By Francesca Sabatinelli & Linda Bordoni
With aim of stepping up its efforts to prevent and combat human trafficking, the Sovereign Order of Malta has committed to collaborate, more closely, with authorities in Lagos, Nigeria, where the journey of so many women, trafficked mainly for prostitution, begins.
Lagos is also home to the “Bakhita Empowerment” center, an initiative of the Order of Malta with the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Louis for protecting and rehabilitating young women who are victims of prostitution and human trafficking when they return to Nigeria.
Sister Patricia Ebegbulem, of the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Louis, is the coordinator of the Bakhita Centre and of the Thalita Kum network in Nigeria.
She spoke to Vatican Radio’s Francesca Sabatinelli about her mission and the work she does.
Sister Patricia pointed out that “when you choose religious life, when you make a commitment, when you take your vows, you give your whole life to God, to humanity”.
All this, she said, is part of humanity. She recalls that one of the things the Pope calls for is to make sure that “human beings are not treated as commodities.”
“That moves me to go and rescue them, to go any length to rescue them and to promote their dignity and to emphasize to them and to the world that they are created in the image and likeness of God,” she said.
Sister Patricia explained that many of the girls who arrive at the Bakhita Centre have lost trust.
“They need to be helped to get back their confidence in God and in humanity and it takes time. At first they are without trust, but they know that we are patient with them and that we go to great lengths,” she said.
Sister Patricia described the pitiful conditions in which so many women arrive at the Centre: “Many arrive shattered and battered and traumatized, but we say to them ‘Once you have come back, the sky is the limit, God has saved you for a purpose”, and, she added, “we convince them that the grace of God they will be able to achieve their dreams”.
Today, she said, some of them are pursuing higher education, others are in business, but they always come back to visit us.
One of them, she continued, got married on October 12. She was deported from Italy and now she is getting married and has been writing to the sisters in Lagos.
“We have lots of success stories for which we thank God,” she said.
One of the challenges these girls are faced with is stigma. Sister Patricia said this is part of the rehabilitation programme and often it is not evident. Fortunately, she said, many of them, with time, manage to overcome what they have gone through and begin their lives anew, live with dignity and hold their heads held high.
“We always push them to trust themselves, to have self-esteem. Many now have their own homes and jobs and, as I said before, many are married, and may even be better off than other people in society. And they are helping others,” she said.
Sister Patricia said she is deeply inspired and encouraged by the words and the support of Pope Francis who has repeated called human trafficking “a wound in the side of humanity” and called for its eradication.
She recalled the papal audience on September 26th and said that while shaking his hand, she expressed her closeness to him and wished him “courage”.
“Because I know that it is not easy for him, but he is a driving force and he is inspires us a lot. One of the things he said about the commodification of human beings must be treated in the image and likeness of God. And that is how we treat them,” she said.
The Pope also told us, she continued, not to go to bed at night without “looking at those faces we have seen and praying for them”.