Women Religious against Human Trafficking

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Sister Edith Schneider, PHJC used her translation skills during “Borders are not Barriers,” a hemispheric conference of women religious against human trafficking held in Cleveland, Ohio from October 24-27.

Participants included approximately 40 women religious and two male religious representing networks against human trafficking, coming from Canada, the United States, South America, Central America, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. Sister Gabriella Botani, CMS, current coordinator of Talitha Kum, enriched the discussions with many insights from her wider worldview. Talitha Kum is an international network of consecrated life against trafficking in persons.

Trafficking is known as modern-day slavery because human beings are essentially bought and sold in a highly profitable industry. In 2014 the International Labor Organization, ILO, reported that traffickers earned $150 billion annually.

A September 2017 report from the ILO and Walk Free Foundation said an estimated 24.9 million people were being trafficked around the world. The number included 16 million being exploited for labor, 4.8 million for sex and 4.1 million for state-imposed forced labor.

Also present at the conference were reporters from Global Sisters Report, Catholic News Service, representatives from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Latin American Conference of Religious. Representatives from foundations like the Hilton Fund for Sisters, whose generous support made it possible for so many of the religious from Latin America to participate, and representatives from other NGO’s were also in attendance.

There were two survivors of human trafficking who gave powerful testimony about their experiences. One, from Mexico, was trafficked to work in a clothing factory. The other, from the U.S., was trafficked for sex. Both are “surthrivers” committed to help other victims survive.

Despite the weightiness of the problem, hope and joy permeated the atmosphere.  Here are some signs of hope despite this terrible injustice of human trafficking:

  • The immensity of the problem was first brought to the International Union Superiors General (UISG) by Sister Lea Ackermann in 1998. By 2009, Talitha Kum was created, as the International network of Consecrated Life against Trafficking, with serious commitment from many religious congregations.
  • Many of the women religious from the U.S. at this hemispheric conference were white, former teachers, nurses, etc. (just like Poor Handmaids), aging, but full of wisdom, experience and commitment for this issue.
  • Most of the religious from Latin America were younger; and the urgency of getting religious men more involved in this area is moving to action.
  • The majority of the religious present are working more on education and prevention; but a significant number are also involved with “safe havens,” and helping victims escape and become survivors.

Conclusions from this conference, answering the questions: Where do we go from here? What should be our priorities? include:

  • Working to eliminate one of the root causes which makes human trafficking so easy in many places – patriarchy – in society and in the Church. Sister Gabrielle strongly urges that we address the bishops directly in the Church. She encourages us to use effectively the positive space that Talitha Kum enjoys currently in the Vatican, because of Pope Francis’ support.
  • We need to strengthen the support system in the entire hemisphere, and continue to find ways to share resources. For instance, the U.S. network produces a monthly newsletter. Sister Edith has made the tentative commitment to translate this newsletter so that it can become a hemispheric communication. 
  • While respecting and encouraging national and local action, the group will look for occasions for universal events educating and engaging people across the globe. The first world-wide event: Talitha Kum celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2019. 

We are grateful that, besides the growing awareness within the Poor Handmaid congregation in general regarding Human Trafficking, some PHJC Sisters show a deep commitment to this urgent work: Sister Mechtild Leenaerts in the Netherlands, Sister Annemarie Pitzl - first from Nigeria and now from Germany, Sister Nkechki Iwuoha and Sister Loretta Schleper from the American.  May the Spirit direct our congregation and show us the way to be further involved.