By Sr. Arlene Flaherty, OP
Because of the clandestine nature of the global network that facilitates modern-day slavery, accurate numbers of those enslaved today are impossible to certify. However, reputable groups such as the International Labor Organization, and the United Nations agree, that there are at least 25 million men, women, and children enslaved in the world today. During Human Trafficking Awareness Month, it is critically important that we, Dominicans, use the pulpits and platforms to which we have access, to raise awareness and promote actions to end this egregious abuse of human rights and sinful violation of human dignity.
My first experience with a ‘trafficked’ person was in 1979. As a newly professed Dominican in child welfare work at St. Dominic’s Home in Blauvelt, NY, I ministered to a 15-year-old girl who had spent a significant part of her young life enslaved, sexually exploited, and moved from one truck stop to another on Interstate 95. The trauma she suffered was unspeakable, but our St. Dominic’s Home mental health team were remarkable in their compassionate, healing interventions over the course of her respite with us. Fast forward to a few years ago, when I interviewed formerly trafficked women in a Good Shepherd Sisters shelter in Beirut, Lebanon. One of the women I met did not know her nation of origin or date of birth. She had been trafficked since childhood to more than 40 countries. Eventually and miraculously, she found a toll free number for victims of trafficking on the corkboard of a small shop in Beirut. She contact the Good Shepherd Sisters Shelter and then began her recovery in one of the places of safety supervised by the Souers du Bon Pasteur of Lebanon.
Sometime later, I journeyed with two other U.S. Dominican Sisters to Iraq during the days of the ISIS invasion. It was in Dahuk, a town in northern Iraq, where we met with Yazidi women who shared their experience of being kidnapped and then sold by ISIS on the slave market in Mosul. The horror of their experience began when their tribe was chased by ISIS into the Sinjar Mountains. Although ‘purchased’ and rescued by several compassionate Muslim men, their journey to recovery was challenged by stigma and the painful process of reentry to their families and the larger Yazidi tribe.
More recently, as COVID restrictions have consigned many school-age children to computer screens for instruction, I have been collaborating with other women religious to bring to legislator’s attention and action the fact that there has been an uptick of 126% in the incidence of child online sexual exploitation. Traffickers, ever ready to exploit a situation such as additional child hours online, prowl the internet for vulnerable children whose images they capture then post and sell on the world wide web. In addition to the original trauma of having been exploited in such a public way, traffickers continue to haunt their victims’ lives through various forms of extortion. With many online platforms enjoying immunity from prosecution under section 230 of the 1996 Communications and Decency Act, this kind of sexual trafficking is difficult to prosecute. As a member of the legislative advocacy committee of the US Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking, I am part of a team creating advocacy opportunities through which the public is currently lobbying Congress to pass the Earn It Act. The EARN IT Act is an important legislative action that will require tech companies to issue guidelines to limit sex trafficking, grooming, and exploitation of children online. The bill will revoke the immunity that computer services claimed under the Communications and Decency Act (sec. 230), so that survivors will be able to sue those who cause harm via online platforms, using federal civil law and state criminal and civil law. While proponents of the EARN IT Act are not opponents of privacy or encryption, effective standards for tech companies to protect children are overdue.
Today, most of my work to end human trafficking is focused on ending child domestic slavery in Haiti. Through a partnership with Beyond Borders on Haiti’s Lagonav Island, I am working with other women religious to end the practice of economically impoverished families sending their children into domestic servitude on the mainland of Haiti. Today, as many of 300,000 Haitian children are enslaved within their own country. To end this practice a multi-dimensional approach involving poverty reduction, access to adequate housing, water, nutrition, education is required.
Globally, the largest number of slaves are in industries such as fishing, agriculture, and mining. In many ways, we are all consumers of products that are brought to our table or into our lives through the labor of slaves. While this is disconcerting, it is also a reality that we can turn into an advocacy opportunity. Although the majority of today’s slaves are in illegal labor situations, the most financially lucrative aspect of this crime is sexual trafficking. Here, women and children are the commodities that are bought, sold, and resold, daily. The demand for cheap labor, cheap goods and services, and sexual slavery is fueled in part, by the dominant economic model of unfettered capitalism which functions to drive down labor costs, increase profits for shareholders, and create commodities of human beings. To participate in the ending of global slavery, each and every one of us must consider what we will do to create a slave-free culture and a slave-free economy in our world today.
Although I have cited many instances of human trafficking outside the United States, the fact is that thousands of trafficked persons are working in the service sectors of U.S. society. They are restaurant workers, hair, massage, and nail salon staff. Some work in the construction industry and others work in landscaping. From time to time, we hear of trafficked persons working as domestic servants and nannies. Major sports events such as the NFL Super Bowl, Soccer, Basketball, and Tennis tournaments create a demand for sexual and consumer services that traffickers provide. Each year, conscious raising campaigns, often led by faith-based organizations such as women religious, work to increase the numbers of arrests of traffickers at these events as well as the numbers of victims rescued from trafficking.
To end the scourge of modern-day slavery it takes a willingness to reflect on how our lifestyles may inadvertently create the demand for the services that trafficked persons provide. It also takes a willingness to recognize the signs of human trafficking. It takes a commitment to see other human beings as brothers and sisters, and not commodities in what Pope Francis describes as the ‘modern throwaway culture.
During Human Trafficking Awareness Month, I urge you to visit the website of U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking There you will find updated information, resources to use, and opportunities to advocate for more effective legislation.