Q & A with Sr. Jeanne Christensen on how anti-trafficking work has evolved

Sr. Jeanne Christensen (Provided photo)

Editor's note: Feb. 8 is the International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking and the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, a Canossian nun and former slave. The date was chosen at the request of women religious to highlight her life. In honor of the day and St. Josephine Bakhita, we are running several pieces about sisters' anti-trafficking work around the world. Find all of our coverage here.

About six years ago, Sr. Jeanne Christensen left her full-time position on the Sisters of Mercy West Midwest Community's justice team to devote more time to her anti-trafficking ministry. Since then, she's traversed the Midwest, talking to students, parents, church groups and legislators about human trafficking in the United States. ("Pretty much, if you want a presentation on human trafficking, just ask," she said.)

Global Sisters Report talked to Christensen about the changing landscape of anti-trafficking work and what role Catholic sisters can play in that work.

GSR: It seems that in the last decade or so, anti-trafficking work has really taken off in the U.S. What changes have you seen as this type of advocacy becomes more mainstream?

Christensen: Well, a couple of things have happened. It's a much broader base of who's addressing human trafficking; we have airlines now training their personnel so that they know what to look for. Truckers Against Trafficking are a powerful group out there on the roads who see it, report it, know what to do. We're training hotel and motel staff what to see, what to look for, what to do. So the base is broader.

I belong to the U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking, and we're collaborating with people like the Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against [Human] Trafficking, which is focusing on transparent labeling of things. Particularly in the industry of fishing: Where are the fish coming from that we purchase in the U.S., and are they fish that are caught by persons who are trafficked?

Several states have formed task forces to address human trafficking. Missouri has, Nebraska has, Iowa has. And local coalitions have representation on those task forces so that it's not just legislators or attorneys general or whomever forming the task force, but the people actually working at the local level.

Right now, social media is probably one of the most significant things that we have to deal with. It was not so much an issue in 2010, 2011. When we talk to students, we talk about this. What are the dangerous apps that they could get caught on? What are their risks? There's sexting and sextortion, so we talk to them about the fact that just because it's their body doesn't mean they should be putting their stuff out there.

Parents we talk to about control of cellphones: Knowing the students' passwords, keeping the computers in the public area of the home. Take the kids' cellphones, take their iPads, take their whatever they have to get online with at night and keep them in the parents' bedrooms or the guardians' bedrooms so that the kids can't get access.

So, social media is huge. It has just gone exponentially in terms of predators' access for them to advertise, access for people to purchase. They get in chatrooms, don't realize what's happening, so that's a key area.

Do you have any evidence that this type of education has reduced trafficking activity?

The calls to the [National Human Trafficking] hotline have more than doubled in the last five years — and the number of cases, likewise. So we know building awareness is working. We are making a difference. We haven't gotten it ended, obviously. We're working on reducing the demand and punishing the predators. Those are things we want to continue to focus on and get legislation that does that.

I often hear that reducing demand is the next frontier of anti-trafficking work.

I think our hardest uphill battle is getting those who are the predators — those who are the buyers — recognized as criminals. They need to be punished with significance: either huge fines or jail times of some length. If we don't get the demand reduced, we can't get rid of it. In 2013, human trafficking was about a $32 billion industry across the world. In 2017, it was $152 billion. They are making huge profits. It's the second fastest-growing crime in the world, surpassed only by guns.

The other thing that's extremely important is that the victims of trafficking are victims. They are not criminals. One of the pieces of legislation right now that Sen. [Jamilah] Nasheed has proposed in Missouri is to get the records expunged of people who are victims of trafficking, people who are victims of prostitution — especially if they're minors. Because with that criminal record, they can't get housing, they can't get jobs. How do we break the cycle if we can't help them become employed, help them find safe, stable housing? So those are some of the things that really have to happen.

Why do you think women religious are so drawn to anti-trafficking ministries?

I think one thing we have to acknowledge is that human trafficking has always existed. It was very much hidden, and as it became less hidden, people became more aware of it. We ourselves became more aware of it and began to say, "This is a very serious injustice." The sisters are notorious — in a good way — for looking at the most serious contemporary issues that are not being addressed that we can take the risk and do.

And I think that's how we're motivated on almost any issue you pick. Right now, we have groups of not only sisters, but other faith-based persons going to Honduras in one of the most violent and dangerous areas because we can. And it's almost like, because I can, I have to. I can't not do it, I guess is how I would put it. We're called to do that — it's part of our Gospel call.

[Dawn Araujo-Hawkins is a Global Sisters Report staff writer. Her email address is daraujo@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @dawn_cherie.]