Rome – Girls freed from the clutches of human traffickers worldwide are given shelter by nuns from the Talitha Kum network, which is marking its 10th anniversary with support from Pope Francis.
“We have sisters who go into the streets, but also to refugee camps, schools, tea plantations, (and) prisons,” the international network’s coordinator, Sister Gabriella Bottani told AFP.
“We can identify situations, do prevention work, offer help,” she said.
Efforts to help those trapped in prostitution are regularly lauded by the 82-year old pope.
The Argentine choose an anti-trafficking Italian nun to write the Way of Cross meditations this Easter, with seasoned campaigner Eugenia Bonetti slamming public “indifference” as the main reason girls are still on the street.
On Friday, Francis opened an exhibition at the Vatican of photographs by Lisa Kristine of the US, portraying nuns working with victims.
Trafficking in women is “an octopus with many tentacles,” said Sister Yvonne Clemence Bambara, who runs a rehabilitation centre in Burkina Faso.
“We have to work together in many ways to overcome it and mitigate the consequences as much as possible,” she added.
– ‘Rise up’ –
Many convents have been active in fighting prostitution since the 19th century. Their efforts were brought under one umbrella in 2009 with the creation of Talitha Kum — Aramaic words from the bible that mean “Young girl, rise up”.
The network has hundreds of members in India, where sisters train young people in villages and slums to be vigilant and work together to find children who have been sold to pimps or abducted by traffickers.
“If a child goes missing, we send the message out,” Sister Prema Chowallur from Assam State in India told AFP by telephone.
The nuns have different types of shelters ready for those determined to get off the streets, offering both first response care and help with reintegration into society.
Sister Luisa Puglisi lives in just such a shelter in Valencia in Spain:
“What matters most is our presence with them on a daily basis,” she said.
“Doing the dishes together, watching television… We give them something for free in a world where everything can be bought and sold”.
As well as helping those who want to denounce their captors, or return to their home countries, the nuns also raise awareness in societies that may be reluctant to acknowledge the problem.
– From poorest to richest –
In the US, Sister Jean Shafer — who ran a shelter for six years — publishes a monthly newsletter on the phenomenon that is widely read within the Catholic Church there.
“We are able to talk with people of influence, money, education, to get them involved,” she said.
“We can mingle among the poorest of the poor and among the richest of the rich.”
In Australia, Sister Colleen Jackson spends one week a year meeting with lawmakers.
“We are generally trusted: some victims will speak to sisters before law enforcement,” she said.
While many non-religious social workers appreciate their dedication, some worry about the Church’s position on abortion.
“We are all against abortion, but none of us will put a girl who has made that choice out on the street,” Bottani said.
Living with nuns does not necessarily come naturally to all of the girls, she admits, but she insists the human warmth and support they are offered means the world to many.
“The most important things are captured in a look. How we look at them, how they look at us,” Bottani said.