Pioneers in the fight
Talitha Kum’s worldwide women religious network
She did not call it “trafficking”. She only knew that this young and beautiful Albanian woman was the victim of unspeakable violence. A perverse system that kept her chained to the sidewalk even though she was suffering from AIDS. She had no escape; and if she had run away or tried to rebel, “those people” - as she refers to them - would have taken their revenge on her child, who was just a few years old, and on the rest of her family. “That story had kept me awake at night”, says Gabriella Bottani, a Combonian missionary nun and international coordinator of Talitha Kum, the international network of consecrated life against human trafficking. At the time, Gabriella was a postulant in her early thirties, committed to assisting the homeless who had been abandoned like helpless bodies near Termini Station in Rome. “I had never thought about dealing with trafficking, I didn’t even really know what it was. In those years there was no talk about it. The phenomenon was still little known. That is why I did not really understand the nature of the cage that imprisoned this girl. I only knew that such cruelty was intolerable”, she says. This same sensation she experienced a few years later in Germany, where she worked alongside migrants without documents, when she came across a pregnant Nigerian woman, who had been accepted at an aid center and disappeared a few days before giving birth. “We were told that some men in a car had intercepted her and taken her away”.
It was only later, in Fortaleza, Brazil, when reading a study that considered the city and the rest of the state - the Ceará - among the main centers of human trafficking, that Gabriella Bottani had the opportunity to go deeper. Finally, while there, she put the pieces back together. “The stories of those women resurfaced in my mind and heart with all their dramatic power. And I decided to commit myself to combat trafficking, alongside the people who had experienced this tragedy in their own lives”.
For Sister Carmen Ugarte García too, of the congregation of the Oblates of the Most Holy Redeemer, and Abby Avelino, of the Maryknoll Sisters of St Dominic, it was the encounter with another - or rather other - person in the flesh that sparked their commitment against modern day slavery. The savage exploitation of prostituted women in Mexico, for the former, and the exploitation of Filipino migrants who had been deceived, brought to Japan to be sold and bought as if they were very cheap goods, for the latter. “Their stories were like a spring, they triggered something in me. That is how I got involved in the fight against human trafficking”, says 56 year old Sister Abby, who was born in the Philippines and now lives in Japan where she coordinates Talitha Kum’s work in Asia. Her counterpart, 57-year-old Sister Carmen, from Mexico, fulfills the same role serving in Puerto Rico for Latin America.
Gabriella, Carmen and Abby are different in terms of origin, culture, character and religious family. However, what unites them is the same passion to combat the trafficking in which 40 million people are imprisoned, according to the low estimates of the United Nations. One in four victims are under the age of 18. More than 70 percent are women. It is not surprising, then, that women’s religious life has been a pioneer in the Church and beyond in dedicating itself to combating this scourge. Women who have chosen -and continue to choose-, to put themselves on the line to accompany the processes of liberation for other women.
“I have always tried to relate to them personally, without judgment or performing a role. This closeness with the victims has given me the gift of encountering God in the other,” confesses Sister Gabriella. “They call us sisters, they respect us and they love us, because they know they are important to us. Working with them is a continuous school for me, they are full of surprises, strength, resilience in the face of a prostituent system that tries to degrade them and reduce them to objects, without ever succeeding completely,” adds Sister Carmen. Continuing, she emphasizes, “In Mexico, the terrible violence against women occurs daily. They have nicknamed Mexico the ‘Femicide Country’. It is common to find photos of teenagers and girls pinned to lampposts or at bus stops, with a disturbing inscription: “desaparecida”, disappeared. The “kidnappings and the selling of girls and young women are increasing dramatically,” - continues the coordinator of Talitha Kum in Latin America – “Most are sold, often with the complicity of boyfriends or partners, in the booming sex market. This is why women make up two-thirds of the total number of victims trafficked globally, while in Mexico this figure is more than 85%. I couldn’t stand it, so this is why I chose to join the Oblates of the Most Holy Redeemer who, for over 150 years, have been accompanying sexually exploited women. They are the ones who show us the way. On the sidewalks, I met women alone, exposed to all kinds of risks, deceived by those they loved. Women who were looking for a job and have found no other form of survival than to sell their bodies, even though they often don’t even have enough money left for a bus ticket. Women who take total responsibility for their children, terrified that they will find out what they do to support them. Women who are still able to dream of putting aside enough to change their lives. Women who have aged prematurely, living in miserable conditions because no one wants them anymore. Women who do not give up. They are the ones who give us the impetus to believe that evil never has the last word”.
Women, especially migrants from Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, are also the main target of human traffickers in Asia. “Added to this is the tragedy of debt slavery, human beings, men and women, turned into forced labor of all kinds to repay usually very small sums, which they asked for to meet an emergency. Often they are children”, stresses Sister Abby. These tragedies have been further exacerbated by the pandemic. “The COVID pandemic has exponentially increased the vulnerability of some social groups, such as women, who have been disproportionately affected by the economic impact of the virus - says Sister Gabriella Bottani - Sexual exploitation in private, ‘indoor’ they say, and online has increased everywhere. These practices are even more difficult to discover”. In the Philippines, pedophilia online has grown by 264 percent since the beginning of the pandemic. “In Japan, also, and in many Asian nations, lockdowns have resulted in the closure of many businesses. Those that remained open have cut services they previously contracted out to foreign students and trainees, who, overnight, have lost their source of income. Trapped in a foreign Country, without the possibility of returning home due to restrictions and lack of resources, they have ended up in traffickers networks in order to survive”.
There is an undoubted link between flows of illegal immigration and trafficking. The Covid crises are a powerful expansion factor, compounded by the growing impact of climate change. “That’s why,” says Sister Gabriella, “we never tire of asking states for legal and safe migration channels. And permits for victims of trafficking that allow them, in the long run, to be fully included in the Welfare mechanisms”. In a world held hostage to the fear of the other, prisoner of its own walls, the answer is slow in coming. In the meantime, the victims’ cries of pain has become deafening. This challenges the Church. “In Gaudium et Spes there is talk of trafficking, says the international coordinator of Talitha Kum. With Pope Francis, this serious violation of human rights has become a pivotal theme of his pontificate. In his magisterium, there are all the elements for a strong commitment to report incidents and assist victims. This task is especially fulfilling - though not exclusively – for women’s religious life. The further challenge now is to involve everyone, and even more so men, in the fight against trafficking that, at its foundation, implies a persistent inequality between genders. We should work more on this aspect, educating people towards fair, non-violent relationships, respectful of difference”.
By Lucia Capuzzi
A Journalist with Avvenire, at the Italian national newspaper