Justice Issues


Human Trafficking


On the coast of Tanzania close to the island of Zanzibar the small town of Bagamoyo stands in silent witness to the horrors of the slave trade during the 19th century. Because of its location, Bagamoyo was an important trading port for ivory and slaves seized from villages by traders engaged in the lucrative business of bartering human beings as commodities.  The name given to the site of this suffering, Bagamoyo, means “Lay down your heart” in Swahili.  Slaves shipped from this port to Zanzibar never saw their homeland again.

In West Africa, along with gold, slaves were sent across the Atlantic Ocean to work on plantations in the Americas. Before transport, many were kept in inhuman conditions and physically and sexually abused in dungeons of the Elmina Castle in Ghana.  Just before boarding the ships, imprisoned men and women were forced through a narrow passage called the “Gate of No Return.”  Today, a plaque bears witness to the haunting memories of this place and gives poignant expression to a message for modern times: “In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors, may those who died rest in peace.  May those who return find their roots.  May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity.  We, the living, vow to uphold this.”

The Alarming Truth

The alarming truth is that such injustice against humanity persists in the 21st century in the form of human trafficking.  The International Labor Organization (ILO), an agency of the United Nations, estimates that there are 12.3 million people who are enslaved in forced labor, bonded labor, child labor, sexual servitude and involuntary servitude at any given time. According to the U S Department of State:

  • An estimated 600,000 to 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked across international borders each year. 
  • Of these, approximately 80 percent are women and girls and up to 50 percent are minors. 
  • Subjected to fraud, coercion, and violence, victims of human trafficking are stripped of human rights for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labor.


Abundance of life for all

Human trafficking is an assault on human dignity and an affront to God’s dream of “abundance of life for all” expressed so beautifully in John 10:10:  “I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full.” It is an issue that touches every part of the globe and demands a worldwide response, especially from persons committed to the Gospel mandates of right relationship, reconciliation, justice and peace. It is a sign of the times that must not be ignored by men and women religious motivated by passion for Christ and passion for humanity.

When the members of International Union of Superiors General (UISG) gathered in Rome in 2001 in plenary session to reflect on what is crying out for the tenderness and mercy of God today, it is no wonder that the trafficking of women and children arose from the experience of leaders of religious congregations of women throughout the world. Many of those present were able to share stories of efforts that were being made by their sisters to assist women and children affected by trafficking.  By the end of the Plenary, some 800 leaders from 77 different countries of the five continents proclaimed their commitment to work in solidarity to counteract human trafficking. This Declaration was communicated to Pope John Paul II and to civil and religious leaders all over the world.

In 2002 at the Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, UISG delegates reported on implementation of the 2001 Declaration and shared assessments of the situation of abuse of women and children as well as efforts to promote awareness of the scope and structural underpinnings of trafficking that make it a modern form of slavery.  Parallels between the UISG Declaration and the UN Millennium Development Goals were noted and discussed.

The Declaration fashioned at the 2004 Plenary built on the 2001 Declaration by pledging to intensify efforts to eradicate the trafficking of women and children, promote the education of women and girls, and be proactive in peace-building and in caring for all creation.  This Declaration also voiced the commitment of UISG members to working with one another and with the members of their institutes and national conferences of religious by living a spirituality of reconciliation, proclaiming publicly a commitment to being bearers of reconciliation and to sharing resources and experiences of reconciliation.

This article describes some ways in which women religious throughout the world are striving to implement the commitment to eradicating human trafficking.

Initiatives of the Unions of Superiors General

The JPIC Trafficking Kit

In 2003 to highlight the issue of trafficking for male and female religious congregations, church groups and networks of NGOs who collaborate with religious orders, the Working Group on Trafficking in Women and Children of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Unions of Superiors General (USG/UISG) developed a resource kit that focuses on prevention, rehabilitation and political action.  This kit, initially available in English, Spanish, French and Italian has now been translated into Polish and Romanian and translations into Portuguese, German and Thai are in progress.

The kit provides an overview of some of the main issues regarding trafficking in women and children and suggests possible strategies for religious congregations to network together and with others to prevent and combat trafficking.  It also offers information from official documents of the United Nations and reports of various other organizations working in the field, resources for theological reflection and workshop materials.  The kit, which has been shared widely with other groups committed to the eradication of trafficking, is currently being updated and plans are underway for making new translations available. 

