Human trafficking is “happening closer to us than we think,” and Catholic groups are increasingly committed to fighting it through advocacy, prayer and action, global anti-trafficking leader Sister Gabriella Bottani, S.M.C., has said.
“What we should do, more and more, is to be aware and to try to understand what trafficking is in our reality, in our communities,” Bottani told CNA June 26 during a Denver visit.
“I think that since Pope Francis started to speak against trafficking there is an increasing commitment in the Church at all levels,” she said.
At the highest levels of the Church, the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development is working on anti-trafficking issues and coordinating different agencies, including the anti-trafficking network Talitha Kum.
Bottani, a Comboni Missionary Sister, has been official coordinator of Talitha Kum since 2015. The network is led by religious sisters, with more than 2,000 of them being a part of the network. Talitha Kum has representatives in 77 countries and 43 national networks.
Members of the network have served 10,000 trafficking survivors by accompanying them to shelters and other residential communities, engaging in international collaboration, and aiding survivors’ return home. Bottani first worked in anti-trafficking efforts in Brazil, but she now lives in Italy.
At the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. June 20, Bottani was one of many leaders recognized individually as a Trafficking in Persons Report Hero by U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Advisor to the President Ivanka Trump.
The U.S. State Department report praised Bottani as “one of the most prominent and influential anti-trafficking advocates within the Catholic diaspora.” It noted her anti-trafficking work in Brazil which aided vulnerable women and children in favelas. She led a national campaign against human trafficking when Brazil hosted the World Cup in 2014.
“Throughout her career, her work has inspired generations of anti-trafficking advocates within the Catholic faith,” the report said.
Bottani traveled across the U.S. with a State Department-hosted delegation of anti-trafficking leaders. She was among several speakers at a June 26 reception on the University of Denver campus hosted by WorldDenver, a World Affairs Council affiliate, and the Women’s Foundation of Colorado.
There, Bottani recounted to CNA the most recent case Talitha Kum managed at the international level: the repatriation of a young woman and mother from the Middle East to her home in Uganda.
In Uganda, this woman had lost her job and was questioning how she could support her young daughter. She received an invitation promising better work in the Middle East.
“Then when she arrived in that country, the situation was very different. There was no job for her, but there was domestic servitude,” Bottani said. “She had to be available more than 20 hours per day. She often had little food to eat.”
“At a certain point she was able to escape,” Bottani continued. “She became depressed and she went on the street. When she sought help, a taxi driver raped her. Then she was completely lost.”
Another person brought the woman to the local Ugandan embassy, but she had to wait three days outside before being recognized as a Ugandan citizen and receiving help.
The embassy “brought her to the Church to the Catholic sisters. The sisters took care of her,” Bottani recounted. “It was a very difficult situation. She had nothing to wear, she had depression.”
“The Church paid for the flight back to her country. A sister took her to the airport. This is the importance of having a global network,” said Bottani. “Through Talitha Kum we were able to inform the sisters, and we gave her the first support when she arrived, including health care.”
UNICEF estimates about 21 million people have been trafficked globally, including about 5.5 million children. Women are the primary victims, making up an estimated 51% of victims. Men make up another 21%, girls make up 20%, and boys make up 8%, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2016 report.
In the U.S., almost 9,000 cases of trafficking were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline and BeFree Textline in 2017, with the true numbers expected to be much larger, Fortune magazine reported in April 2019.
Trafficking is estimated to generate $32 billion per year, according to UNICEF. Other estimates are far higher.
While sexual exploitation is the most common form of human trafficking, trafficking for forced labor is most common in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Sister Bottani warned about all forms of exploitation. From a global perspective, trafficked workers are forced to serve in industries like agriculture, domestic service, construction, and fishing. In some areas, trafficked people are forced to become beggars.
“People are forced into drug smuggling or becoming child soldiers,” she said.
She also warned against simplifying a complex situation.
“We have to be able to face the complexity, and we can only do it together,” she said. “We can strengthen one another in hope, and in trying to understand the root causes of trafficking.”
“Only in doing this work can we make a better world for everybody,” she added.
For Bottani, anti-trafficking efforts need support from everyone.
“Every community in the Church can support the work done, not only financially but also with prayer,” she said. “To pray but also to try to identify how we can support concretely.”
Bottani noted the Feb. 8 International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking. This day was entrusted by Pope Francis to women and men religious, with Talitha Kum in charge of the campaign.
On the matter of action, she cited the simple example of volunteers at women’s shelters who care for children when the women are undergoing training. These women often lack such a network of local support.
“We can give this support. We can offer our skills and volunteering in this context,” said Bottani.
The name Talitha Kum is Aramaic, from Jesus Christ’s words in the Gospel of Mark’s fifth chapter. There he spoke to the 12-year-old daughter of Jairus, who had just died: “Young girl, I say to you, arise!” Jesus then took the girl by the hand and she got up and walked.
The network sees its name as an expression of “the transformative power of compassion and mercy” for those who have been wounded by “the many forms of exploitation.” The network grew out of efforts in the 1990s and is a collaborative effort with the International Union of Superiors General. It was formally established in 2009.
Talitha Kum has partnered with Catholic organizations like Caritas Internationalis, the Santa Martha Group, the International Catholic Organization for Migration and others.
Pope Francis has been a vocal critic of human trafficking. On several occasions he has invoked the intercession of St. Josephine Bakhita, herself a former slave, to intercede to bring about an end to “this plague.” In April 11 remarks, Pope Francis condemned human trafficking as a “crime against humanity” and against victims who are each human beings “wanted and created by God.”
The Talitha Kum website is www.talithakum.info.