Religious Sisters Leading Fight Against Human Trafficking


It is a form of slavery that continues to exist into the 21st century. President Obama declared it as such when he discussed the issue at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City last September.

“It ought to concern every person, because it’s a debasement of our common humanity,” the president said then. “It ought to concern every community, because it tears at the social fabric. It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets. It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime.” I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name—modern slavery.

“The bitter truth is that trafficking also goes on right here," President Obama said. He signed a new executive order to ensure the United States would “lead by example” on trafficking-free government contracting.

Human Trafficking Awareness Month is being observed across the nation, including in many Catholic parishes, in January.

How widespread human trafficking is cannot be accurately ascertained because of its clandestine nature. The United Nations conservatively estimates that 27 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has been a national leader in advocacy and education to eradicate sex and labor trafficking, estimates that some 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year, 80 percent of them women. It is the fastest growing source of income for organized crime, with an estimated $32 billion annual profit.

Not surprisingly some of those people have been trafficked into New York City and the surrounding area where they’ve joined the vast underground, mostly female workforce in the sex trade, in message parlors or nail salons or work as domestics, largely invisible to the wider society.

“Human trafficking is a huge problem in the United States, and it’s a huge problem in New York City, particularly,” said Sister Joan Dawber, S.C., of LifeWay Network, an agency that works with other advocacy organizations to combat human trafficking by providing safe housing and educating the public on the issue.

LifeWay operates a safe house for women who have suffered human trafficking in the city. The house provides each woman with a safe home and help with living skills that have been lost and human relations skills that are part of healthy living, including English as a second language and cooking classes.

“There’s trafficking in every state, but I would say Texas, New York City, New York State, Florida and California are the major areas where trafficking would exist,” Sister Joan said. “Large cities are a magnet for traffickers.”

But who are these women, and how do they end up in such dire circumstances? Sister Joan says they are not who you might think.

“The victims of human trafficking often don’t self-identify as victims because they’ve been manipulated ” she explained. “Folks whom they have trusted have brought them into this situation. They just think they’ve made a terrible mistake, that something has gone wrong due to their very poor decisions, when in fact they’ve been preyed upon because they are vulnerable.” Once here, they find themselves trapped and forced into servitude. They are often the victims of physical and psychological abuse.

“People that have been in this situation don’t trust anyone,” Sister Joan said. “They’ve been through a tremendous amount of trauma and so a major piece for us is to be attentive to and work with trauma issues.”

In October 2005 Pope Benedict XVI addressed the issue in a message entitled “Migration: A Sign For Our Times,” written for the 92nd World Day of Migration and Refugees, Jan. 16, 2006.

The pope said, “It becomes easy for the trafficker to offer his own ‘services’ to the victims who often do not even vaguely suspect what awaits them. In some cases, there are women and girls who are destined to be exploited almost like slaves in their work, and not infrequently in the sex industry.”

Sometimes these “services” are even advertised in local newspapers on the personals pages. In 2005, Sister Joan, along with Sister Mary Heyser, R.H.S.M., and five other nuns started the New York Coalition of Religious Congregations to Stop Trafficking in Persons (NY-CRC-STOP). There are now 34 denominations in the coalition. Sister Mary is the co-chair of NY-CRC-STOP.

“We educate ourselves as well as the general public,” Sister Mary said. “We’ve gotten a lot of young people and adults. We’ve had high school and college students. We cooperated with different groups in doing advocacy and following legislation.”

One of the coalition’s most successful ventures last year was to join with a spectrum of allies to get the Village Voice to shut down the adult section of its adult personals. On June 20, about 20 members and friends of the coalition gathered outside the offices of the Village Voice to protest Backpage’s endorsement of human trafficking. In September Village Voice Media announced it would split off from its controversial advertising site and create a new company for its alternate weekly newspapers. As part of the split, Backpage classified will no longer run in the publication or on its website. At the time Scott Tobias, Village Voice president, acknowledged that Backpage had become a “distraction.”

“I have looked at the Village Voice lately and noticed that the number of pages devoted to this issue has declined considerably,” said Sister Mary Ellen O’Boyle, S.C., who coordinates the Sisters of Charity of New York’s efforts to halt human trafficking “To totally eliminate these ads, we would have to contact the many other companies and organizations who advertise with that paper and ask them to withdraw.

“What is of great concern and requires education for all young people is the reality that the Internet is an open market for advertising for sex and this is an ongoing challenge.”

With Super Bowl XLVII right around the corner in New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVIII to be played in the New York area next year, the annual dispute about whether human trafficking spikes in Super Bowl host cities the weeks surrounding the big game begins anew. While some activists insist it does as prostitutes pour in the Super Bowl city, others argue no evidence exists to support that claim.

But Sister Mary Ellen said an education program is already being formulated around the game for next year. They’ll be reaching out to hotels and other hospitality services.

“We are still discussing these plans and feel that it is a good opportunity for education about the entire issue of trafficking,” she explained. “Since we do not have statistics on the exact relationship of trafficking and sporting events we are still investigating that."

Meanwhile, there are more immediate concerns.

“We’re really short of finances in order to run the safe house,” Sister Joan said. “So it would really help if there were people that might be interested in helping us in some way. Every small donation absolutely counts.”

“And pray for this work,” added Sister Mary. “Pray for the victims, pray for the traffickers and pray for those people who are trying to stop human trafficking and give a safe place to those who have been victims.”


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