The IOM/UISG/USMI Collaborative Project

In September of 2003, UISG became a partner with the United States Embassy to the Holy See, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Union of Major Superiors of Italy (USMI) and the Migrantes Foundation in designing and implementing a Counter-Trafficking Training Program for Religious Personnel.  The aim of this collaborative project was to enhance the skills and knowledge base of religious personnel who are active or willing to become active in counter-trafficking efforts in the areas of prevention and direct assistance to victims.  Women religious were selected as the beneficiaries of the training program because of their extensive international networks and their permanent presence both in countries of origin and in countries of destination.

The initial stage of the Counter-Trafficking Program was two-fold:  the training of religious personnel in three countries of origin significantly impacted by trafficking –Albania, Romania and Nigeria, and in Italy, a destination country where women religious are actively involved in assisting victims of trafficking and in creating networks of collaboration between countries of origin and destination.  The first phase of the project involved developing a training course that includes an international overview of the phenomenon and profiles of victims as well as techniques for prevention, assistance and social reintegration into the country of origin.  The program also provides a spiritual and pastoral component, review of moral and ethical principles pertinent to the issue, and strategies for strengthening anti-trafficking trans-national networks. During the training sessions, course content was situated in the context of opening prayer each day based on the Scripture or Catholic Social Teachings and closing reflections on biblical passages or icons relevant to the theme of the day.

Between January and May 2004 training courses were conducted in Rome, Italy; Lagos, Nigeria; Shkodra, Albania and Traian, Romania.  A total of 87 sisters participated in these session, some of whom were already involved in the area of trafficking while, for others, the training provided first exposure to the problem.

In fall 2004 a second grant, acquired with the assistance of the US Embassy to the Holy See, provided funding for follow-up and assessment of how the training acquired was being applied in local contexts and evaluation of the components of the training with a view toward improving the efficaciousness of the project in order to replicate it in other countries. During this period, IOM staff in collaboration with UISG and USMI members of the Steering Committee, prepared and published: UNDERSTANDING AND COUNTERACTING TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS:  THE ACTS OF THE SEMINAR FOR WOMEN RELIGIOUS.  Printed in English and Italian, this book was distributed to the participants of the phase two evaluation sessions and is available as a resource for other religious.

From April through July of 2005, evaluation and follow-up sessions were conducted for 79 sisters in Rome, Italy, Tirana, Albania, Lagos, Nigeria and Bucharest, Romania.  These gatherings were designed for the participants of the phase one courses but also included some sisters attending for the first time.  In addition to deepening the knowledge and skills of those who participated, the phase two sessions provided significant opportunity for information sharing, networking and further development of pastoral plans. Overall, the response to the training program has been positive.  However, the women religious who participated expressed acute awareness of the overwhelming magnitude of the problem and the obstacles they face because of lack of a systemic approach and scarcity of resources and personnel. 

The phase two IOM/UISG/UMSI initiative also included training programs in Bangkok, Thailand and in the Dominican Republic. Funding has been obtained from the United States government for a third phase of the collaborative effort that will extend the training program to Portugal, Brazil and the Philippines in 2006.  Funds also have been secured to underwrite publication of the IOM/UISG/USMI book in Portuguese and Spanish.

Since the beginning of this collaborative project, representatives of USMI and UISG serving on the Steering Committee have been instrumental in the development, delivery and evaluation of the training sessions and in facilitating communication and networking with women religious in the various countries involved to date with the program. A consistent networking goal has been to strengthen links between sisters working in the area of trafficking in countries of origin and sisters involved in such work in countries of destination. 

The Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples

UISG was able to continue efforts at collaboration and networking by participating in the first international conference for the liberation of women who are exploited in the sex trade.  The Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples convened this conference in Rome on June 20-21, 2005 for 60 invited participants from 24 countries. Besides focusing on women as objects of sexual exploitation, participants discussed the dehumanization of clients and systemic issues that reduce human beings to commodities.  At the end of the conference, the participants issued a document that contains conclusions and general propositions arising at the meeting as well as specific recommendations for Episcopal Conferences, local Church communities, religious congregations, diocesan clergy and national conferences of religious and for society in general. The following are the recommendations directed to religious congregations, diocesan clergy and national conferences of religious:

  • Education and awareness programs regarding sexual exploitation of women and minors should be provided in seminaries and in initial and ongoing formation programs of religious congregations, both of men and women.
  • National Conferences of Religious are encouraged to appoint a person to serve as a networking link within and beyond their country for this pastoral sector.


