MUMBAI, India – Thousands of survivors of human trafficking in India have been saved due to the work of women belonging to Catholic religious orders, work one major anti-trafficking activist has called “nothing short of miraculous.”
Luke de Pulford is the director of the Arise Foundation, a New York and London-based NGO helping to support grass-roots anti-slavery networks.
“India is a prime example of where women religious have networked to rescue and resettle thousands of survivors. Their network – AMRAT – brings together hundreds of sisters from all over the country and beyond working dedicatedly against this evil,” he told Crux.
Arise helped support a November training session for AMRAT in Bangalore, which provided two days of in-depth training and mutual encouragement to more than 100 religious sisters.
“The work of these sisters is nothing short of miraculous. They give their lives in service of those suffering, and yet are so often overlooked by those in a position to help,” de Pulford said. “It is sustainable work done for the love of the person in front of them. They gain nothing from it. Working in partnership with them is an absolute no-brainer for Arise – this is one of our most privileged partnerships.”
In terms of sheer numbers, India is believed to have the worst human trafficking problem in the world: Women and girls are used for sex slavery, while millions are living in forced labor, a problem which is often made worse by the country’s caste system.
“Great progress has been made to prevent sexual and labor exploitation through recent legislation, but there is still a huge implementation gap,” de Pulford said. “Meanwhile, successful prosecutions are vanishingly rare and the sham employment agencies which exploit so many workers all over the country remain almost totally unregulated.”
In 2015, the Vatican declared that the “International Day of Prayer and Reflection against Human Trafficking” would be held Feb. 8, the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, considered a patron saint for trafficking victims.
Born in 1868 in Darfur, Sudan, she was kidnapped at the age of nine and sold into slavery, first in her country and later in Italy. She died in 1947 and was declared a saint by Pope St. John Paul II in 2000.
This year to mark the day, the Vatican hosted a meeting of the Santa Marta Group, which brings together police officials and religious sisters from around the world to help better cooperate in fighting human trafficking.
The Arise director said that although this is a time to reflect on a modern evil, “it should also be a time to celebrate the selfless devotion of those who try and stop it.”
“Too often the conversation around trafficking in the Church focuses on extracting high rhetoric from ecclesiastical authorities. The truth is that the Church’s principal boast in this area is the work of women religious,” de Pulford said.
“They are the ones living among the poor to prevent them from being deceived by traffickers. They are the ones often risking their security to denounce the operations of organized crime in areas where such endeavors are dangerous. These are the people who, when there is a symposium or conference about this issue, should occupy the top table, and whose voices, together with those of survivors, should be heard loud and clear,” he told Crux.
The Arise foundation has been working to help support and advocate for this work by woman religious, noting that faith-based groups often struggle to get support from governments and international NGOs.
“As we speak, millions are living under slave-like conditions. While we can draw hope from the thousands of local antislavery groups set up to help them, the fact remains that few have the support they need. This is an intolerable scandal,” de Pulford said.
“The problem is even worse among frontline faith-based groups which are sometimes viewed with bizarre suspicion by western funding bodies,” he continued. “Arise is seeking to put this right, showing devoted frontline activists the respect they deserve, regardless of their motivation; honoring their commitment by linking arms with them against these evils.”
The foundation’s network is now embedded in communities around the world, including Brazil, the Philippines, India, Kenya, Cameroon, and Iraq.
In the Amazon region, some of their work is among rural indigenous communities hundreds of miles from the nearest cities, right up in the farthest reaches of the Amazon.
“Arise forms close partnerships with devoted activists in some of the worst affected areas of the world, preventing exploitation and caring for those who have suffered,” de Pulford explained.
He said the charity’s strategy is novel: Ensuring that everything done is rooted in the need to build up local networks, insistent that the patient accompaniment that makes grassroots work special not be forgotten.
Pope Francis told the Santa Marta Group on Feb. 9 modern forms of slavery “are far more widespread than previously imagined, even – to our scandal and shame – within the most prosperous of our societies.”
“God’s cry to Cain, found in the first pages of the Bible – ‘Where is your brother?’ – challenges us to examine seriously the various forms of complicity by which society tolerates, and encourages, particularly with regard to the sex trade, the exploitation of vulnerable men, women and children,” he said.