ROME – Several women religious who have spent decades working on the front lines in the fight against human trafficking stressed the importance of both educating young people about the problem and getting them involved if the problem is to be eradicated.

Sister Imelda Poole, president of the Religious in Europe Networking Against Trafficking and Exploitation (RENATE) and winner of the United States’ 2021 Trafficking in Persons Hero Award, spoke to attendees of the Oct. 14 panel, saying that ever since her time as a teacher years ago, she has been convinced that young people “they are the future.”

“I don’t feel, I know,” she said, adding, “We have a very special new gen emerging that is quite unique” and which has been “born and bred” with the internet and new technologies.”

Today’s youth “almost don’t need teachers,” she said, because “Google is teaching them” about the world as they navigate through epochal changes and “paradigm shifts.”

“It is remarkable what this new generation is bringing up and leading us to,” Poole said, noting that when it comes to involving young people in the discussion on human trafficking, it is not so much about empowering youth, but “maybe we need them to empower us in many respects.”

To empower means “letting go of might, power and strength, and giving it away so that it’s shared. This is a very humbling process for everyone in the world” which can bring different people together, she said.

Poole called for a global “systemic change” in order to target the root causes of human trafficking, and pointed to several examples of young people who are already speaking out, not only about trafficking, but issues of global interest, such as Pakistani Malala Yousafzai, a young Nobel Peace Prize laureate and activist for female education.

Quoting from one of Malala’s speeches, Poole said, “I raise up my voice not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard. We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.”

She also highlighted the establishment of social centers in Kolkata, India, which run special children’s clubs designed to teach young people how to become leaders by dividing the children up into small groups and assigning one as the leader, who is tasked with watching over other members.

She stressed the importance of listening actively to young people “so that we support them and are with them where they are at, and allow them to have their boundaries, and allow them to lead and be given all the possibilities of skills training that they need to lead.”

Poole was one of four panelists who spoke during an Oct. 14 workshop on “Empowering a New Generation to Fight Modern Slavery,” organized jointly by the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) and the United States and Irish Embassies to the Holy See.

In opening remarks, Patrick Connell, interim Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, noted that there are an estimated 25 million people who have been affected by human trafficking around the world.

Poor and vulnerable populations are especially at risk, he said, noting that roughly 70 percent of victims of sex trafficking and forced labor are women and girls, and nearly a third of them are children.

“This crime is an affront to both human rights and human dignity,” Connell said, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem, driving most exploitation online, and out of sight.

“We have a moral duty to work together to prevent human trafficking, bring perpetrators to justice, and educate the next generation about this appalling crime,” he said.

Blessing Okoedion, a survivor of human trafficking and winner of the 2018 US TIP Hero Award, also spoke on the panel about her own experience and the work of “Weavers of Hope,” an NGO she founded to help other victims of human trafficking.

When she was younger, human trafficking was never a concern, Okoedion said, because “all I cared about was my ambitions and my dreams. As a young person, it was not part of my thoughts or my concerns.”

However, when she found herself scammed by traffickers and subjected to sex trafficking, she kept wondering how she ended up there and how she missed the signs.

“When it happened to me, the first thing I thought about was the stigma, the credibility; how can I tell this story? Who would believe me, that it was not an informed decision?” she said, noting that many people, herself included before she was trafficked, believed women willingly chose sex work as a quick way to make money.

“How can say I know about human trafficking, but I don’t know how it operates? How can I tell people that I fell cheaply into the hands of traffickers, that after years in university, I could not read the faces of those that trafficked me?” she said. “These are some questions I asked when it happened to me. I can remember the shame.”

Okoedion spoke of her difficulty and that of other women their first time on the streets, when they had their first clients.

“The first thing I heard was, you have to start smiling. How can I just stop crying and start smiling immediately? All other girls started smiling, making gestures to invite clients,” she said.

To this day, Okoedion says she “can’t forget that moment,” which is what inspired and continues to inspire her to help others through her NGO, beginning with education and awareness-raising.

“When the youth are empowered through education, then they will be able to make informed decisions,” she said, insisting that the topic of young people and education is “very, very important to me, to survivors, to everybody, because we all need to live in a free society.”

“If there is a part of society that is not free, those who think they are free are not free because…their eyes are closed,” Okoedion said. By giving just one person hope, “hope has given hope to so many,” she said, adding, “when you empower the shoot, it is growing security.”

Other speakers on the panel included Sister Gabriella Bottani, International Coordinator of the Talitha Kum anti-trafficking network and the 2019 recipient of the US TIP Hero award, and Sister Monica Chikwe, vice-president of the Slaves No More anti-trafficking organization.

Both Bottani and Chikwe spoke about the resources available in the fight against trafficking, the work of women religious, and the need to target root-causes, including poverty and a lack of education, fundamental human rights, job opportunities, peace, justice, and equity.

In her remarks, Chikwe said young people must be empowered for “a revolutionary impact on human trafficking.”

To empower young people on this issue “means sensitizing new generations through training; we need to train our new generation on this issue. If that means including it in school curriculum on that issue, then we do it. It will yield more fruit,” she said.

Chikwe also stressed the importance of sharing knowledge and building potential by drawing on one’s natural resources and abilities, including when it comes to decision-making.

“The young generation needs to be included in decision making the human trafficking issue,” she said.

“Let them be principal actors. Guide them in initiatives allows them to bring about change.”

“Traffickers operate on powerful system of networking, so we need to counteract them with a more powerful and stronger network,” she said, and insisted on the need for youth to be well versed in their country’s laws on trafficking so they can push for stricter implementation.

“Jesus does not call us to end human trafficking,” Chikwe said. “Jesus calls us to make a difference in the life of somebody, even if it is the life of one person.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen