LONDON – An army of Catholic religious sisters who rescue victims of human trafficking by posing as prostitutes to infiltrate brothels and buying children being sold into slavery, is expanding to 140 countries, its chairman said Wednesday.
John Studzinski, an investment banker and philanthropist who chairs Talitha Kum, said the network of 1,100 sisters currently operates in about 80 countries but the demand for efforts to combat trafficking and slavery was rising globally.
The group, set up in 2004, estimates that one percent of the world’s population is trafficked in some form, which translates into some 73 million people. Of those, 70 percent are women and half are 16 or younger.
“I’m not trying to be sensational, but I’m trying to underscore the fact this is a world that has lost innocence … where dark forces are active,” said Studzinski, a vice chairman of US investment bank The Blackstone Group.
“These are problems caused by poverty and equality, but it goes well beyond that,” he told the Trust Women Conference on women’s rights and trafficking hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Detailing some cases involving trafficking and slavery, Studzinski said the treatment of some victims was horrific.
He told of one woman enslaved as a prostitute who was locked up for a week without food, forced to eat own her feces, when she failed to have sex with a target of 12 clients a day.
In another extreme case, one woman was forced to have sex with a group of 10 men at the same time.
Studzinski said the religious sisters working to combat trafficking would go to all lengths to rescue women, often dressing up as prostitutes and going out on the street to integrate themselves into brothels.
“These sisters do not trust anyone. They do not trust governments, they do not trust corporations, and they don’t trust the local police. In some cases they cannot trust male clergy,” he said, adding that the low-key group preferred to focus on their rescue work rather than promotion.
“They work in brothels. No one knows they are there,” he said.
The sisters were also proactive on trying to save children being sold into slavery by their parents, setting up a network of homes in Africa as well as in the Philippines, Brazil, and India to shelter such children.
He said the religious sisters of Talitha Kum raised money to purchase these children.
“This is a new network of houses for children around the world who would otherwise be sold into slavery. It is shocking but it is real,” he said.
Studzinski said the network of religious sisters, that was in the process of expanding, also targeted slavery in the supply chain with sisters shedding their habits and working alongside locals for as little as two cents an hour to uncover abuses.
He said Talitha Kum, which translated from Aramaic means arise child, was now being hired by companies to see what is going on with respect to the supply chain and expanding globally would help address this issue.
“You can’t generalize about trafficking and slavery as no two countries are the same,” Studzinski said.
Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters