by Jill Ragar Esfeld
It is a statistic as shocking as it sobering:
There are more slaves in the world today than at any other time in human history. Slavery today goes under a different name — human trafficking — and an estimated 27 million people are currently being held against their will and forced to work for someone else’s profit.
Its victims are women, men and children.
Their average age is 12.
Because the Department of Justice has only tracked and prosecuted trafficking cases since 2000, it is an issue that has only very recently come to the attention of the media and social justice advocates.
Taking a stand
One group helping bring it to the attention of others is the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison. To raise awareness of the human trafficking issue, the Sisters dedicated this year’s Guilfoil Justice Day on Feb. 5-6 (see sidebar at top of next page) to the topic.
Organizer Sister Gabrielle Kocour, OSB, said she first became aware of human trafficking three years ago when another Sister described to her the involvement of a number of other religious orders in the issue. She was directed to an online newsletter called Stop Trafficking! for more information.
What is Human Trafficking?
The United Nations definition of human trafficking is: “The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”
The newsletter, published by the Sisters of the Divine Savior (Salvatorians), was officially launched in 2006 as part of a program called Salvatorians Advocacy for Victims of Exploitation (SAVE).
“I wrote to the editor and asked her if we could cosponsor [the newsletter],” said Sister Gabrielle, “so I could get our own Benedictines to start reading it and get interested in the topic.”
After reading and studying the issue, the community decided to issue a corporate statement on human trafficking, rooted in the Gospels and Catholic social teaching (see sidebar on bottom of next page) and committed themselves to raising awareness within the Catholic community.
They saw their annual Guilfoil Justice Day as the perfect venue to spread their message.
“Every year there’s been a major social issue addressed [at the Guilfoil Justice Day event],” said Sister Ann Shepard, prioress of Mount Saint Scholastica. “This year it was human trafficking because we find that it’s an area the church doesn’t know very much about, and it’s horrible. We’ve been appalled by the topic and by what is and is not being done nationally.”
The 11th annual gathering was hosted at Curé of Ars Church in Leawood. Entitled “Human Trafficking: Modern Day Slavery,” it featured keynote speaker Sister Patrice Colletti, a Salvatorian Sister who became involved in the issue after participating in an international meeting in Rome in 2001.
“Until I came home to the United States and began to dig into this issue, I was mistakenly thinking it only occurred in other countries,” she said during her keynote address. “Now I know slavery and human trafficking, although invisible, exists everywhere.”
Where to start
Ninety percent of all trafficking victims — and 99 percent of all sex trafficking victims — are women. Sixty-three percent of sex trafficking victims are United States citizens. The vast majority are young girls.
Universally, the people who support and profit from the industry are men.
One of the most dramatic moments of the Guilfoil Justice Day conference came after the keynote speech, when audience members expressed outrage at the demand for human slaves, especially young women, by the sex industry.
Chris Wade, a presenter at the conference and a former victim of human trafficking, responded emotionally to the outrage of her audience.
“If you want this to stop,” she said forcefully, “teach your sons it is never right to objectify a woman. Teach your young men that it is never right to buy and sell a human being.”
In our own backyard
Indeed, while many Americans are under the impression that human trafficking exists in other parts of the world, the stark truth is that anywhere there is a highway system, there is human trafficking.
The Midwest is at its crossroads in this country.
The flyer promoting the Guilfoil Justice Day put it succinctly: “Girls and boys as far away as Laos and as close as Lenexa are being bought and sold into the tragic underworld of human trafficking.”
“I think our goal was to bring awareness,” said Sister Gabrielle. “And we hoped, of course, that awareness would lead to action.
“You’ve got to be aware of it, then you’ve got to care enough about it, then you have to do something.”
Participants in the Guilfoil Justice Day were not only adults from this archdiocese and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, but scores of students from Catholic high schools on both sides of the state line.
Sister Patrice’s address was, at times, both graphic and disturbing. And the statistics she presented were nothing short of shocking.
The United States, she told her audience, is one of the largest markets for the sex trade.
