By Linda Bordoni
It is estimated that over 40 million people are victims of human trafficking worldwide. War, poverty, inequality and displacement are major factors in rendering people particularly vulnerable to trafficking and modern slavery. They are used for cheap labour, exploited for sex work, for warfare and killed for their organs.
Public awareness regarding the phenomenon, described by Pope Francis as a crime against humanity, has grown exponentially thanks to the work of religious, of faith-based organizations and of governments who have responded to his repeated calls to tackle this scourge, this “open wound on the body of contemporary society”.
In the forefront of the fight to end human trafficking is Talitha Kum, an international network of Consecrated Life against trafficking in persons. This expanding reality is a project of the International Union of Superiors General that coordinates and strengthens the already existing activities against trafficking undertaken by consecrated persons in the five continents.
In order to be ever more effective, Talitha Kum also promotes networking and collaboration between religious and political leaders at a national and international level, because, as the network’s international coordinator, Comboni Missionary Sister Gabriella Bottani, explains in an interview with Vatican Radio, partnership and concerted action are indispensable tools in the fight against this enormous challenge.
One such partner is the British Embassy to the Holy See, in the person of Ambassador Sally Axworthy, who has recently funded a series of workshops for the Talitha Kum network in Ethiopia. She spoke to us of her commitment to stand up against modern slavery in line with the UK Government that has set this as a major priority on its global agenda.
In the joint interview with Ambassador Axworthy, Sr Gabriella, who has recently returned from a journey to Ethiopia, explains that this Horn-of-Africa nation is one of the most affected by human trafficking. Trafficking, she says, takes place both internally from rural to urban areas, and internationally as there are many vulnerable groups of people on the move, with migrants and refugees coming into the country, and many attempting to migrate overseas, “with women being particularly vulnerable.”
As international coordinator of Talitha Kum, Sr Gabriella’s visit to Ethiopia brought her into contact with the vibrant anti-trafficking reality on the ground.
She speaks of how religious life is working in the field of trafficking, but sometimes in a fragmented and uncoordinated way: “The religious were facing such a big problem they were not able to move forward.”
Talitha Kum in Ethiopia
They were extremely grateful, she says, for the opportunity to come together and feel supported, and “when they discovered Talitha Kum, they discovered a treasure, something very beautiful.”
It is widely acknowledged that collaboration is a very important added value in this field, and Sr Gabriella says the work done in this occasion has been “to move from theoretical elements of collaboration to very practical ones,” bringing people together to share information and commitments in different areas.
Talitha Kum is present in almost 100 countries on the five continents. The latest networks to be added in Africa are in Ethiopia and Mozambique, makes for 11 networks on the continent.
They are particularly important, Sr Gabriella says, because together with South East Asia, these are the geographical areas in the world most affected by trafficking.
Tackling modern slavery: a priority for the British government
Ambasador Axworthy notes that tackling modern slavery has been a priority for her government for quite some time and says the Embassy tries to address the issue in a comprehensive response
She explains there are many elements to that: “what we do at home, the Modern Slavery Act, a system for supporting victims, a Law Enforcement framework,” etc.
She says overseas operations are also key and foresee collaboration with countries, participation in UN initiatives and other organizations.
“But a very important part is working with religious sisters because they bring something unique to this effort,” she says.
The religious sisters, Ambassador Axworthy notes, are present on the ground “with the survivors, they often identify the victims, they can engender trust among victims which is more difficult for governments or law enforcement officials to do.”
And beyond that, she continues, they have a very important role “not just in supporting victims and rehabilitating them, but also in understanding what the trafficking roots are, how people are exploited and helping us, as governments, understand how this whole network of international crime operates.”
Partnership and complementarity
The Ambassador highlights the value of the complementary action of the partners in question, as there are things the government can do like coordinate law enforcement agencies of different countries, apprehend organized criminals, get legislation in place etc, while they, the sisters have that very pastoral role, “so we try and join so we can understand what they do and understand the intelligence they have from the victims; at the same time they can understand the kind of international efforts to combat human trafficking and make our efforts complimentary.”
