You must pay for all the evil you have done to me", Joy repeats relentlessly, with tears in her eyes. The same phrase, overflowing from the swamp of suffering, fear, anger and pain that goes into it. She was repatriated to Lagos, Nigeria. She accepted this solution because she had no other choice. Joy went from Brescia to Rome, where she was hosted by the Sisters of Our Lady of the Apostles, and welcomed by the Caritas listening centre. She also received a residence permit, yet she realized she had no future in Italy.
Erma Marinelli, a Sister who followed her for months at Caritas in Rome, is happy to meet her again in Lagos. "When she came to us, she made everyone crazy. She would scream and fall in a tantrum. We sent her to a psychologist. But she repeated: ‘I'm not crazy. You must pay for all the evil made to me’. We thought she had experienced violence in the street. We knew nothing of her life". Joy said she worked as a caregiver, but she soon left the job. She was hosted by nuns, but then she went to work in the streets. What really ruined her life, even more than the life on the street, was the shame that has marked her forever. Sister Erma says: "It is likely that they forced her to act in a pornographic film. Occasionally, she alluded to it, screaming obscenities in anger, a tragedy from which she has never recovered”. Before returning to Nigeria, she enquired if the family would receive her with the little money she had (1,500 Euros). They said yes, and this was a liberation for her. She changed her attitude and regained some dignity. She could return knowing that someone was waiting. But nothing will ever be enough to compensate for all the evil she suffered".
Something is surely broken also in Mary. Beautiful, tall, wrapped in an elegant traditional dress, a sweet face, the 37 years old mother of three has spent eyes, she seems lost. She returned home four years ago, after eleven years in Italy. She left Nigeria to go to Italy to work. "I thought I was going to be a waitress or a hairdresser – she says - but .... " She does not want to talk about her life on the street. Since she returned, the parents and relatives do not want to see her. Even the eldest daughter refuses her, only the two younger children are close to her. She now works as a cleaner in a library, but lives in a confused state, in constant need of medication.
Eric Okoje, lawyer, is among the founders of Cosudow, Committee to support the dignity of women, created by Nigerian religious. Although he has been working on this subject for over a decade, he still feels anger and indignation. “Why do we allow an entire generation of our young people to be enslaved? We need to fight with all our strength this evil, but it is not easy. There is a problem of poverty, of impunity and even loss of values. When foundations are gone, one cannot build anything, and hungry persons only listen to their stomach”.
Faith comes from a poor village in Ondo State. Like many, she trusted an uncle who promised to take her to Europe. She left in a group of 85 girls and 72 boys. Travelling on land, they crossed Niger and then the Sahara Desert. They ended up in Morocco. Faith remembers: “We stayed four months in the desert and nine months in Morocco. Three of us died during the crossing of the Sahara, one died in Morocco. I wanted to go back. I know that three more have died crossing the Mediterranean”. In Morocco, they were locked up in two rooms, one for boys and one for girls. “I did not want to become prostitute. I wanted to go back, but they would not let me go. I managed to escape and went to the police. The police mistreated and deported me to Nigeria. I found that my uncle was planning another trip and wanted me to go away again. This time I said no!”
Kathy was one of the first to return to Benin City in 2000. “My family was told that I could go to Europe to work. I arrived in Italy via France, and ended up in Rome. I was kept locked up in the house of a madam. One day, I was entrusted to another girl to take me to work. I guessed what it was. We were on a bus. Suddenly, I run away and took another bus. I did not know where I was going. When I heard a bell, I got out and looked for the church. I wanted to meet a priest. Two women helped me to find him. He took me to the embassy, but it was already closed. So he escorted me to a hostel run by Sisters”. With their help, Kathy was able to return to Benin City, resume her studies and graduate in business management. In 2010 year, she managed to get a degree in psychology. "Now I would like to help other girls who have experienced trafficking and have been less fortunate than me”.
The whole world was moved and indignant when it learned of the presumed kidnapping of 33 children during the full-blown crisis of the Haitian people caused by the powerful earthquake of January 12, 2010. The government of Haiti was annoyed by the public media attention that this news received. Perhaps unconsciously, this governmental reaction revealed an acknowledgement of what they assume as the normal state of affairs. Why? Because “everyone in this country knows about the trafficking of children: there are the mafias of lawyers, the leaders of sects, the small, established ‘ad hoc’ power groups, the fraudulent doctors … - says Fr. Miguel Jean Baptiste, a parish priest in Haiti - this is the normal state of affairs in this country”. It is nothing new; international trafficking has been present in Haiti since the time of French colonialism. In this Haiti is no different from other poor countries. People are vulnerable, even more so if they are children and orphans.
In Haiti, it is common to send small children from poor families to richer homes in towns. There, they work for a pittance, without rights or rest. They are called restavek, a slang word from the French rester avec - stay with – and they are a new form of slaves. These children, of various ages, have poverty in common. In their new “residence” they eat little, rarely sleep and work a lot, according to persons directly familiar with the reality. Some of these children end up being sold to people who take them outside the country. They might in turn be illegally adopted by a family in the States, or ‘bought’ by one of the many cartels controlling the sex trade in the Caribbean.
Since independence, the various governments that led Haiti paid little attention to the life of peasants. There was never an agrarian policy, and the poorest are left to fend for themselves. Haitians are poor, much more so the rural population. There are no adequate schools or educational centres for children. Families have no money to support their children. This is why many do not hesitate to give their children away. This is the hard reality in so many poor countries.
In Haiti, it is often the ‘religious intermediary’ of a sect that collects children from the countryside and places them in the care of ‘good families’ in Port au Prince. Parents usually know that they will never see them again, but they would give the children over to these people again, since they are not able to support them. This is the tragedy for many families of this country who are not able to neither give their children a piece of bread nor take them to school. This is the phenomenon that repeats itself over and over. The reason is that since the independence of Haiti there has not been a clear effort to free its people from a mentality of slavery. In fact, it has been cultivated.
It is calculated that there are some 300,000 restaveks. While not all of them are victims of mistreatment, a disturbingly high percentage of them are. Ages range from 5 to 17 years old. Almost 70 per cent are girls; the majority subjected to even greater abuse. Between January, 2007 and June, 2008, 238 rapes were documented. In reality there are many more. These young boys and girls are “the poor of the poor.” The look in the eyes of these children is the saddest in Haiti. The only positive aspect is that many “welcoming families” have experienced what it is to be restavek.
Alongside these families that take in as many children as they can into their homes, there are persons who dedicate their lives for these unfortunate little ones. Fr. Miguel Jean Baptiste is one of them. His parish is poor but it is very rich in humanitarian commitment and in fraternity. There, on the heights of a hillside, sunny and dusty, surrounded by pitiable housing, is his parish and his work. Among the many good things there, he has created a shelter for the restaveks, in the Carrefour area of Port-au-Prince. This shelter cares for almost 400 children. There, they are given food, taught to read and write, and given affection, which is what these children need most. Tragically, some of them disappeared forever with the earthquake. A few of them died and were buried in mass graves; other found their way to the States or other countries where unscrupulous people took them for personal profit.
Two young women hoping for a job answered a newspaper advert and went to Nairobi for the interview. They were never seen again. Two years on no one knows where they are. Are they alive or dead? This is the sad story of many Kamba women. The Kamba people are talented artists, industrious workers and ever hospitable. Yet, they live in a semi-arid area riddle with social problems. There is no work, no development, no hope to improve one’s status. This is also a breeding bed for human trafficking.
The Awareness Against Human Trafficking Collaboration - to which I belong - realized there was a need to intervene in Machakos, the capital of the Kamba region. It was not matter of offering a series of workshops but also organize a capillary follow up programme to monitor human trafficking in the region. We worked through the Small Christian Communities of the Diocese of Machakos, an ideal network to stop this evil. The question was how to mobilise these people.
During the yearly Leaders Meeting in 2010, Machakos Catholic Diocese took up the challenge. In June 2011, 31 participants joined the Awareness against Human Trafficking Collaboration Team – composed mainly by Church personnel - in a Trainers Programme. The Awareness Teams have been challenged to work in the sixty-three parishes of the Machakos Diocese. They focussed on what human trafficking is, its signs and consequences. They discussed the practical ways Small Christian Communities could reach out and initiate projects to eradicate the problem at the grassroots, especially through Catholic Justice and Peace commissions and co-operation with other organizations.
Two members of our group selected people from across the Diocese. The criterion for selection was that the participants had had some experience of the consequences of Human Trafficking and would be ready to work against it. Bishop Martin Kivuva opened the Programme using the parable of the Good Samaritan. “Don’t just focus on the Good Samaritan, but also on the thieves and their need for conversion”, he said. He challenged the group to take all possible means to stop human trafficking. Radek Malinowski, a lawyer, spelt out clearly what human trafficking is. He also gave an illustrated journey through the concept of slavery from biblical times up to-day.
Other facilitators pointed out that human trafficking is a worldwide issue, and Kenya is a major player. Nairobi acts as a transit and marketing area where men, women and children are literally sold. This business generated 32 billion US$ profit in 2011. I had the chance to talk about forced labour, which is endemic in Kenya. No person under the age of 18 can be legally employed in Kenya. If a young person is sent to relatives to work and is not receiving an allowance or is denied education or is exposed to abuse, this is a criminal offence according to the Act against Counter Trafficking in Persons of 2010. This is a challenge, which has major consequences. Children of poor families and orphans are particularly vulnerable. They are often sent to work in town and end up abused or working in prostitution.
The participants went home with Wanjiku, a locally produced DVD, and a pack of pictures to be used where it is impossible to show the DVD. Each group also drew up an action plan which will be monitored by the local Caritas.
The Laity Leaders’ Council addressed the issue again at their General Meeting in November 2011, with the resolve that the process should continue. It was the largest representation of lay people - 179 leaders - the Diocese had ever brought together. Awareness activities are now underway in most parishes of the diocese. As a result, the understanding of forced labour is becoming clearer. This awareness has shocked people, especially those with children and young people staying with relatives. Now they realize how dangerous is to expose their children to the hazard of abuse and trafficking. There is a slow realisation that this is a religious and social issue.
