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Interview with the missionary pioneer in the fight against trafficking

It is men’s business

30 April 2022

This article was published in the October 2015 issue

Sr. Eugenia Bonetti is a river in flood. She speaks of her mission, of her encounters with “the women of the street and of the night” with the passion of someone who has dedicated a life to this and who would dedicate another, if it were possible. In the L'Unione delle Superiore Maggiori d'Italia (USMI) headquarters, where she coordinates the sisters of various congregations that fight against trafficking and slavery, she talks about initiatives and projects with the freshness and enthusiasm of a young woman. Yet she has decades of work, effort and mission behind her.

For 20 years, you have been dealing with the trafficking of women, what Francis called the slavery of the 21st century. Why is that?

It was not my choice; it was someone else who made it for me. I worked in Africa for many years and the women there were my teachers. From them I learned acceptance, joy, sharing. African women in their material poverty are extraordinary. When I returned to Italy, I fell into crisis. I felt I had betrayed my vocation. I wanted to go back to Africa until I had a meeting at Caritas in Turin, where I was working. I remember it well. It was November 2, 1993 when I met Maria, a Nigerian woman, a sick prostitute with three children and no documents. She turned my missionary reality and how I lived my vocation upside down. The Lord sent her to me to make me understand that the mission was not a geographical matter. Mary helped me to enter the world of the night and the street. Later I met many women like her, who were slaves, whom were broken, despised, disposable objects. These women had been exploited by my compatriots who in ninety percent of the time call themselves Catholic. I understood that I had to be close to them. Moreover, they, like Maria, through us sisters, understood the difference between those who exploited them and those who helped them without expecting anything in return.

Therefore, it was the encounter with a woman that started your mission.

A new world opened up. 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. Only we, some religious, understood what was going on. In Turin, there were three thousand women on the streets “serving” five different regions. We approached each other with concrete proposals, which include language study, health care, and employment. I acted as a link between our world and theirs, and my knowledge of their language and their countries facilitated this.

What was your biggest problem in those years?

We could help them, but we could not do so legally. Their passports were in the traffickers’ hands. They had undergone voodoo rites and were convinced that the gods wanted what they were doing; it was for the good of their families. If they had not done so, their spirits would have flown away. They had to pay their debt to the traffickers and the “madams”. At that time, this money was in the tens of millions; instead, today it is sixty or seventy thousand euros. In the meantime, they destroyed themselves in body and soul.

Twenty years have passed. Today, you work with 250 people from 80 different congregations.  The anti-trafficking work has progressed.

Yes. We asked the government to recognise the existence of slavery, we made parliamentarians aware of the reality of the situation, and in 1998, we obtained a law on trafficking. Once trafficking was recognised, we were able to open shelters for women trying to free themselves from slavery. In 2000, I moved to Rome to coordinate the work of the religious congregations that were opening shelters. It was the year of the Jubilee, we wanted to leave a positive mark, we wanted to really break the chains, and free these slaves; and to do it that very year. To do so, 13 congregations opened the doors of their convents to these women; and 250 women religious began their work in family homes, in listening centers, in street units. We understood that we had to join forces. Everyone had to do their part, which included the government, the Church, schools, families, and the media.

Prostitution and trafficking is a hard world to crack, a lot of effort and little result. Was this also the case for you?

In 2000, we gave the congregations the possibility to experience the Holy Year in a concrete way, so we opened our convents. Since then, more than six thousand women have been saved. Welcomed and helped. We have obtained documents, residence permits, and passports for them.

What is the situation regarding trafficking today? Compared to 2000, has there been any progress or has there been a setback?

There is a negative fact, namely the economic crisis that has weighed on the women who managed to get out of slavery. They are the first to lose their jobs. Therefore, the ingenuity of charity has come into play. To help those who cannot cope and can no longer live in Italy, we have set up an assisted and financed repatriation project. We got in touch with the nuns in the Country of origin. We called the Nigerian sisters, we made them aware of the situation, of the dangers the women were running. Since 2013, we have asked Caritas for funds to support a project. The Nigerian girls who return home are paid for their journey and the rent of the house for two years; in addition, they are given some resources to open a business. The government has little money, and many non-profit organisations have closed down, but our congregations manage to resist and do a lot with little. Today, there is a Talitha Kum network that coordinates the sisters in the countries of origin, their transit and destination of the women in order to remove them from slavery.

Have you been supported in your mission? For example, have you been able to involve men’s religious congregations?

Not at the moment. We have a hard time getting them to understand. There are very few sensitive people. Although this would be important if we cannot get them to work with us, the underlying culture will not change. Moreover, in the parishes, in the priests’ sermons, there is never a hint of the reality that we are trying to combat. They say it is a woman’s business. No, I answer, it is a man’s business. If there are nine million requests for a prostitutes services every month it is a matter for men; actually, as we are in Italy, make that Catholic men. Our future work is aimed at involving parishes, dioceses, and bishops’ conferences. We hope that on 8 February, the world day against trafficking, the concreteness of Pope Francis will intervene...

Since 2013, you have been going to the Ponte Galeria reception centre in Rome: what do you manage to do for these women?

We go there every Saturday: there we encounter absolute despair. These women have nothing, only the bed in which they sleep, and they do nothing from morning to night. They do not even have a room to be together. They know nothing about their future. We do what we can: we put them in touch with their Countries of origin; we try to welcome them into our homes. Sometimes we feel we are not doing anything. Someone even told us. What are you going to do there? Do you know what one sister replied? She said, “We do what Our Lady did under the cross”. She did not manage to change anything, but she died with her son.

Faced with the great exodus of people fleeing war and hunger, many people today speak of the need for a welcome: what does this mean to you?

For me, welcoming means giving a woman a future, telling her that she is 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 road?

Nigerian women immediately ask us for the rosary and the Bible. They feed on the word of God; they are more religious than us. They experience a terrible dichotomy. Maria told me, every morning before I left the pavement I asked the Lord for forgiveness. I knew what I was doing was bad but I also knew that in the evening I would return.

Tolstoy said, prostitution was there before Moses and it was thereafter. It will always be there. One cannot help but see the truth of the first two statements. What is the answer to the third?

There is voluntary prostitution and forced prostitution.  In the former, the woman uses her own body, but the latter is slavery. A woman in the hands of the traffickers reaches four thousand services to pay her debt. In the end, she is no longer herself. Africa cannot afford to destroy a generation of women. If it does, an entire continent dies.

A Journalist and writer, and member of the Women Church World steering committee

Who is she

Born in Bubbiano (Milan) in 1939, Sister Eugenia Bonetti entered the Consolata missionaries at the age of 20.  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 appointed head of the Trafficking, women and minors office of the Union of Major Superiors of Italy (USMI).  Among her many awards, in 2011 she received the Servitor Pacis award from the Path to Peace Foundation of the Holy See’s permanent mission to the United Nations.