“Fantastic conference on human trafficking!”
“This was a really awesome day.”
“Great advocacy. Great learning. Great leadership modeling.”
These are just a few of the comments I heard from people who attended the National Advocacy Center (NAC) of Sisters of the Good Shepherd conference on human trafficking.
I had a pretty good idea of what to expect when I agreed to document NAC’s inaugural conference in Washington, DC, on May 15, 2018. I have had past experiences meeting with legislators in the nation’s capital with NAC Director Larry Couch during Ecumenical Advocacy Days.
Even so, I have to say that this conference took me a little by surprise because of the fervor I felt in the room. These people were fired up! By the time lunch ended folks were raring to make a beeline to see their legislators. After making final preparations and consulting maps to avoid getting lost, off they dashed to meet with senators, congressional leaders and aides.
True stories of human trafficking
The intensity in the room might have had something to do with the panelists who recounted their acutely distressing stories of what it looks like to be trafficked for prostitution and labor, and how it feels to be saved from the deepest depths of despair.
The palpable and fiery passion in the room might also have been ignited by Good Shepherd Sister Winifred Doherty.
Our United Nations representative jumpstarted the conference with an overview of human trafficking. She gave an account of her personal experiences while missioned in Ethiopia and visiting Thailand. Both are hotspots for trafficking of girls and women.
You could have heard a pin drop when Sr. Winifred told the room full of advocates about a 25-year-old Ethiopian woman. The woman had accepted a job in the Middle East after graduating from university a month earlier. The job wasn’t real, but a trafficker was. Her body returned to Ethiopia and a post-mortem revealed that all of her organs had been carved from her body. People are trafficked for many exploitive purposes. Live organ removal is one of them.
The shock and awe of this story sent a collective ripple of horror throughout the conference room and set a clear tone for why we were there. We had come to Capitol Hill to become the voice for the voiceless. We were there to advocate for justice with those who have the power to make, strengthen, and amend laws on human trafficking.
Panel presentations with survivors of trafficking
Angela Aufdemberge, President and CEO of Vista Maria, led a panel of two women who spoke about their years of abuse, captivity, and time being prostituted. Their sex traffickers and pimps were people they loved; one was a newly married husband and the other a boyfriend.
This is no surprise to the experts in human trafficking. Tragically, most sex traffickers and pimps are trusted adults or family members, boyfriends and influential females. Most traffickers leverage an element of vulnerability to attract victims.
Angela peppered the women’s personal accounts with stories of Vista Maria’s Wings program, a program whose purpose is to help girls who have survived sex trafficking in Michigan. Mercifully, the stories we heard had good endings.
The women eventually escaped from their captors and found refuge at Dawn’s Place in Philadelphia, where Good Shepherd Sister Claudia Palacio works as a counselor. And a number of girls who had been trafficked in Michigan are finding refuge and a new start at Vista Maria. The Wings program serves girls between the ages of 11-18 and offers them intensive therapy, schooling and community reintegration. After the age of 18/19 a young woman can live independently in Vista Maria’s sponsored apartments within the Shepherd Hall Transitional Living Program.
Human trafficking for labor
A second panel at the conference focused on trafficking people for labor. A woman who had survived an experience of labor trafficking talked about how she and 300 other educated women from the Philippines were recruited for teaching jobs in other countries that never panned out. Instead, they were forced to pay outrageous fees (up to $40,000) to recruiters in the Philippines. They borrowed the money from family, friends and loan sharks.
The women ended up broke and stranded in Prince George’s County, just outside Washington, DC. Instead of promised, high-paying teaching jobs, the skilled and educated women were trafficked into low-income nanny, janitorial and other service jobs, unable to pay back the money they had borrowed. They were threatened with death and the death of family members if they spoke to anyone in the United States about their situation.
All of the stories were hard to hear. But they had the intended purpose of motivating the audience to relay the stories to legislators with pleas to intensify efforts to eliminate demand and, by default, end human trafficking.
“The success of the conference was due to months of great teamwork and hard work by Fran and Kathy. The conference bipartisan sponsorship of Representatives Ann Wagner and Jamie Raskin also led to success,” Larry said.
The District of Columbia Baptist Convention co-sponsored the conference with the National Advocacy Center. The Convention’s Coordinator for Engaging Communities, Rev. Andre Towner, moderated a panel presentation. Rev. Towner is a Member of NAC’s Advisory Board.
Sex trafficking rooted in the structures of society
Catholic News Service reported on NAC’s human trafficking conference, and other news outlets picked up the story. Sr. Winifred is featured in the article. She wrote a letter to the editor at CatholicPhilly.com, encouraging writers to develop a consciousness and use language that honors the dignity of every person. The reporter used the term ‘two former prostitutes’ in an otherwise excellent article.
Sr. Winifred’s letter stated, “The term ‘prostitute’ is insensitive, discriminatory, and stigmatizing. It bears out the point that sex trafficking is rooted in the structures of society. Two women who were trafficked and prostituted shared their experiences with all gathered. It was a privileged moment for me listening and a pain filled experience for the women sharing.
“I feel strongly that this should be corrected as part of ‘doing justice,’ challenging terminology, mindsets and use of language that is deeply flawed and which in turn reinforces gender inequality and gender based violence.“