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Modern Slavery: The Secret World of Trafficking of Women

In 1993, Sister Eugenia Bonetti returned to Turin, Italy after 24 satisfying years of missionary service in Africa. She was surprised to find prostitutes on every street corner, she told participants in this Living Room Dialogue, and discovered that this was the case in every Italian city and all over the countryside.

At first, she felt annoyed with the women on the streets because she was convinced that they chose to be there. Then, after meeting Maria, a woman trafficked from Nigeria who came to her asking for help, she learned that the women were forced into prostitution. Maria became her teacher, taking her into the streets and introducing her to the harsh life faced by the women she had scorned.

The women are forced into the streets because they are in debt to their traffickers. Lured by the promise of good jobs, Nigerian women pay as much as 80,000 Euros for passage into the country, she said. Once in Italy, they discover what they must do to repay the debt. Sister Eugenia calculated that repayment would require about 4,000 sexual encounters, a price that includes loss of personal identity and even the desire to live.

As Sister Eugenia spent more and more time in the streets with the women, it became her mission to rescue them. In 1997, she was awarded an MA from the Missionary Institute of London with a thesis entitled "A 20th Century Slave Trade, Breaking the Chains of Forced Prostitution." The paper drew heavily upon her research with nearly 3,000 Nigerian women living and working in Turin. Due to her deep understanding of social justice and human right issues, she was transferred to Rome in 2000 to coordinate work with these refugees.

Since that time, Sr. Eugenia has built a network of nuns who are on the frontlines of the battle against trafficking in persons - offering shelter, material security and pastoral care to thousands of its victims. The network includes some 250 sisters from 70 congregations who operate 100 shelters throughout Italy and deal with rehabilitation, social reintegration and protection of victims. She believes that these "women helping women" have saved more than 6,000.

The Living Room Dialogue, which took place at Marymount College NYC and attracted more than 70 participants, was designed to inform people about the dimensions of the problem of sex trafficking, to recognize what is being done about it locally and to provide a networking opportunity for those working on the issue. Therefore, in addition to Sister Eugenia's presentation about the work that she does, the directors of three long-standing New York programs gave short descriptions of the actions being taken in their organizations.

Carol Smolenski of ECPAT-USA told of their work to eliminate the commercial sexual exploitation of children around the world. ECPAT aims to protect children trafficked into the U.S. and children being trafficked within the U.S. The passage of the federal Victims Protection Act, passed in 2000, promised some help, but of the thousands of children trafficked each year, only 200 have been offered assistance since the law was passed. This law must be better enforced and state laws must be changed so children are offered protection, she said.

ECPAT also puts pressure on the travel industry to curb sex tourism. The organization created a Code of Conduct, by now signed by 1,000 companies, so that travel agencies and hotels will prohibit it. Carol suggested that when traveling, people can make sure the Code is posted in their rooms and that personnel know what to do. You can find more information about the organization at The Code can be found at

Taina Bien-Aime of Equality Now described work to mobilize people to change laws and insist on enforcement. Organized crime operates with impunity and governments are corrupted while various forms of violence against women continue to go on.

There is lots of attention to the supply side of sexual exploitation - the women being used -- she said, less to demand - the men who use them. She offered the example of sex tourism where one operator used to entice buyers with offers of "real sex for real cheap with real girls." The internet with sites where you can click on the woman you would like when you purchase your tour package makes sex tourism easier than ever.

There is a huge resistance at the "top of the food chain" to doing anything about it. New York State's anti-trafficking laws have been hard to move forward. Some other actions: "Johns" need to be made visible. We need to engage corporations to end the objectification of younger and younger girls. Emergency rooms need to document injuries from the sex trade.

Dorchen Leidholdt of Sanctuary for Families talked about an overlap between sex trafficking and domestic abuse of women. Traffickers, batterers and pimps all look at women as commodities. She described how a prostitute she met in Mexico led her to a town where the entire economy was set up for trafficking, including the training of young men in how to be successful pimps. There were many mansions in the town.

She urged the adoption in this country of a system like that in Sweden where it is the buyers who are arrested in prostitution cases, not the sellers.

After the presentations participants, almost all women, formed small groups in which to digest and analyze what they had heard, as well as to network. This is a critical component of a Living Room Dialogue - the portion of the evening where the dialogue takes place. What emerged from these conversations and expressed afterwards was more concern about the "demand" side.

Sister Eugenia responded to this by saying that penalizing the clients may do something but does not solve the problem. What needs to change, she insisted, was minds. Older men are not ready to change; they think with their money they can do what the want. In the "destination countries" where the trafficked women are brought, work needs to be done to raise awareness and create a model of respect and relationships not based on merchandizing human beings.

Yet Dorchen Leidholdt insisted on the importance of the law in creating attitudes about seeing women as commodities. She noted that in a study comparing attitudes in the Netherlands and Sweden, in the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal, 40% of people think it is acceptable to buy sex. In Sweden, where the buyers of prostitutes are prosecuted, only 14% thought it acceptable. The justice system is an education tool, she insisted.

Amy Roth from the International Justice Mission also talked about the importance of law enforcement. She gave an example from the Philippines where building capacity to enforce laws against sexual exploitation of children led to a 79% decrease in the availability of minors for sex.

This Living Room Dialogue had been carefully choreographed. Opportunities for networking were possible while participants enjoyed light refreshments served before the presentations and again in the small group discussions. Presenters were notified ahead of time that their time would be restricted so that there would be adequate time for the small groups. At the end of the meeting, participants were invited to continue the conversation, sharing analysis and proposing actions on the Network's blog.

Peggy Ray, Board member, Network for Peace through Dialogue


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