Caritas Internationalis: Inter-Regional Workshop on Anti-Trafficking

Caritas Internationalis, another global organization based in Rome, invited UISG representatives to participate in an inter-regional workshop on anti-trafficking in September 2005. This meeting was a forum for describing regional realities and counter-trafficking activities, generating joint strategies on prevention, assistance, advocacy and networking and developing strategic guidelines for creating partnerships and alliances with other entities.

Regional representatives from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Mid-East, North America and Oceana brought a global and multi-cultural richness to the meeting.  A major outcome of the workshop was the drafting of a commitment paper that was forwarded to the Caritas Internationalis Executive Committee for approval and dissemination.  This workshop provided an opportunity for sharing information about the commitment of women religious throughout the world to counteracting trafficking in all its forms.  Because of a mutual dedication to Gospel principles, Caritas Internationalis is a natural partner for collaborative efforts involving men and women religious.

In addition to centralized UISG efforts to respond to trafficking as a global reality, women religious in various countries are engaged with the issue. The UISG Declarations are an expression of the convergence of the passionate commitment of women religious to work toward the eradication of human trafficking. The following is a sampling of activities in different parts of the world.


A Non- Government Organization (NGO), Project Respect, was established in Melbourne a few years ago by the Good Shepherd Sisters and two other philanthropic groups to support victims and trafficking and women in prostitution. In 2003 Shared Hope International and the Brigidine Sisters funded a research project documenting 300 cases of trafficking into Australia.  This was launched at the Federal Parliament and is widely referred to for baseline data.

In November 2004, the Brigidine Sisters, in collaboration with Australian Catholic University and ForceTen (a joint initiative of Christian World Service and Caritas Australia), conducted the first public forum on human trafficking in Sydney.  This session drew more than 50 individuals and representatives of some 15 NGOs.  At the end of the forum participants agreed to work together on awareness education and prevention and to lobby for legislative change. Specific suggestions from women’s religious congregations present at the forum included: awareness-raising within congregations and with colleagues, development of a trafficking kit with Australian content, education for men and boys on the issue, support for legislative change and networking of expertise.

Four general public forums were held in Sydney in 2005.

In May 2005, the Australian Conference of Religious Leaders (ACLRI) invited congregational leaders to share information, initiatives, contacts and possible ways forward. At this meeting there was a clear call to action and to working inter-congregationally and with others. A working group was established to address trafficking as a human rights issue. Each member of the group is presently involved in awareness-raising through public forums.  A member of the working group has already traveled to Thailand and Cambodia on a fact-finding and networking mission. The working group has also helped to prepare two reports for the 2006 UN session focusing on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

To date, 48 religious congregations including two congregations of men have expressed interest in networking on the issue of trafficking. A questionnaire has been sent to every religious congregation through the Australian Conference of Religious Leaders. The survey is designed to ascertain interest in and support for anti-trafficking work and to determine commitment to providing human and financial resources for this ministry.


In 2001, when UISG asked the religious of the whole world to counter the trafficking of women and children, social justice networks already active with women met to collaborate specifically on the issue of trafficking. In Montreal an interactive play, “Lost in Traffic,” was created to increase public awareness.  This play has been performed more than thirty times in both French and English for enthusiastic audiences throughout Quebec and Ontario.

Following the UISG Plenary in 2004, the Canadian Religious Conference (CRC) issued its own declaration stating a commitment “to collaborate with UISG and the other religious conferences of the Americas in the implementation of the 2004 UISG declaration on the spirituality of reconciliation as we seek to eradicate violence of all kinds, especially the trafficking of women and children.”

 In September 2004, an action strategy network of several organizations was formed to promote public awareness and influence legislation.  Since that time, CRC has sponsored several educational and advocacy initiatives across the country for members of religious congregations, their collaborators and young people.  These events have included workshops using the JPIC Trafficking Kit, conferences, and performances of “Lost in Traffic.”  In May 2005, CRC responded to the Canadian government’s approach to combating human trafficking by issuing a press release challenging the federal government to focus on the protection and rights of victims rather than on the criminalization and law enforcement.  Educational and advocacy efforts are ongoing in Canada as religious continue to collaborate with others to counter this global tragedy.

South Africa

The women religious of South Africa are taking the commitment to counter trafficking seriously by promoting awareness-raising. Sisters of various congregations are deeply involved in education ministries and initiatives to reduce poverty that are indirect means to preventing human trafficking. There are also sisters who work directly with the issue but, at present there is no way of coordinating such efforts.  A proposal has been made that a position be established under the auspices of the Episcopal Conference to coordinate anti-trafficking activities. Members of the South African Conference of Religious participate in meetings of the Human Trafficking Inter-Sectoral Body along with representatives of several government departments and NGOs.

