Catholic sisters among those embracing international efforts against human trafficking

Sheila Simpkins McClain says she is more than her story.

But at a July 13 "side event" at the United Nations' High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, McClain held an audience in rapt attention as she told that story — her experiences of being a trafficked person.

Now 47 and director of survivor services for the anti-trafficking organization End Slavery Tennessee, McClain recalled being sexually abused starting at age 6, crossing the United States as a teenager, being "pimped" by a man in San Francisco, then returning to Tennessee and experiencing "life on the street."

"It was all on the street," McClain said of her life as a prostitute — there was no internet then. Selling her body, being beaten by men who acted as pimps, going in and out of jails: There is no single reason for these experiences, she said. Coming from a family that lived in poverty, having a mother who was likely a drug addict, and not having formal education all contributed, McClain said.

McClain's experiences are part of a larger narrative: A growing movement is recognizing the perils of human trafficking and its wide reach throughout the world, and Catholic sisters are among those who have robustly and passionately embraced this work.

One example of the increased recognition of fighting human trafficking is the United Nations' World Day against Trafficking in Persons, which is marked on July 30. The U.N. General Assembly initiated the day in December 2013 with the first commemoration held in July 2014 as a way to raise "awareness of the situation of victims of human trafficking and for the promotion and protection of their rights," according to a U.N. resolution.

"Trafficking for exploitation robs people of dignity," Sr. Winifred Doherty, the representative at the United Nations for the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, told GSR. "It is modern-day slavery and evokes the Old Testament situation of Moses seeing the condition of the people in slavery in Egypt and wanting to rescue them."

Salesian Fr. Thomas Brennan, who represents the Salesians of Don Bosco at the U.N. and who along with Doherty serves on the U.N.-based NGO Committee to Stop Trafficking in Persons, said because of the many layers and parts to the global trafficking problem and given that trafficking in its many forms exists in the shadows, pinning down exact numbers of those who are trafficked "can be squashy and fragile. They are 'soft numbers.' "

But in a June 30 release of the U.S. State Department's 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry used the figure of 20 million people.

"When we talk about 'human trafficking,' we're talking about slavery — modern-day slavery that still today claims more than 20 million victims on any given time," Kerry said.

A 2009 U.N. report on global trafficking said the most common type of trafficking is sexual exploitation (79 percent), followed by forced labor (18 percent). Yet the report had some key caveats, noting: "The exploitation of women tends to be visible, in city centres, or along highways. Because it is more frequently reported, sexual exploitation has become the most documented type of trafficking in aggregate statistics.

"In comparison," the report continued, "other forms of exploitation are under-reported: forced or bonded labour; domestic servitude and forced marriage; organ removal; and the exploitation of children in begging, the sex trade, and warfare."

The recent wave of migration into Europe from the Middle East and Africa only adds to the complexity, said Comboni Missionary Sr. Gabriella Bottani, coordinator of Rome-based Talitha Kum, an international network of those in consecrated life working against human trafficking.

Bottani said it's common for people to be smuggled in on boats from countries in Africa — especially women from Nigeria — to Italy and beyond.

"We have to distinguish among the complex world of migration the different categories," Bottani said. For example, "for trafficked people, the exploitation does not finish when they arrive in the destination country. They are forced into prostitution and labor exploitation. Many migrants disappear during the process — they do not reach the destination. Some die during the journey. Others are killed for organ removal."

The July 13 event at the United Nations, which focused on trafficking and children being exploited for both work and sex, was sponsored by the Holy See's Mission to the United Nations as well as the NGO Committee to Stop Trafficking in Persons; ECPAT-USA, an advocacy organization seeking to end the sexual exploitation of minors; the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese; and the Salesian Missions. It put on full display the complexities of the problems of trafficking, particularly of minors. It is believed about 2 million children are now being trafficked, said Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations.

That this is still allowed to happen in the world today is outrageous, Auza and other speakers said.

"We cannot remain indifferent before the knowledge that human beings are being bought and sold like objects, even assaulted and killed like abused animals, and that we must together address the economic, environmental, political, anthropological and ethical components of the crisis," Auza said.

"The trafficking of anyone, no matter what age, is a crime against humanity. But there is something particularly abominable about submitting children to these barbarities," he said.

Echoing that sentiment was Mercy Sr. Angela Reed, who represents the Sisters of Mercy and Mercy International Association at the U.N. and who has conducted extensive research on the issue of sex trafficking in the Philippines and her native Australia.

"There is no quick fix or grand solution for eliminating the exploitation and commodification of people," she said, stressing that the problem has its roots in poverty and related issues.

