Opening Address by Archbishop Bernardito Auza
At Side Event Sponsored by the Holy See dedicated to
“Preventing Human Trafficking Among Rural Women and Girls:
Integrating Inherent Dignity into a Human Rights Model”
during the 62nd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women
March 13, 2018, UNHQ Conference Room 1
Delegates to the Commission on the Status of Women,
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to welcome you to this afternoon’s event on Preventing Human Trafficking Among Rural Women and Girls, which the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See is co-sponsoring together with the Arise Foundation and seven different NGOs and associations of Catholic religious sisters who are on the front lines, in rural villages and cities, defending the inherent dignity and human rights of women and girls, rescuing them from modern slavery, rehabilitating them and protecting them from those who would seek to traffic and exploit them.
Human trafficking is one of the darkest and most revolting realities in the world today. Pope Francis, who was elected five years ago today, has called trafficking in persons “an open wound on the body of contemporary society,” a “crime against humanity,” and an “atrocious scourge that is present throughout the world on a broad scale, even as tourism.” He said, “No one likes to acknowledge that in one’s own city, even in one’s own neighborhood, in one’s region or nation, there are new forms of slavery,” but added, “we know that this plagues almost all countries” and therefore “all of society is called to grow in this awareness.”
While human trafficking is happening everywhere, attention on it normally has focused on cities, because that’s where you’ll find the media outlets, the seats of government and the headquarters of large civil society organizations. It’s also where one often finds the majority of those enslaved, because that’s where the more concentrated demand is for the commodification of other’s bodies and labor.
But cities are normally not where most trafficking victims come from. They’re disproportionately found in rural villages and towns. Rural women and girls are especially vulnerable to being ensnared by traffickers, because they regularly lack access to adequate schooling and health, and are often marginalized, stigmatized and isolated due to poverty, unemployment and the lack of rural infrastructure. Rural girls and women are especially vulnerable to the lies of traffickers who promise them good work, good food and education in the big cities. Rural girls are also vulnerable simply to running away to the cities believing that that is a way to improve their lives; such girls, however, often find themselves floundering in the unknown environment and very easy prey to traffickers.
Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon five years ago focused on the vulnerability of rural girls and women when he said that they “make up one quarter of the global population, yet routinely figure at the bottom of every economic, social and political indicator, from income and education, to health, to participation in decision-making.” That’s why it’s unsurprising that the latest Global Report on Trafficking in Persons by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (2016) found that “many cases of domestic trafficking involve victims who have been moved from poorer areas of the country to richer areas, from rural zones to cities or tourist centers, or from villages to industrial or economic hubs.”
In short, rural women and girls, because of their compounded marginalization, are at a cumulative disadvantage. Their dignity and rights are not adequately respected before they’re trafficked, something that makes them more susceptible to much worse violations of their dignity and rights later.
In today’s event, we hope to focus on preventing human trafficking among this particularly under-protected population. We will listen to the stories of those who have been trafficked as well as to the experience of many who have worked so hard to address their vulnerabilities, rescue them, and rehabilitate them. We will hear in a special way about the work being done by heroic religious sisters in rural areas all over the world, in particular in the Philippines, in India, in England, in indigenous regions of Canada, and among isolated regions of Africa. It’s an opportunity to highlight the work of so many women’s religious communities who, far from the limelight, are going to the existential peripheries to care for the wounds that often don’t come adequately to the attention of the rest of the world.
Pope Francis has repeatedly praised the work of religious congregations like the ones present today for “the enormous and often silent efforts … made for many years … to provide support to victims. These institutes work in very difficult situations, dominated at times by violence, as they work to break the invisible chains binding victims to traffickers and exploiters.” He says that their “courage, patience and perseverance” in the fight against trafficking and in favor of the vulnerable and wounded deserves the appreciation of everyone.
Pope Francis has also stressed, however, that religious women cannot do it alone. “We ought to recognize,” he emphasized, “that we are facing a global phenomenon that exceeds the competence of any one community or country. In order to eliminate it, we need a mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself. For this reason I urgently appeal to all men and women of good will, and all those near or far, including the highest levels of civil institutions, who witness the scourge of contemporary slavery, not to become accomplices to this evil, not to turn away from the sufferings of our brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings, who are deprived of their freedom and dignity. … The globalization of indifference, which today burdens the lives of so many of our brothers and sisters, requires all of us to forge a new worldwide solidarity and fraternity capable of giving them new hope and helping them to advance with courage amid the problems of our time and the new horizons which they disclose.”
None of us, in other words, should feel content to remain on the sidelines. Each of us is called, in one way, or another, to take our position on the field and become part of the worldwide mobilization necessary to eradicate this evil. Today we have a chance to listen to several of the heroines in that fight, whose experience can and ought to guide us and the whole international community.
I thank you once again for coming and am confident you will find today’s event well worth your time.