitted themselves to Voodoo rites and were convinced that what they were doing was the will of the divinities and for the good of their families. If they had not done it their spirit would have flown away. Then they had to pay their debts to the traffickers and to the “madams”. At that time these sums amounted to tens of millions, today they would be 60,000 or 70,000 euros. In the meantime the women were destroying themselves, body and soul.
Twenty years have passed. Today you work with 250 people who belong to 80 different congregations. The work against trafficking has come a long way?
Yes. We presented a request to the Government to recognize the existence of slavery, we made the reality of the situation known to women parliamentarians and in 1989 we obtained a law that intervenes in trafficking. This law opened a large door. Once trafficking was recognized we were able to open houses in which to take in the women who were struggling to free themselves from slavery. In 2000 I moved to Rome to coordinate the work of the religious congregations that were opening shelters for them. It was the Jubilee Year, we wanted to make a positive mark, we really wanted to break the chains and set the slaves free and to do it straight away, in that very year. For this reason 13 congregations opened their doors to these women and 250 women religious started work in foster homes, in shelters for the homeless, in street units. We understood that we had to join forces. All had to do their part: the Government, the Church, schools, families and the mass media.
The world of prostitution and trafficking is a hard nut to crack: a lot of effort and not much to show for it. Was it like that for you too?
In 2000 we gave the congregations a possibility to live the Holy Year in a practical way, we opened our convents. Since then more than 6,000 women have been saved – taken in and given both psychological and social assistance. We obtained their documents for them, stay permits and passports.
What is the situation of trafficking today? In comparison with the year 2000 has progress been made or has there been a falling off?
There is one negative factor: the financial crisis has weighed on the women who succeeded in escaping slavery. They are the first to lose their jobs. And it is here that the creativity of charity has come into effect? To meet the needs of those who can’t manage and no longer succeed in living in Italy we set up a project for assisted and funded repatriation. We made contact with the sisters in their countries of origin. We telephoned the Nigerian sisters, we let them know about the situation and the risks that the women were running. Since 2013 we have been requesting funds for a project from Caritas. For home-ward bound Nigerian girls, their fares for the journey and their rent for two years of a place to live in are paid for and they are given resources to start an activity. We try to hold strong, the Government has few funds available, many non-profit organizations have closed but our congregations succeed with little in doing a great deal. The Talitha Kum network now exists which coordinates the sisters of the women’s countries of origin, of transit and of destination in order to rescue them from slavery.
Were you supported in your mission? For example, did you succeed in involving the male religious congregations?
For the time being not at all. We are making an enormous effort to get them to understand. Sensitive people are truly few and far between. And yet it would be important: if we don’t manage to make them work with us, the fundamental culture won’t change. And in the parishes, in the priests’ homilies, there is never any allusion to the reality we seek to combat. They say that it’s women’s business. No, I reply, it is men’s business. If there are nine million demands for prostitution every month this is a men’s issue. And given that we are in Italy, it is an issue for Catholic men. Our future work is oriented to involving parishes, dioceses and bishops’ conferences. We hope that on 8 February, the second International Day of Prayer and Awareness against Human Trafficking, Pope Francis will speak with his characteristic directness.
Since 2013 you have been going to the Ponte Galeria Shelter for the Homeless in Rome. What do you succeed in doing for these women?
We go every Saturday. There we find utter despair. These women have nothing, only the bed they sleep on and they do nothing from morning to night. They don’t even have a room in which they can be together. They know nothing about their future. We do what we can: we put them in touch with the countries they come from, we seek to accept them in our houses. It sometimes seems as if we haven’t managed to do anything. Some have even said so. What do you go and do there? Do you know what one sister answered? “We do what Our Lady did beneath the Cross”. She didn’t succeed in doing anything but died with her Son.
In the face of the great exodus of those fleeing war and hunger, there are many today who speak of the need for accepting these people: what does this mean to you?
For me accepting means giving a woman a future, telling her that she’s not alone, making her understand that there can be love and joy in her life.
What is the relationship with faith of the women you meet on the streets?
Nigerian women in particular, immediately ask us for a rosary and the Bible. They nourish themselves on the word of God, they are more religious than we are. They live a terrible dichotomy. Maria would say to me: every morning before leaving my pavement I would ask the Lord for forgiveness. I knew that what I was doing was bad, but I also knew that that evening I would go back to it.
Tolstoi once said: prostitution existed before Moses and it existed after him. It will always exist. One cannot but note the truth of his first two affirmations. What should one reply to the third? Will there really always be prostitution?
There is voluntary prostitution and forced prostitution. They are two different things. In the former the woman uses her own body but the latter is slavery. A woman in the hands of traffickers gives her services 4,000 times to pay back her debt. In the end she is no longer herself. Africa cannot permit itself to destroy a generation of women. If it does so, an entire continent will die.
Born in Bubbiano, Milan in 1939, Sr Eugenia Bonetti entered the Consolata Missionaries at the age of 23. She was sent to Kenya in 1967 where she remained for 24 years. On her return to Italy, she lived first in Turin and then in Rome, where she was put in charge of the Office of Trafficking, Women and Minors, of the Italian Union of Major Superiors. Among many other awards, in 2011 she received the recognition “Servitor pacis”, of the Path to Peace Foundation of the Holy See’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations.
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