MUMBAI – Calling the honor a “symbol of hope for all the children, women and men, who are victims, undergoing shame and trauma,” an Indian nun received the the inaugural Sisters Anti-Trafficking Awards (SATA) in London Oct. 31.
Sister Seli Thomas, a member of the Sisters of Mary Immaculate in Krishnagar, West Bengal, received the award along with Sisters Patricia Ebegbulem from Nigeria, of the Sisters of St. Louis in Lagos, and Francoise Jiranonda from Thailand, a member of the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres.
All three women, according to a statement, “Have demonstrated courage, creativity, collaboration and achievement in the protection of their communities from human trafficking.”
The SATA prize is sponsored by Arise, an anti-slavery NGO working across the world to protect communities from exploitation; the International Union of Superiors General, a group of female Superiors General, representing about 600,000 women religious from 80 countries, which established and supports Talitha Kum, a network of religious sisters against human trafficking; and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, established by the international hotelier in 1944.
Among those on hand for the awards were former British Prime Minister Theresa May and legendary British distance runner Sir Mo Farah, a native of Somalia.
Seli, a lawyer who’s now based in the city of Kolkata, recognized for her 12 years of service in rescuing victims of human trafficking. She 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.
“Thank you for upholding and recognizing the Catholic religious women who are actively engaged in anti-trafficking in order to eradicate human trafficking and to broaden and deepen the protection of vulnerable communities through this honour, encouraging us to continue this good work,” Seli said in remarks accepting the award.
Seli described meeting a woman in her mid-30s, who wept as she said: “Sister, where were you all these years? If I had met you before, I would have never been a sex worker, I wouldn’t be trafficked, being sold and resold to men over and over since the age of 12.”
“It was a heart-breaking and a painful cry,” Seli said. “All I could do was to just hug her, and that cry impelled me to go beyond and rescue trafficked victims and provide education to the children of the sex workers in imitation of our compassionate God.”
“I know well that I cannot change the whole world, what I can do is to bring about some transformation and give hope to those in despair and thus save a few lives from being trafficked, one person at a time,” Seli said.
“That is what I have been doing for the past 12 years and hope to continue to do for the rest of my life,” she said.
Bishop Nirmol Gomes of Seli’s home diocese of Krishnagar in India wrote to congratulate her on the award.
“You have made the Diocese of Krishnagar proud and famous for anti trafficking involvements,” he wrote. “May God Bless your mission to succor victims of trafficking, especially women and children. from the clutches of anti-socials.”
Based in the Thailand capital of Bangkok, Jiranonda runs the Princess Ubolratana School and the St. Joseph Mae-Chaem School. She works with the ethnic Karen people in remote areas, teaches young women vocational skills, and helped bring Talitha Kum to Thailand, a major origin and destination for human trafficking in Asia.
Ebegbulem founded Bakhita Villa, named for the Sudanese slave who became St. Josephine Bakhita, to rehabilitate and reintegrate survivors of trafficking. She runs awareness programs in high-risk rural areas and schools, provides education and employment to help keep young people away from trafficking, and is a national leader on the issue, according to a SATA statement.