The Netherlands

In the Netherlands there is a Dutch Foundation of Religious against Trafficking in Women (SRTV) that was founded by a woman religious and presently has 25 members, including religious from 15 different congregations as well as both Protestant and Catholic lay people.  In addition to awareness education and networking abroad, SRTV works on prevention and dissemination of information and practical help to victims of trafficking in the Netherlands.  SRTV has developed a leaflet that is translated into 42 nt languages and distributed in 60 countries to warn women about the dangers of trafficking.  It also publishes a free annual Newsletter, TRANS actions. SRVT has been instrumental as well in the development and use of an awareness-raising film, “Anna,” to provoke dialogue in secondary school settings and with groups of soldiers being sent on peacekeeping missions in the Balkans.


Among the initiatives in Germany is Solidarity with Women in Distress (SOLWODI), a project founded by Sister Lea Ackerman MSOLA. While working in Kenya, Sister Lea set up a center where women exploited for sex tourism could learn skills such as cooking, sewing, pottery and handcrafts.  She also established a counseling center and a shop where items made by the women could be sold. Later, in Germany, she became instrumental in awareness-raising about sexual exploitation by German tourists.  SOLWODI reached out to women from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe invited into the marriage market by traffickers and then forced into German brothels. In 2001, there were 835 first enquiries made to the counseling centers by women from 90 different countries.

 Today SOLWODI has numerous counseling centers and protection apartments or “safe houses.”  It has become a large organization with employed staff and lay and religious volunteers.  SOLWODI accompanies women to trafficking trials and engages a woman lawyer to prepare them to testify.  They are welcomed into the SOLWODI protection apartments and given financial assistance.


Women religious in Britain are attending meetings and becoming increasingly involved at a variety of levels in CHASTE, an ecumenical organization that provides training in support for those working professionally in areas that touch upon sex trafficking.  In addition, CHASTE offers pastoral and counseling care to those who have been trafficked, provides safe housing, works directly with law enforcement personnel, trains chaplains and provides education to increase public awareness and involvement in prevention and rehabilitation initiatives.

The United States

In the United States there is a Coalition of Catholic Organizations against Trafficking comprised of approximately 30 international or national organizations.  The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and several religious congregations belong to this coalition that meets in Washington, D. C.  The main purposes of the Coalition are to:  generate strategies for combating trafficking and serving its victims, promote services for empowering the victims of trafficking, dialogue with government officials and others engaged in public policies affecting this issue, and devise strategies for public education, awareness-raising and grass-roots action. Coalition meetings also provide opportunities for sharing information about the activities of each organization around issues of human trafficking and for collaboration on the promotion of key issues and major projects. Members of the Coalition have sponsored training programs for police officers and emergency room personnel to help them identify victims of trafficking.

In 2005, 96 women religious from 25 congregations gathered in Baltimore for a national conference: “Voices of Vigilance:  Against Human Trafficking.” The conference was convened by the USCCB Migration and Refugee Services and coordinated by Sister Mary Ellen Dougherty SSND. During the conference, participants focused on global issues that impact trafficking, generated collaborative actions through a process of discernment, and strengthened intra-congregational and regional networks.

Several of the colleges and universities founded by women religious have sponsored open forums in collaboration with the USCCB Migration and Refugee Services on various dimensions of human trafficking.  Among these are:  Notre Dame College of Maryland in Baltimore, Regis College in Boston, St. Joseph’s College in Hartford, Mount St. Mary’s in Los Angeles and Marywood University in Scranton.  Trinity University of Washington, D.C., a Catholic women’s institution, sponsors a certificate program in human trafficking, and through its graduate students, furthers research on the issue.

Stop Trafficking! Anti-Human Trafficking Newsletter, an initiative of Sr. Jean Schafer SDS, and co-sponsored by the Sisters of the Divine Savior, Capacitar International, Inc. and the Sisters of Mercy International Justice Network, is available on request at: jeansds2000@yahoo.com


A teenage theater troupe at the Center for Studies and Promotion of Marginalized Women (CEPROMM) in Sao Paolo crafted a play, “The Three Pigs and the Seducing Wolf” to alert  youth to the dangers of trafficking.  The prize-winning troupe continues to perform the play in different settings to promote prevention of trafficking.


