By Robin Gomes
The Covid-19 lockdown in various parts of the world has been effective in containing the pandemic through social distancing. But joblessness, growing poverty and food insecurity generated by the restrictions have made many people, especially the poor, more vulnerable to human trafficking, exploitation and modern slavery.
Even amid the Covid-19 restrictions, Catholic groups are continuing to reach out to the vulnerable.
The international network of women religious against trafficking in persons, Talitha Kum, has noted an exponential increase in numbers of vulnerable people.
Sister Gabriella Bottani, the organization's international coordinator, said that they are particularly focussed on groups with a high risk of being trafficked, especially in rural areas, refugee camps and city slums. Those who cannot be reached in person are offered support online or by telephone.
The Brazil-based Scalabrinian Center for Migratory Studies and U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking warn that children might be the most exposed to exploitation via digital communication platforms, which are not only popular among children but also used extensively by traffickers. They say greater awareness is needed about the risk of falling into smugglers' hands and about the contact methods they use among vulnerable communities.
On May 18th, Brazil’s National Day to Combat Abuse and Sexual Exploitation of Children and Adolescents, the Cry for Life Network, made up of women religious from different congregations, held their “Make it Beautiful” campaign on social media for the protection of victims and the denunciation and action against this type of crime.
In England, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster is urging the British Government to maintain its vigorous response to modern slavery.
Noting that the pandemic is watering down controls and reducing the capacity to rescue people from exploitation and to care for survivors, he is urging Catholics to support organisations working directly with those “suffering the evil of slavery”.
In Spain, “Proyecto Esperanza”, or Project Hope, run by the congregation of Handmaids of the Blessed Sacrament, has been providing comprehensive care to 115 victims of trafficking, including 10 minors, since the lockdown was announced.
Mobile phones are used to keep contact with the victims who cannot be reached in person.
In Malaysia, the Refugee Women's Protection Corps, a project of the International Catholic Migration Commission, ICMC, provides support for refugee victims of gender-based violence. Under lockdown, ICMC is releasing a series of awareness-raising videos focusing on topics such as child marriage and harmful roles and stereotypes related to women and men.
Emergency assistance for survivors of gender-based violence is being provided by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.
In North Kivu of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is providing vocational training and income-generating activities to help displaced women improve their livelihoods and reach self-sufficiency.
Some 200 women have been or are at risk of being raped by armed groups, and hence stigmatised or ostracized by their families and communities, are being helped by the project. JRS provides them with cash assistance and land rental for agricultural activities.
In Chad, more than 102,000 refugee students hit by the lockdown are in danger of being recruited by armed groups or subject to exploitation and domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.
The Jesuit NGOs, Entreculturas and Alboan, are making efforts to accompany these students and others elsewhere, online and via radio and distance education. Their priority is ensuring security to girls and women.
In Italy, girls rescued from the street who have endured sexual abuse and violence are making sanitized, waterproof, washable and reusable face masks in the “New Hope” ethnic tailoring centre in Caserta.
The centre is part of the Casa Rut project run by the Ursuline Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary, in collaboration with the local "San Leucio Silk" consortium. It reaches out to young migrant women, single or with children, who are exploited or are in difficulty.
Started in 2004 by the Diocese of Caserta, NewHope provides provide professional training and employment to women rescued from prostitution.