Religious women critical in fight against trafficking, says advocate

IMAGE: CNS photo/Carol Glatz

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Women religious are often the first
people to discover problems emerging in society because they work directly with
so many people in need, an anti-trafficking advocate said.

However, because religious focus more on providing
assistance than publicizing their efforts, the rest of the world is often
slower to catch on to where there is trouble, said Ivonne van de Kar, the
coordinator of the Foundation of Religious Against Trafficking of Women in the

Women religious in the Netherlands, for example, “had
started to work with women in prostitution when there was absolutely no attention
(given to) them,” and they provided a safe space for women to rest and
chat, she told Catholic News Service Nov. 4.

Offering coffee and a listening ear, the women religious
were finding out as early as 1981 that some women were being forced into the
sex trade and that marked the beginning of the sisters’ work against
trafficking. The religious quickly involved the police and later some other
organizations, including van de Kar’s in the early 1990s.

“Very often it’s the sisters who discover a problem
because they work with the people and they see what is happening on the streets
and are there for them,” she said.

But speaking up more about their work is “one of the
things I always tell them,” so they can widen the scope of awareness and the
response to so many problems, she said.

“We help the sisters do more with PR, to make people
aware of the fantastic work that has been done,” she said, adding that the
pope recognizing and thanking women religious for their anti-trafficking work
was also encouraging and very helpful.

But, van de Kar noted that the sharply decreasing number
of women religious in the Netherlands will be a blow to the critical work they carry

“It’s very difficult for a layperson to follow in
the footsteps of a religious sister,” primarily because laypeople need a
competitive salary to make ends meet, so the cost of filling vacancies left by consecrated
women and men could be prohibitive, she said. Religious congregations, on the
other hand, are able to assign and support their members wherever they are
needed, she said.

Helping to expand the influence and impact of women
religious is the network RENATE — Religious in Europe Networking Against
Trafficking and Exploitation– which was founded in 2009. Network members,
including van de Kar, were meeting in Rome Nov. 6-12. They were scheduled to
have an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican Nov. 7.

The meeting will look at ways everyone in society and the
church can do something to prevent and end human trafficking, she said.

They are hoping to involve more clergy in global efforts,
she said, by getting seminaries and ongoing formation programs to include
specific courses on how to recognize abuse, exploitation and trafficking, and
on what to do with suspicions.

“Your eyes have to be opened to see it. If you never
heard of it, you can’t see it,” she said, but once the problem is
explained, “all of a sudden you can see it everywhere.”

The church also needs to establish or strengthen
collaboration with state or local police because “they find the
victims” during the course of their work, van de Kar said, and those
victims need the kind of help the church can provide.

Getting consumers to stop expecting cheap products and
services is also key, she said.

“If you have the feeling something is not right,
like two T-shirts for 5 euros — that’s impossible. Who is paying the price? We
always have to ask ourselves, who is paying the price for this and it’s not the
big industry and the organization, but it is always the people, the victims —
they are paying the price.”

“We as consumers are a big group and can do
something about trafficking” by paying for products and services that do
not involve exploitation, she said.

Forced labor is growing in many sectors, she said, including
the garment industry, seaports, nail salons and even “forced begging”
on the streets.

Forced labor is still a fundamental part of the sex
trade, said Sister Monica Chikwe, who works with trafficked Nigerian women in
Italy. She told CNS that as long as demand remains high, traffickers will just replace
the women that the sisters rescue with new recruits.

While it’s necessary to get laws passed that prosecute
traffickers, they are also trying to “appeal to the conscience of many men
because this is what is perpetrating this problem,” said the sister who is
a member of the Hospitaler Sisters of Mercy. “If the demand is not there,
traffickers will stop, so it’s good to tackle the problem from the root

The church can spread the word with Mass homilies and
school programs, including sexual education, she said. Families, too, need to speak
up and teach their children very early “that the body of a lady is not a

When kids grow in understanding and they see in their own
family that every person’s body is to be shown respect, including one’s own,
“that will help society” and the family, she said.

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