Editor's note: Sr. Encarnación Perez died March 2, 2018, after more than 30 years of working to end trafficking in Africa.
On Feb. 8, the Vatican will join sisters around the world for an International Day of Prayer Against Human Trafficking. Sr. Encarnación Perez, a Comboni Sister from Spain who celebrated her 30th year in Kenya three weeks ago, works with sisters across all 25 dioceses in Kenya to raise awareness about trafficking. Every diocese has a sister dedicated to justice and peace work, and Perez motivates them to recognize trafficking and to try to stop it altogether.
She spoke to Global Sisters Report about the importance of prevention when it comes to trafficking, and how sisters are helping victims reintegrate.
Can you tell me a little bit about your work?
I work in the Association of Sisterhood of Kenya’s Justice and Peace Office. I work in the branch that deals with gender and women’s rights. We have two groups, one for laywomen and one for sisters. I work with the sisters’ initiative. I motivate sisters across 25 dioceses of Kenya. The Justice and Peace commission is part of our consecration work. You can’t have peace without justice, and how can we have justice when people are enslaved?
What are you trying to impart to the sisters?
Kenya is a strategic place for the transport and holding trafficked of people, especially children. Child labor, even in the same country, is trafficking. Children are forced to work at fishing or in mines and quarries, or in prostitution in the coastal areas around Mombasa. If kids are supposed to be in school but instead they come to the cities to work, they can get lost and they can be forced into child prostitution.
What kinds of people are trafficked?
Sometimes children are kidnapped, sometimes they are sold, and sometimes they go to cities for the opportunities. Sometimes it happens that a family member who lives in the city brings a relative from the country to work in their house or business. But once they get here, children could be worked so hard they are unable to go to school.
Sometimes these children come to the city and they get overwhelmed and people take advantage of them. There’s also the case of people at university level who are promised a scholarship, which mostly happens to men. They get a ‘scholarship’ abroad but when they get there they are forced into prostitution. People also search for jobs in other countries, like the Gulf states. They pay a lot to get a job abroad, and when they arrive, they’re forced into prostitution in that job and find themselves in a trafficked situation.
What can sisters do?
We want to educate sisters about the legal, psychological, health and emotional aspects of trafficking, to put all of this information together. We have to make sisters aware of this, so we can work together to prevent it. Since I was a nurse, I understand the importance of prevention. When you realize someone is gone, it’s too late, so prevention is hard but very important. Prevention starts outside the cities. We must improve the parish awareness of what is going on. These people are coming from rural areas and they think they will have better opportunities in Nairobi. It’s important to recognize when someone is at risk of being trafficked, and to also make parishes more aware of what can happen when people go to the cities.
One initiative from the sisters is we’re trying to help people understand their legal rights, how to go to the police and what the government can do but doesn’t. For example, if their daughter is kidnapped, they can file a police report. Help is very dormant, but it’s a step. We work with police and lawyers and try to motivate them. We tell the government there are people working on trafficking, so there is a cost to ignoring it. Kenya signed an act against trafficking in 2012, so we are trying to enforce it.
How do sisters assist victims of trafficking after they are rescued?
We want sisters to know how to build up the self-esteem of trafficking victims so they can freely reintegrate into society. We are trying to motivate the victims to help relink them with society and their family. We also need to provide support and help them recuperate financially, so that they do not fall back into trafficking. Almost 50 percent of trafficking victims all over the world fall back into trafficking because they don’t have sustainability. They may not have been able to go to school and don’t know any other work besides prostitution. So income generation is important, along with self-esteem. For example, in one project we have victims planting mulberry trees and feeding silk worms. We tell the women, 'Society can make you feel like a worm, but look at what you can produce.'
[Melanie Lidman is Middle East and Africa correspondent for Global Sisters Report based in Israel. Follow her on Twitter @MelanieLidman.]