Ambassaor Axworthy expresses her appreciation for Pope Francis’ role in raising awareness about modern slavery and human trafficking and the need to combat it.
She also notes the Vatican has taken some very practical steps in the fight, setting up its Section for Migrants and issuing pastoral guidelines.
“On our side, we have a Modern Slavery Act” which brings together all our efforts to tackle the scourge, she says, “we support victims, have a national referral mechanism and an international effort with a call to action which details all the things we believe make for an effective response.”
“It’s a very challenging problem and we have to work in partnership to make any impression on it so we need the different strengths of all the different organizations,” she says.
The female face of the fight against modern slavery
When I point out there appear to be so many women in the forefront of the fight against trafficking, Sr Gabriella noted that women are the ones who make up the main group of victims of trafficking, and at the same time, are a very important resource.
Religious sisters, she says, are the ones living close to the reality of social vulnerabilities where trafficking is going on – in rural areas, in the fields of education, health care, pastoral work: “we are the ones touching first-hand the drama and situation of trafficking” it is a very important and privileged position from which to be involved.
She says also that Talitha Kum is organized from a women’s perspective: “not only what we are doing, but the way we are tackling human trafficking in a sister-like way.”
Ambassador Axworthy agrees women are in the forefront of the effort, recalling, from her perspective, that former PM Theresa May really made a personal commitment to tackle modern slavery, and that’s when it became a priority for the British government.
She also points out there are numerically many more religious sisters than there are religious brothers, so they have an unparallel network that makes them very important in the fight against human trafficking.
But, she adds: “I have to say there are lots of men who are very important in this too; Cardinal Nichols is one of them, he set up the Santa Marta Group which brings together bishops and law enforcement agencies”.
What can we do?
One thing the British government has done is to try to get companies to certify their supply lines are slavery-free. This, the Ambassador says, is part of what Pope Francis calls a throwaway culture, “so we need to think about where the things we buy come from.”
In her own country, she says, the Anglican Church, for example, has taken an initiative called the “Carwash app” that gives you ways of spotting whether people working in a carwash might be victims of slavery.
“The idea is that we, as consumers, must be very conscious of what we are buying and who we are buying it from and look out for the signs of modern slavery, whether in a carwash or a nail bar – if something seems too cheap to be true, there is probably a reason for that,” she says.
Sr Gabriella notes that relationships are also very important and that any effort to change hurtful behaviour is needed across the board. She says we must all learn to improve the relationships amongst each other, enhancing relationships that respect the dignity of the other, in order, for example, to reduce the demand for paid sex,
“There is something we can all change. I believe we have to re-educate ourselves in our behaviour and respect the dignity of every person,” she says.
Sr Gabriella also expresses her gratitude towards Pope Francis for having made the fight against trafficking one of the main initiatives and priorities of his Pontificate.
“He is a good partner and his words are very important to raise awareness, to motivate, to challenge governments and religious people and all people of goodwill to go deeper, to the roots of human trafficking and to recognize in all people our brothers and sisters, so there is no space for the exploitation of human beings,” she says.
The value of collaboration
Sister Gabriella and Ambassador Axworthy conclude highlighting the value of their collaboration.
It shows, Sr Gabriella says, that the sisters are not just working amongst themselves, they are crossing the borders of religious life, collaborating with governments, with other faith-based organizations, with women of different faiths, with religious men in the Catholic Church and beyond.
“This collaboration, this support of each other, is really a sign of hope for anti-trafficking,” she says.
Yes, the Ambassador agrees, committing to keep the fight against modern slavery a big priority: “We all need to work together on this and there is something that all of us can do, whether we are religious sisters working with the victims, or governments, or even consumers just being careful of where we buy and who has been producing it.”