In that respect, McClain's experiences are common. McClain made clear that her story — including a hard-won victory of eventual recovery from chemical addictions and now proudly working as an activist to help others — does not have that dramatic single moment often depicted in movies or television about trafficking. For example, McClain was not kidnapped.

"I didn't have any life skills," she said. "I sold my body."

But McClain also makes clear that she didn't see alternatives then.

"I never met anyone whose dream was to be a prostitute," she said. But then again, "I didn't have someone at age 14 tell me, 'You don't have to live like this.' "

Reed, who is doing academic research on the problem of trafficking, agreed with McClain: "Contrary to popular discourse and media coverage, which largely presents trafficking as a random act of victimization, narratives shared by trafficking survivors reveal it is far more systemic and sinister," said Reed, who also has an affiliation with the Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans.

Reading from prepared remarks that will be published as part of her research, Reed said she found that "trafficking for sexual exploitation can occur, and does, in less overt ways whereby a person becomes a victim of sexual exploitation throughout her life course; that is, through a more systemic process of victimization than the sensational can allow."

Reed said a life course in its early years must include "an adequate standard of living: food, housing, water, health and sanitation are the most basic needs for life." It should also include a stable family life, access to quality education, feeling connected to a social community and what Reed called "safety, security and emotional well-being."

Too often, she said, women who had been trafficked experienced violence in the home. They also experienced what she called "gender-based violations of human rights" in which "gender subordination" became a key part of their lives.

"No woman in my study experienced a random act of victimization, such as being kidnapped or chained up in a brothel," Reed said. "Instead, the women reveal a slow process of victimization from childhood to early adulthood in which a young woman is further victimized, making her easy prey to traffickers, reflecting a more sinister and structural oppression."

Reed said the U.N.'s current Sustainable Development Goals — the U.N.-based effort to fight poverty and related problems with a 2030 target — are trying to tackle such oppression in a holistic way, which is one reason members of religious congregations have advocated so strongly for the SDGs.

"People get caught up in trafficking not because of kidnappings, but because they are destitute and are desperate," Doherty said. "The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 goals and targets seek to address the reasons why individuals and communities are vulnerable to being trafficked — poverty, hunger, malnutrition, lack of basic infrastructure, lack of access to education and health, gender-based violence."

Bottani said many don't want to escape the reality for fear of the unknown, including job security and financial stability.

"This is a common problem worldwide. Each region, each country, each reality presents specificities," she said. "One of the biggest problems is to offer a work alternative to women, girls and boys exploited in the sex industry, in domestic servitude, and in the mines. There is a big number of rescued people that are recruited again by traffickers because they did not find any work."

Trafficking itself is becoming a highly talked-about issue at the U.N., and the work of the NGO Committee to Stop Trafficking in Persons is one reason why, Brennan said.

Nearly 20 religious congregations are members of the 45-member committee. The group advocates for further measures at the U.N. "to address the underlying causes of human trafficking, and expanding services for victims" among other things, according to the committee's website. The committee began in 2010 as an informal group among those who were already involved with migration concerns at the U.N.

Brennan said it was particularly important, given the sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic church, that male religious get involved about an issue related to sexual exploitation.

"We wanted to show we were concerned and serious about the issue of sexual abuse," he said in an interview with GSR.

As the work of Talitha Kum proves, the work at the U.N. is far from the only effort among religious at the international level to fight trafficking.

The International Union of Superiors General collaborated with the male Union of Superiors General to establish Talitha Kum in 2009. Active in 70 countries, the network "arose from the shared desire to coordinate and strengthen the already existing activities against trafficking undertaken by consecrated persons in the five continents," according to the network's website. A cornerstone of its work is promoting initiatives that honor "particular contexts and cultures."

One issue the network is raising is the problem of trafficking during the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Large sporting events often attract networks of sex traffickers.

Whether anti-trafficking work is done in Brazil, at the United Nations or among religious based in Rome, those committed to the cause share an underlying moral philosophy and commitment to human dignity. The commitment aligns easily with the work and mission of religious congregations.

"Poverty, oppression, violence against girls and women has always been a ministry response strategy of sisters through the provision of education, health and multiple other services," Doherty said.

To Brennan, anti-trafficking work is not only an example of Catholic social teaching at work; it also tackles issues that relate to the everyday — and to everybody.

For example, trafficking in labor and the use of exploited workers may keep the price of commodities down, but at great social cost, he said.

"We don't think about what 'goes into things,' " Brennan said. Trafficking "is exploiting other people's vulnerabilities. It's the willingness of us to accept the unacceptable."

[Chris Herlinger is GSR's international correspondent. His email address is NCR Bertelsen intern Traci Badalucco contributed to this report.]