In 2012, we shall organize more sessions for trainers, to improve their ability to work among the people. It will also be time to start activities to support victims of the trade. This will be a great difficult challenge. We also hope to reach out to Mombasa Archdiocese and their partners, especially SOLWODI - Solidarity with Women in Distress – a group working with prostitutes and other women with social problems initiated by Sister Lea Ackermann in 1983.
We are but at the beginning of a journey. By involving the grassroots and explaining in simple ways the complexity of human trafficking, we hope to make people aware of the issue, but especially of the positive role they can play in fighting this evil. Human trafficking is horrendous and its scale unimaginable. The victims are our young people, and the consequences for the next generation are dire. Yet, there is hope that we can all do something to make a change.
We need to acknowledge that slavery still exists and that the majority of its victims are women and children who do not choose to become prostitutes, but are forced into the trade by a variety of different circumstances. I am aware that “trafficking in persons” does not refer just to women involved in the sex trade. Modern slavery takes many forms: trafficking for unpaid/unfairly paid labour, illegal child adoption, organ smuggling and begging. My commitment to the ministry for women trafficked from developing countries started in 1993 when, after being a missionary in Kenya for 24 years, I was asked to return to Italy for a new missionary challenge: to work with immigrant women in Turin. There, for the first time, in a Caritas Drop-in Centre, I met a Nigerian woman enslaved by the “sex industry.” Upon hearing her cry for help, my missionary life and commitment changed drastically. Maria was sick, but being in Italy illegally, she had no right to medical treatment so began seeking charitable assistance.
At that time I had no knowledge that thousands of young women were being exported, like commodities, from poor countries to meet the sexual demands of affluent western societies.
I helped Maria with her basic needs, while in return she helped me to enter into the complexity of the world of the night and of the streets. As a woman and as a missionary, I felt offended and indignant at seeing the life of so many young women - dreaming for a better future - destroyed for futile interests. In a special way, I joined with other women religious who have been moved by such circumstances to open the ‘holy doors’ of their convents to hide and protect women running from their torturers, seeking for help.
The trade in human beings, particularly of women and minors, has become a powerful global business, entangling countless countries of origin, transit and/or destination. According to the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report released in June 2011, of the recorded 12.3 million trafficked persons, 80% are women and children. According to the United Nations, trafficking in persons generates an annual income of $32 billion and falls only behind the trade of arms and drugs. In Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 500,000 women and minors are in circulation each year.
Prostitution is not a new phenomenon, but what is new is the development of a global and complex trade which exploits the extreme poverty and vulnerability of many women and minors. They have become the 21st century slaves. Tricked, enslaved and thrown onto the street, the “prostitute” is the living example of the unjust discrimination imposed upon women by our consumer society.
On the competitive sex market, African women are considered second class; therefore, they get a lower price for their services. To pay back their debt bond, contracted with the traders who have recruited them and brought them to Europe, Nigerian women must undergo roughly 4,000 sexual acts. In addition to the initial debt, they are required to pay monthly expenses: € 100 for food, € 250 for lodging, € 250 for their work site, plus clothing, transport and personal needs.
On the street the “prostitute” completely loses her psycho-physical identity, her personal dignity and her freedom of choice. She comes to consider herself as an object, a thing, a piece of merchandise. She must live as an illegal, a social and cultural outcast, with only one option open to her - to demand payment for a sexual service. Yet she keeps none of her earnings. Sexual abuse degrades a person, empties her of her deepest values and destroys her womanhood, her femininity, her self-esteem, her concept of love and life, her interior beauty, and her dream of a bright future.
In the chain of slavery of the Third Millennium, the consumer or client is one of the strongest links. In reality, he supports and fuels this sex industry. So often today, sex is no longer considered to be a reciprocal gift, interpersonal communication or a loving encounter, but has been perverted into a mere physical and economic transaction. The fact that there are so many prostitutes on our streets is proof that there is a high demand, and these women are seen as the supply. The customers come from all walks of life and regularly use and abuse these street slaves. Seventy per cent of the clients are either married or live with a partner. Little is known and said about the clients who look for “prostitutes,” use and then dispose of them like trash.
Throughout the past few years, much has been achieved in giving voice, protection and hope to many voiceless women; however, more still needs to be done to break this new and invisible chain, to rescue our young girls and give them back their stolen dignity. This can be achieved by joining efforts for more informed consultation and greater cooperation with government, law enforcement, NGOs, religious and faith-based organisations in order to be more effective in eradicating this slavery.
Networking with countries of origin will form a strategic alliance. Aware of the great richness of our Christian values and of the reality of our presence in all parts of the world, faith-based organizations need to work in synergy between countries of origin and destination. Our natural network and motivations could be of great help in preventing the exodus of so many young women in pursuit of opportunities which quickly dissolve into slavery scenarios
Sr. Eugenia Bonetti
Sr. Bonetti is the national coordinator for the Women and minor trafficking desk of the Union of Major Religious Superiors of Italy