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Religious sisters who fight human-trafficking are honored for their work

Sister Patricia Ebegbulem, a Sister of St. Louis from Nigeria, receives the Human Dignity Award from Sister Jane Wakahiu, a Little Sister of St. Francis of Assisi, at a London ceremony Oct. 31, 2023. Sister Wakahiu is associate vice president of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, a sponsor of the inaugural Sisters Anti-Trafficking Awards along with the Arise foundation and the International Union of Superiors General. (OSV News photo/courtesy Arise foundation)
Sister Patricia Ebegbulem, a Sister of St. Louis from Nigeria, receives the Human Dignity Award from Sister Jane Wakahiu, a Little Sister of St. Francis of Assisi, at a London ceremony Oct. 31, 2023. Sister Wakahiu is associate vice president of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, a sponsor of the inaugural Sisters Anti-Trafficking Awards along with the Arise foundation and the International Union of Superiors General. (OSV News photo/courtesy Arise foundation)

LONDON (OSV News) — On Oct. 31 in London, the spotlight was on the exceptional contribution of Catholic religious sisters to the anti-trafficking movement at the inaugural Sisters Anti-Trafficking Awards, or SATAs.

The SATAs are co-hosted by the Arise foundation, the Conrad H. Hilton Foundation and the International Union of Superiors General, which represents about 600,000 women religious from 80 countries. Organized for the first time, the SATAs brought together 200 people from across and beyond the anti-trafficking and Catholic spheres.

The event in London honored Sister Seli Thomas of the Sisters of Mary Immaculate from India, Sister Patricia Ebegbulem of the Sisters of St. Louis from Nigeria and Sister Francoise Jiranonda of the Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres from Thailand. The three women “have demonstrated courage, creativity, collaboration and achievement in the protection of their communities from human trafficking,” Arise said.

Former British Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a keynote address stressing the importance of front-line leadership, including Catholic sisters and survivors of trafficking, in the fight against this exploitation. May spoke after her recent launch of the Global Commission on Modern Slavery & Human Trafficking, which she will chair.

May discussed the ability of sisters to spot vulnerabilities and build better lives for survivors. “Local groups are key to eradicating slavery,” she said. “We also need to provide better opportunities for those who have survived slavery,” May added.

In her keynote address, she also drew attention to the importance of listening to the voices of survivors of trafficking when making policy and developing business practices.

British athlete and Olympic gold-medalist Mo Farah, who last year revealed he is a survivor of human trafficking, said during the ceremony that “while many people feel powerless against this crime and look the other way, Catholic sisters are doing the work daily, bravely, humbly, across the communities all over the world.”

“Whatever faith or values we hold, we can all look to those women for wisdom and inspiration. And that is why I’m here today,” emphasized the distance runner, who also is a gold medalist in World and European championships.

Sister Patricia, from Lagos, Nigeria, won the Human Dignity Award for lifetime achievement in addressing exploitation. She established and is running a shelter for victims of human trafficking, organizing support services for returning survivors of sex trafficking. She runs mass awareness programs across high-risk rural areas and schools, and is a national leader on the issue of trafficking.

“Stopping trafficking is an uphill task, but I will not say it is impossible,” Sister Patricia said in a video produced by Arise. “Because with God, nothing is impossible.”

Sister Seli, from Krisnanagar, India, won the Common Good Award for courage and creativity in addressing exploitation. She aims to prevent young people from being exploited by reaching out to the children of Krisnanagar’s brothel district as well as running awareness camps and training women. Sister Seli provides free legal aid, and conducts seminars and workshops for the villages, schoolteachers and students on safe migration and human trafficking. She has helped rescue exploited girls and prosecute traffickers.

Sister Francoise, from Bangkok, won the Servant Leadership Award for excellence in network building. She has opened two schools, which protect vulnerable young Thai women from the sex trade.

“For me personally, the fight against human trafficking is an important duty,” Sister Francoise said. “We have to prevent youth from becoming victims,” she said of her work in a country that is a traffickers’ hotspot, pointing to education as the most important element of prevention.

The schools operated under Sister Francoise’s guidance teach young women vocational skills for free after high school and raise awareness. She was the director of Talitha Kum Thailand, whose prevention efforts and advocacy work were recognized by the Thai government. Talitha Kum is an international umbrella organization of anti-trafficking efforts by women religious, based in Rome.

On July 30, the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, the U.N called on governments, law enforcement, public services and civil society to assess and enhance their efforts to strengthen prevention, identify and support victims, and end impunity for traffickers.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime noted that globally, national responses to trafficking, “particularly in developing states, appear to be deteriorating.”

Detection rates fell by 11% in 2020 and convictions plummeted by 27%, illustrating a worldwide slowdown in the criminal justice response to trafficking, according to the U.N. office.

The COVID-19 pandemic, it said, also changed the characteristics of trafficking, “pushing it further underground and potentially increasing the dangers to victims by making the crime less likely to come to the attention of the authorities.”

Forty-one percent of victims who manage to escape their ordeal reach out to the authorities on their own initiative, the U.N. agency said, calling this “another clear sign that anti-trafficking responses are falling short.”

The primary targets of traffickers, according to the organization, are “those who lack legal status, live in poverty, have limited access to education, health care, or decent work, face discrimination, violence, or abuse, or come from marginalized communities.”

Women religious “are the largest force against human trafficking in the world. There are over half a million Catholic sisters in the field, a significant proportion of which are working against human trafficking,” Arise said in a Nov. 1 press release, which noted that Talitha Kum “alone has over 6,000 members.”

“Sisters are often uniquely positioned in remote areas, otherwise out of reach. They are embedded in and trusted by their communities — key to effective anti-trafficking work,” Arise said.

“Human trafficking is a networked crime requiring a networked response,” the foundation added. “Sisters meet the need for networks to an exceptional degree, as part of congregations and the global Catholic community.”

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