According to the State Department Bureau of Justice Statistics, this country is now the number one destination for child sex trafficking in the world.
“This is an industry that only exists because we support it,” she said.
The scope of the problem can seem overwhelming to advocates, Sister Patrice admitted. But she reminded her audience that small steps can lead to huge gains if everyone works together.
Alluding to William Faulkner’s axiom — “The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones” — Sister Patrice said that for a long time she carried a small stone in her pocket to remind her to keep the faith.
In turn, Sister Patrice distributed to each member of her audience a handmade bracelet from San Luis Parish in Guatemala as a similar reminder .
“[It’s] something to keep that awareness before us,” explained Sister Gabrielle. “To remind us they are all our brothers and sisters and they’re tied up — they’re slaves.”
From awareness to action
The second afternoon of the two-day justice event was devoted to workshops, through which participants began to see human trafficking as a local issue and were moved beyond awareness to dialogue about making a difference.
Carrie Rosetti, the human trafficking caseworker at Hope House in Lee’s Summit, Mo., presented a general overview of the Human Trafficking Rescue Project in the western district of Missouri and discussed in detail several recent cases of human trafficking in the area.
“When we talk about trafficking,” Rosetti said, “we’re trying to diminish the myth that it only happens overseas.”
Rossetti warned workshop participants, many who were high school students, that recruiting of human traffic victims has shifted from urban areas to suburbs and small towns.
In recent years, for example, trafficking prosecutions have followed raids on a string of massage parlors in Johnson County and the arrest of an operator of ice cream trucks, who employed Russian students.
Rossetti’s presentation was followed by a workshop featuring Chris Wade, a survivor of human trafficking who was forced to work in the sex industry. Wade is now the author and lead assessor of the “Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking in Independence and Kansas City, Missouri” report published by Shared Hope International and the Department of Justice.
Addressing her student audience in particular, Wade said it might be hard to imagine how men get to the point of enslaving women and children for profit. But it starts much earlier than that, she noted.
“You get a lot of information from the media that it’s OK to objectify women,” explained Wade. “As you desensitize, it becomes easier to cross the line.”
Bill Scholl, consultant for the social justice office of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, which cosponsored the event, also served on the Guilfoil Justice Day planning committee. Wade’s workshop, said Scholl, confirms much of what he had learned while working on the archdiocese’s anti-pornography campaign.
“We need to make the public aware that visualization leads to actualization, and that pornography is not harmless,” he said. “Human trafficking is a justice issue that transcends ideologies, so it’s important that the world sees Catholics at the forefront in the battle to abolish modern-day slavery.”
Participating students, clearly moved by Wade’s testimony of her personal experience, asked her how she was ever able to recover and become an advocate for others.
“I never perceived myself as a victim,” she said. “I viewed myself as a survivor who was victimized.
“You come to a point every day when you decide you’re going to make it. You don’t get over it — I still have nightmares — but you decide you’re going to manage it.”
Wade said that is why it’s essential for human trafficking victims to have a refuge like Hope House or Veronica’s Voice, another not-for-profit organization that helps victims of prostitution and commercial sexual exploitation.
Like Rossetti, Wade emphasized to students that the issue of human trafficking is their issue . . . and closer to home than they realize.
“Keep your eyes out for the bad guys,” she said. “They’re not just at the bus stations looking for vulnerable runaway kids. This is happening in your city every day.”
“There are people out there who are predators, and they’re going to look like the guy next door,” she continued. “Brutal criminals don’t care about humanity. They will get you if they can.”
Wade encouraged the students to discuss the issue and think of ways they could effect change.
“You are the future,” she said. “You have an opportunity to make a difference.”
Benedictine Sisters’ corporate statement on human trafficking:
“‘Committed to peace,’ our Benedictine motto, and to the personal and social transformation of our culture of fear to a culture of love and right relationship, we, the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica, Atchison, Kansas, denounce human trafficking. As followers of Christ, we affirm the dignity of each person. We invite all drawn to this cause to join us in continuing to extend compassion to the abused, to explore ways to eliminate human exploitation, and to raise awareness about this issue.”