Trafficking: Resilience & Resistance

Regular readers of the Global Sisters Report know that Catholic Sisters worldwide are increasingly involved in efforts against human trafficking. While the general public is gradually becoming more aware of the uncomfortable reality that millions of women, men and children are forced to work or compelled to participate in commercial sexual activity through force, fraud or coercion, sisters have faced the social sin of human trafficking head on for years.

It’s not surprising if you think about it. Sisters tend to be on the ground, working with people living in poverty or otherwise at risk of exploitation. Sisters also have a proclivity for human connection and relationship. I suspect this is what helped women religious around the globe to clue into the hard-to-stomach reality of modern day slavery and creatively work in solidarity with and on behalf of trafficked persons years before policy makers or the media began to take notice.

My own work against human trafficking has been part and parcel of my experience as a Catholic sister. You see, as a novice I was given the opportunity to minister with the program of Catholic Charities of Newark, New Jersey, which provided federally funded services to survivors of human trafficking. I began this ministry with trepidation. For one thing, I am personally more comfortable and experienced with community organizing and systemic change work than direct service. I will also admit that I was like the majority of the general public – I knew next to nothing about human trafficking.

But I learned. I learned from the two women whom I was privileged to journey with for three months as they struggled to rebuild their lives in freedom. Through moments spent together learning to ride the bus, going to doctor’s appointments, or furnishing their new apartments, I witnessed their resilience first-hand. Day by day, I slowly began to learn more of their stories. What little I know of their experiences of violence, oppression, and exploitation breaks my heart.

Yet, I also accompanied them as they reconnected to the wider world and took step by step into their new lives of freedom. I learned that trafficked persons are first and foremost human persons with inherent dignity and a capacity to live, laugh and love that, while impaired by the trafficking experience, must not be ignored. Survivors of trafficking are strong – just think of what they have endured – but they need our strength and support while they heal from the traumatic experience and begin anew.

This brief experience of accompanying survivors of trafficking changed me. I was inspired to do whatever I could to work against the social sin of trafficking.  As a professed sister, I was blessed to engage this work directly as the coordinator of the anti-human trafficking program at the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center (IPJC) in Seattle. IPJC is sponsored by 16 religious communities of women, including my own, and the Oregon Jesuits. For four years, I engaged in research, awareness raising, advocacy and networking with others committed to ending human trafficking.

Sisters, lay associates and friends have faithfully gathered the first Sunday of every month since 2009 for a trafficking prayer vigil in downtown Seattle organized by IPJC. Catholic sisters organized an advertisement campaign which ran on city buses. We provided education to Catholic parishes, Newman Centers and interfaith partners to increase awareness and help build will for political and social change. We even created a webinar for Catholic middle schools to educate future decision makers and leaders. I testified at the state capitol on behalf of anti-trafficking legislation. All of this work was organized around stopping demand.  

Without exception in my experience, people are horrified when they learn the local and global reality of human trafficking. The struggle is how to develop an appropriate moral response to what we know in our hearts to be evil. In many ways, it is easier to blame the bad actors – traffickers, pimps, sweatshop managers – than to recognize that we are part of the society in which the social sin of trafficking is not only tolerated, but thrives. That’s where a focus on stopping demand comes in.

The International Labor Organization estimates that as many as 20.9 million people are in trafficking situations today. The majority – 14.5 million (68 perecent) are in situations of forced labor exploitation, while 4.5 million (22 percent) are in situations of sexual exploitation. The remaining 10 percent are in state-imposed forms of forced labor, such as prisons or armed forces. Women and girls make up 55 percent of all trafficked persons and 98 percent of persons trafficked for sexual exploitation.

Poverty puts people at risk of being trafficked by creating a seemingly endless supply of vulnerable people, in the midst of a culture that devalues life and human dignity. Profits fuel the multi-billion dollar human trafficking industry, in which human beings are treated as disposable commodities. We cannot stop our analysis here, however. If we are truly committed to ending trafficking, we must also look critically at our role. Consumers demand cheap products at any cost, while our sexualized culture normalizes sexual exploitation. In my presentations to community groups, parishes or schools, I have always challenged those becoming aware of the reality of human trafficking to ask themselves how they might use their own power as conscious consumers, citizens and members of society to resist and help break the cycle of demand.

This is a big question without easy answers. I’ve spent years on this question myself. In fact, most likely some form of this question will be the focus of my thesis for my master’s degree in ethics at Catholic Theological Union.

As we develop an appropriate moral response to the social sin of human trafficking, I believe that two key parts of the equation are resilience and resistance.

Resilience. My privileged experience journeying with survivors makes me nervous about language such as “rescuing girls,” or people of any age for that matter. It is of course of the utmost importance that absolutely no one be enslaved. Law enforcement and society in general should work tirelessly to remove trafficked persons from exploitative situations. Yet we must never forget that trafficked persons are persons first. One thing we can do is help to shift the focus from rescue from the outside to the resilience that is inside trafficked persons.

Resist. We can also use our collective power to resist the reality of this social sin and help break the cycle of demand. Our daily lives are filled with individual choices with potential collective power. For example,

  • What if we challenged language which degrades women or normalizes sexual exploitation?
  • How might we mentor young people to decode our society’s messages about sex?
  • Can we be conscious consumers, buy fair trade products or even simply buy less?

Modern day slavery is not inevitable. We can resist.

[St. Joseph of Peace Sr. Susan Rose Francois is a Bernardin Scholar in Ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She has ministered as a justice educator and advocate and worked in local government prior to entering religious life. Read more of her work at Musings of a Discerning Woman.]