In Italy there is substantial involvement of women religious in the area of counter-trafficking. Coordinated by Sister Eugenia Bonetti MC of the Union of Major Superiors of Italy (USMI), some 250 sisters from 70 different congregations are offering assistance to women and young girls who have been trafficked into Italy.  Included in their service are outreach units for first contacts on the streets, a telephone hot line, drop in centers, emergency and transitional shelters, legal assistance, language and professional training, and pastoral ministry.  For almost three years a group of 12 sisters from different congregations and of different nationalities has visited a temporary detention center in Rome to offer spiritual support to women awaiting mass deportation.  USMI is also extensively involved in establishing collaborative networks linking Italy, a country of destination with countries of origin, especially Nigeria and countries of Eastern Europe.


The Nigerian Conference of Women Religious (NCWR) established the Committee for the Support of the Dignity of Women (COSUDOW) in 1999 to counter the exploitation of Nigerian women and children by traffickers.  The office in Benin City is a referral center for all of Nigeria.  COSUDOW works on awareness-raising and prevention, family tracing, emergency assistance and reintegration of women deported from countries of destination, particularly Italy. It is estimated that 90 percent of Nigerians who become trafficked persons leave their country by way of Benin City.  COSUDOW collaborates with other NGOs in Benin City in developing and distributing leaflets, radio announcements and posters to warn women about the tactics traffickers use to lure women into forced prostitution and slave labor. Sister Florence Nwaonuma SSH is the coordinator of COSUDOW.


The Fountain of Life Center in Thailand is an example of the response of women religious to human consequences of the sex trade. Founded in 1988 by the Good Shepherd Sisters, Fountain of Life includes a drop-in center for women and girls involved in the sex industry in Pattaya, a children’s center and a women’s center. The drop-in center is a place where women can come for information regarding visas, going abroad, educational possibilities for themselves and their children and help with writing and translating letters.  The activities at the women’s center consist of language classes in Thai, English and German, skills training, counseling, health education, and medical and legal assistance. Approximately 300 women come to the Fountain of Life Center on a daily basis.

The Philippines

Sister Mary Soledad Perpinan RGS, head of the Third World Movement against the Exploitation of Women (TWMAEW), was one of the 27 Filipinas whose names were submitted to the Nobel Prize Committee in Oslo for inclusion in the “1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005.”  The nomination of the one thousand women from 153 countries is an attempt to recognize what women are doing to create, instill and promote peace in various ways. Sister Mary Soledad is being recognized for her efforts to assist the inner healing of survivors of incest, rape and the sex trade.

TWMAEW not only does advocacy work against sexual exploitation and the trafficking of women, it also operates residential rehabilitation services and drop-in centers in 12 sites in major islands of the Philippines.

Inter-Congregational NGOs

In addition to work being done within various countries, there is also much counter-trafficking activity among women religious who have consultative status at the United Nations and through Inter-Congregational NGOs.  One such example is UNANIMA International, a NGO composed of 12 groups of women religious with more than 15,000 members located on all continents.  Its main goal for the next several years is to work toward the eradication of trafficking. For information on UNANIMA, consult unanima-international.org.

Implementing Congregational Direction Statements

In the past few years a number of individual religious congregations have incorporated commitment to countering human trafficking into their General Chapters.  An example of global outreach to the issue of trafficking is the work of the Good Shepard Congregation.  The issue of human trafficking emerged as a top priority in the 2003 General Chapter Direction Statement that will guide the entire congregation for the next six years.  Sister Helene Hayes RGS is currently working on a book based on interviews conducted in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Korea, the Philippines, Belgium, France, Italy and the United States. The goal of the book is to place the voices of trafficked women, “the world’s most silent, dispossessed and nameless of women,” at its center.  Credible research such as this makes it difficult for governments and disinterested persons to ignore this devastating global human rights violation.


There are many other examples of the ways in which women religious around the world are forwarding efforts to eradicate trafficking.  Those described in this article are meant to be suggestive rather than exhaustive. They range in scope from awareness-raising to direct service to lobbying and impacting public policy.  They illustrate the capacity of individuals, groups and networks to put into practice core beliefs in human dignity, God-given potential and the resilience of the human spirit. They are signs of God’s healing, compassionate presence in a fragmented, wounded world, especially among the poor and the exploited.  They are a tangible expression of the imagination, resourcefulness, love and persistence of women religious committed to God’s all- inclusive dream of abundant life. They are a reminder that trafficking is a terrible violation of human rights and of the dignity of persons created in the image of God. When any person is treated as a commodity, all of humanity is diminished.