In Rome during this Easter’s Stations of the Cross on Good Friday evening, one of the most sacred days in the Christian year, the congregation will hear the meditations written by Sister Eugenia Bonetti, an 80-year old Italian nun. This traditional devotion, in which Catholics follow the journey of Christ from Pontius Pilate’s court to the Cross and Calvary, will be held in the Coliseum where the early Christians suffered death for their faith. The Pope when he invited Sister Bonetti, a member of the Consolata Order of Women Religious (nuns), particularly wanted her experience in combatting sexual trafficking to be reflected in the meditations. She is, after all, part of the biggest anti-slavery movement in the world, which includes hundreds of Women Religious who have been trying to stem the tide of human trafficking and who lead the anti-trafficking movement today.
Human trafficking is the dark underside of globalization. It is criminal big business in the same league as the global drugs and arms trade. In 2018 human trafficking and exploitative labour crimes were worth $150 billion, having grown from $32 billion in 2011. The illicit proceeds from sexual trafficking alone, amounting to an estimated $99 billion, end up in the hands of criminal networks. It brings misery and degradation to millions of men as well as women.
The work of Women Religious at the consumer end of sexual trafficking is impressive; they also are networked and work across borders and large distances, and with minimal incoming funding, and have spent the last decade refining their methods of countering the trade. In the UK, this has entailed in the last five years making over £16 million in properties available, largely for rescue and safe houses, and over £10 million in donations to support victims and to fund prevention programmes. RENATE, Religious in Europe Networking Against Trafficking & Exploitation, for example, are celebrating the tenth anniversary of their founding this year. Further details can be found in the Arise Foundation’s 2018 Threads of Solidarity report that provides data for the UK.
Impressive as this front-line work is in Europe, covering prevention, rescue, re-habilitation and re-integration, Women Religious are also active on the front-line in source countries that feature notable levels of child and exploitative labour such as India, Philippines and Brazil. The work here is an integral part of the wider anti-slavery movement. India faces similar problems to Sri Lanka and Women Religious have created a network between Religious Orders, AMRAT, that extends between the two countries (AMRAT means life giving water in Sanskrit). It has over 200 active Sisters and many other committed members. AMRAT uses regional coordinators to plan local strategy. The worst examples of labour exploitation come from the poorest Indian states, Orissa, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkand, with sexual trafficking into Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. Sister Dhanam, for example, recently rescued 300 children, returning them to their parents and schools from slave labour conditions making holiday greetings cards and bhindis. Seasonal workers on tea estates take on highly exploitative jobs in the off-season as domestic servants with only neighboring religious congregations to help them. There are comparable networks in Brazil working in a cell structure, Northern Mindanao in the Philippines which has an anti-trafficking secretariat and, for example, in NGOs in Albania that do pioneering work training the police.
These front-line organisations have experience, skills, personnel and proven effective methods and they are addressing gender-based exploitation. Their problem is funding. Their work does not exactly fit the ideal project for the big international development agencies. The existing human rights organisations can find working with particular religious groups problematic. There is probably the usual unwarranted fear of proselytism. On the other hand religious organisations are not used to selling their work with convincing data illustrating measurable success. The newly formed Arise Foundation, based in London, is committed to getting funding through to those who do the front-line work, documenting their successes, and refining their fundraising.
Kevin Bales, Professor of Contemporary Slavery, and Research Director of the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham, says “Arise has spotted a gap here. The crucial work of sisters and their frontline networks have been forgotten for too long. They give their lives to this cause. Supporting their vocational commitment is a no-brainer and a fantastic bargain for those who have the eyes to appreciate its change making power. We in the academic and policy communities have been saying for decades that we can’t defeat slavery without strengthening civil society. These sisters are quietly, steadfastly showing the way”.
This Easter, as the Catholic Church is reeling from abuse scandals and their cover-up, this is a story that is unlikely to be told in the mass media. For those for whom nuns are figures of fun or stereotypes in Hollywood movies, it is a story worth hearing. I do not think Pope Francis asked Sister Bonetti to link meditation on the pain and suffering of human trafficking to that in the story of Holy Week absentmindedly. He has made the poor and excluded the constant focus of his papacy. The work of Sister Bonetti and the many Women Religious around the world are fulfilling that mission.