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