An Ethiopian proverb says that “when spiders join their webs, they can take down a lion.” This is the spirit that animates Talitha Kum, the international network of consecrated life against human trafficking.
Every day since 1990 (the year the network was founded), this small army of about 2,000 collaborators—the majority of whom are nuns, but also lay and religious—has dedicated its life in the field in 92 countries and on every continent in an attempt to save the slaves of the 21st century.
Yes, we speak of “slaves.” The International Labor Organization estimates that there are about 40 million people in 182 countries throughout the world reduced to slavery, and the numbers seem to be growing.
To understand from within the dynamics of this sad and widespread reality, we asked Sister Gabriella Bottani, Combonian missionary and international coordinator of the Talitha Kum Network, how can we still talk about slavery in 2020.
How is this possible?
Sister Gabriella Bottani: One of the causes of this situation is the worsening of serious vulnerabilities in the situation of many people in recent years. Actually, vulnerability isn’t the problem; exploitation is. For us at Talitha Kum this is important to underline, because vulnerability can become an opportunity for coming together and for solidarity; it isn’t necessarily an opportunity to be exploited for profit.
Who are the slaves today?
Sister Gabriella Bottani: These days, those who are most exploited in their vulnerability are women, children (both boys and girls) and migrant populations.
The statistics are quite in agreement that 30% are children under 18 and young adults. Age is logically linked to the ability to perform at work, such as in the sex market or in domestic servitude.
What are the most common forms of slavery?
Sister Gabriella Bottani: Sexual exploitation is one form of slavery, albeit with various connotations, because in addition to prostitution there’s also pornography.
Another form of slavery is labor exploitation, of which an important niche is that of domestic servitude. However, there are slaves also in the area of taking care of livestock, construction, mining, and fishing, especially on fishing boats on the high seas … The contexts are very diverse.
And then, there’s the trafficking of girls for forced marriages. It’s a phenomenon that concerns not only Asia and Africa, because cases have also been recorded in the western world—in the United States, for example, but also in Italy. Very often, these phenomena are linked to migrant communities living in our countries, and in other cases they’re marriages arranged on the internet.
How does one fall into the web of human trafficking?
Sister Gabriella Bottani: The phenomenon is extremely complex. But, what’s at the root of it is the desire to have a better life, to find a better job.
Sometimes these people receive specific slave-job proposals; other times, they emigrate instead, because they’ve heard through word of mouth, or in an advertisement, that in some countries people live well … As we do, when we think about the United States or Germany and we’re sure that in those places it’s easier to find a better job, without even having seriously analyzed of the situation.
Sometimes they simply try to escape from poverty, a dignified poverty, not always from desperate misery.
Usually, those who live in a context of misery are exploited within their own country. It’s more difficult for them to get to us.
So, people enter the system of trafficking by an act of their own will?
Sister Gabriella Bottani: We have to ask ourselves what freedom and will is. There are themes in the definition of “trafficking” today that lead us to profound existential questions. Because, if we trivialize these issues, we say “the poor man was recruited and taken away against his will …” But we nuns, when we go to the street and talk to the boys and girls who live in this state, realize that this idea doesn’t fit reality.
In Sicily, for example, some boys who prostitute themselves have done so because they were starving to death. Do they want to do it or not? What alternative is given to them? It’s very complex, because a choice is only really a choice if the person has a whole range of possibilities to choose from.
The inequalities and wounds caused by an unjust societal model prevent the possibility of choice.
For example, I worked in Brazil with girls who were born in favelas, in shacks, and some of them were abused and lived in terrible poverty. These girls went to school and their teachers passed them on to the following grades out of desperation. They reached third and fourth grade and could neither read nor write. They had such limits, such a disorganized psychology that they couldn’t even be a good housewife. They couldn’t even clean or cook … They were completely fragile. These girls were automatically recruited for sexual exploitation.
One day, one of them came up to me. She was all happy. She was 10 years old, and she was holding a baby in her arms. “Aunt,” she said to me, “look, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life! I didn’t know I could do such a beautiful thing!” The child was born as a result of this situation of abuse.
Sometimes we define and pigeonhole “trafficking” into categories that don’t correspond to reality.
There are situations where saying “yes” to people is the only possible option.
It’s a perverse system that creates the dynamics of great poverty.
Let’s think about how the coronavirus issue is being handled right now. They’ve instituted a lockdown everywhere and people are starving. Frightening areas of vulnerability are being created. What the consequences will be, we don’t know.
“You can’t ideologize trafficking.”
What is the Talitha Kum network doing during this phase of the Covid-19 pandemic?
Sister Gabriella Bottani: Right now many sisters have to stay indoors because you can’t go out due to the lockdown. In some cases, with some organizations of the Italian Episcopal Conference, we’re preparing food bags and distributing them to people who would otherwise die of hunger—such as those who are forced to prostitute themselves and who, without customers, have nothing on which to survive.
We have converted workshops to make masks. In other cases, the sisters bring the material to the homes of people who are in recovery, so that they can continue occupational therapy and not stop this productive activity such as crochet work, basket making … or other things they were doing.
What’s the charisma of Talitha Kum’s sisters?
Sister Gabriella Bottani: What unites us as sisters of Talitha Kum is the “victim-centered approach.” It’s centered on the person. Then, we offer integral support depending on the context: human and spiritual formation and psycho-social support that leads to economic reintegration, and in many cases, we help them work together in the community. For example, they work with their hands, making handicrafts that are then sold. Manual work is certainly one of the points common to the different centers.
How many people have you saved?
Sister Gabriella Bottani: Really, they’re the ones who saved us! And, we speak of it as getting their life back. In 2018 we did a sort of census and we realized that we’d offered services to about 15,500 people in one year. The services are different: spiritual guidance, formation services, etc. Our service is very extensive and we often do it together with other organizations. We are not alone. We contribute to the process of healing, which is a slow and traumatic process.
Pope Francis made your action a priority of his pontificate What words did he want to share with you?
Sister Gabriella Bottani: Pope Francis has let us know on various occasions that he cares about our “mission,” as he called it. He has encouraged us, for example, in our ability to collaborate. And I believe that this is the great challenge.
The pope’s support is a gift that spurs us to continue with responsibility.
What motivates you to continue this fight against slavery?
Sister Gabriella Bottani: During this time I’m also observing the work that the other sisters do, and there are also stories of failure, and they also inspire us to continue.
But, I remember how one of the survivors of trafficking embraced us at the end of the last General Assembly. This woman had discovered that her life was not useless and that she could make a difference. She’d escaped from poverty in Nigeria, and arrived in Italy amidst a thousand vicissitudes, having entered the prostitution business despite herself. Then, she had managed to escape and found herself in a reception center run by religious sisters. Here, she made all her journey of recovery, of getting her life back. Now, at about 23 years of age, she has resumed her studies and is restarting her life. This is what motivates us to continue.
And what can we Catholics do?
Sister Gabriella Bottani: First of all, don’t close your eyes. Try to understand what the dynamics are, and purchase goods and products that aren’t produced by slave labor. For example, the Church in the United States has launched a campaign to eat fish that has been caught without the use of slaves.
And then, be active in changing people’s mentality. This is the responsibility especially of educators.
Another way to help is to support projects. One that we particularly care about is Super Nuns, a fundraiser which has been joined by street artists, illustrators, and cartoonists who create drawings to tell the story of Talitha Kum. The donations they collect help us to support our networks.