The Return of Slavery: Sweatshops, Maquiladoras, and Human Trafficking
The Procuress, by by Johannes Vermeer (1656)
Vermeer is one of my favorite painters, and I thought he did a really good job with this one, which was a little bit out of character for him... It was a take on an age-old problem, presumably the world’s oldest profession. I think he summed it up quite well, from the malevolent cupidity of the “punter” to the bemused indifference of the madam, with her eyes fixed on the coin, jaded beyond mere insensitivity alone to the grope she’s receiving.
I noticed last week that piracy is back on the high seas and in the news. It’s another sign of the unexpected and unwelcome return of practices that we’ve long considered relegated to the trash heap history, like slavery.
Globalization (and the accompanying breakdown of the sovereignty of nation states) has an ugly underbelly to it. If we examine the effects of the unrestricted free flow of capital wedded to an indifference towards the rights of labor according to international law, along with the emergence of trans-national crime syndicates, the exploitation of workers (primarily of women and children) and the prevalence of human trafficking (primarily of women and children) has exploded.
Several weeks ago, Paula on Receiving Light put up an interesting and thought-provoking post post called Bordertown. It was about the hundreds of Mexican women who’ve disappeared from the border city of Juarez. These women, lured from the countryside to work in the maquiladoras, find themselves victims of rape and murder perpetrated by bored drug-cartel members for apparently nothing more than bloodsport entertainment. These men have too much time and money on their hands, and are accountable to no one. Hence, the blood on their hands.
The powerless in sweatshops around the world have very little protection, and very few advocates. In additon, the worldwide sex industry is a maw that increasingly chews up women and children from Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. I recall reading a story about how the traffickers on the US border would allow the kidnapped women to briefly kneel down and offer a prayer to St. Jude (Patron of Hopeless Causes) before smuggling them across.
The Maryknolls recently made a documentary called Lives for Sale, calling for awareness and action on the problem of human trafficking.
In the Tablet last Friday was a story called From 13 clients a night to freedom, about nuns in Italy battling human trafficking by way of Africa. Some excerpts:
"Sister, please help me, help me." The black woman's fervent, tearful appeal made Sr Eugenia Bonetti uncomfortable. She had been about to leave the Caritas centre where she worked in Turin, Italy, when Maria accosted her. The Italian sister could tell by the way she was dressed that Maria was a woman "who sold her body on our streets".
Somewhat at a loss and anxious to get to Mass on time, Sr Eugenia told Maria to return the following day. "Maria wanted to come with me to church," she recalls. "I noticed how surprised people were to see a Consolata missionary walking alongside a prostitute. In church, Maria knelt in the last pew and sobbed."
The chance encounter in 1993 transformed the life of Sr Eugenia, who had just reluctantly returned to Italy after 24 years of mission in Kenya. Unable to forget Maria, she vowed to rescue her and others like her: trafficked women forced to sell their bodies for the gain of others.
"Her cry remained strong in me; I felt we had to do something," she said. Maria, a Nigerian mother of three, courageously left the streets and started a new life. She would prove invaluable to Sr Eugenia: "She became my teacher, helping me to understand what was going on."
Today, Sr Eugenia is an expert on one of the world's most lucrative, illicit trades; it is estimated that between 500,000 to two million people are trafficked per year, mostly women, often for sexual exploitation. International mafia-style organisations recruit in poor countries, using the lure of false promises of work or study abroad, or of "boyfriends" promising the earth.
Sr Eugenia is eloquent in her description of the "terrible slavery" of women and girls trafficked for prostitution: "They are victims, promised a better life and instead exploited, abused and controlled. I remember a 19-year-old girl who said: ‘Sister, in one night, I had 13 clients. This destroyed me.'" Sr Eugenia pauses to repeat explosively: "Thirteen!"
Compassion and indignation give her words compelling force as she goes on to say that between 30 and 40 per cent of those trafficked to Italy are minors, "much sought after by demand", some as young as 14. An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 women and girls - many from West Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America - work in Italy's streets and nightclubs; most of their earnings are grabbed by their "owners".
Since 2000, Sr Eugenia has run the counter-trafficking office of the Union of Major Superiors of Italy (USMI) in Rome, spearheading a nationwide ministry of outreach, shelter and reintegration offered by 70 Catholic women's congregations with communities in Italy. The sisters run more than 100 shelters for trafficked women where they find respect, love and healing.
"When they come to our shelters, we must start from scratch," says Sr Eugenia. "Only deep, deep wounds remain, fear, humiliation, tiredness. It is easier to rebuild a cathedral than one who has gone through such an experience. They are so vulnerable, and it is hard to help them regain their dignity, rights and self-esteem. They think the only thing they can do is to sell their body."
"When a girl wants to escape, we have to be so careful. If someone reports her to the madam, who controls the girls, she will be moved. If one manages to run away, the rest must take on her debt. So they guard each other." The "debt" is what the Nigerian women must pay to win back their stolen freedom: anything between 40,000 and 70,000 euros.
The sisters listen to the girls' stories and, whenever possible, try to help them start anew.
Persuading them to quit the streets is tough. "They need time to realise there is a way out to rebuild their life, no matter how hard," says Sr Eugenia. The way out is paved by what she calls "beautiful legislation" in Italy, which since 1998 has granted residence permits to more than 5,000 women who agreed to join a shelter and reintegration programme. The sisters, who lobbied for this law, help many to benefit from its provisions, usually in collaboration with the Catholic development agency Caritas.
Sr Eugenia explains that once the girls have been persuaded to relate what happened to them, the sisters can prove they were enslaved and get them legal documents. Then they are ready to join the normal working world. Sr Eugenia is effusive about the success stories, the girls who "blossom into new human beings with a future and a hope".
The sisters recently opened a centre in Benin City; an estimated 90 per cent of women recruited in Nigeria leave from there. The fruit of collaboration between NCWR, USMI and the Italian bishops' conference among others, the centre highlights the value of linking across countries of origin, transit and destination, especially to raise awareness among girls at risk and to help victims wishing to return home.
When the United States Embassy to the Holy See offered to fund a counter-trafficking project, USMI proposed a conference to gather sisters from around the world. Entitled "Building a network: the prophetic role of women Religious in the fight against trafficking in persons", the conference took place in October 2007 and was a great success with 26 countries and 25 congregations represented.
Sr Cathy Minhoto RSHM, a member of an inter-congregational anti-trafficking group in Rome, attended the conference. What impressed her was "the conviction of these women that this is the place where we need to be". Theirs is a certainty based on the essential spirit of who they are: "I feel that the original intentions of the founders of our congregations were to respond to poor, desperate people. This opportunity is a way to get back to that initial vision today."
Religious sisters worldwide are embracing the opportunity. The conference participants announced the setting up of the first international network of women Religious against trafficking in persons, issuing a strong statement directed at victims, consumers, traffickers, governments, church leaders and people of goodwill.
Addressing the last, the sisters summed up the ethos underlying their unstinting commitment:
"Our hope rests in a vision of humanity that honours the principle that no woman, child or man is a commodity for sale ... we ask you to join us in our prayers and our actions to eradicate this social and moral evil."
Not For Sale: The Campaign to end Slavery in Our Lifetime
The Academy for Educational Development
Arizona League to End Regional Trafficking (ALERT)
Catholic Bishops' Call for ComprehensiveImmigation Reform
Parish Kit (PDF)
Coalition Against Slavery and Trafficking
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women
End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT)
Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking
The Protection Project at Johns Hopkins University