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Sisters versus traffickers

Here’s an interesting experiment: next time you are in a group of people – Catholic or not – ask them to name two anti-slavery organisations. Chances are that they won’t be able to think of any. But if they can, you can be pretty sure that the work of Religious Sisters won’t come up. It’s a scandal, really. Sisters (and it is overwhelmingly Sisters as opposed to male Religious or secular clergy) are doing this work in at least 80 countries – including all the areas most plagued by modern slavery. If they were united in a single NGO, they would be by far the world’s largest.

Yet they remain the best-kept secret of the anti-slavery movement. The reason? In short, Sisters don’t boast, as anyone who has worked on the front line of the Church’s poverty relief, education or HIV prevention efforts will confirm. As wave after wave of abuse scandals rightly dominate the headlines, it is all too easy to forget that the Catholic Church has hundreds of thousands of women Religious devoting their lives to serving those on the margins in every part of the globe. Rarely, if ever, have they gone in search of recognition.

So it is not surprising that when Prime Minister Theresa May paid tribute to the “extraordinary global contribution” of Religious Sisters to anti-slavery work recently, it wasn’t the result of a lobbying campaign run by Religious, but in a letter to John Studzinski, chairman of the Arise Foundation, a charity based in London and New York working to end slavery and human trafficking.

In the fiercely competitive world of international NGOs, the Sisters’ humility is extremely unusual. It is both their strength and their weakness. It is their strength because their low profile means that they are less reliant on Western organisations for funding. This means that they are less tethered to the heavy bureaucracy associated with keeping funders happy, leaving them more free to focus on the individual dignity and complex needs of the person in front of them. It is their weakness because reluctance to crow about their achievements makes their work almost invisible to the funding and policy communities.

But so what? Why should these communities listen to Sisters? What, if anything, makes their work distinctive? If they were heard, what difference would it make? It might be better to attempt to answer through a story. Recently we were in India visiting members of Amrat, the huge anti-slavery network of Sisters covering the entire country. About 100 had turned up for their annual meeting. The gathering was held in a well-maintained but sparse seminary building hidden in a vast leafy plantation on the outskirts of Pune, near Mumbai. It was a sweltering day. The meeting gave occasion for many jaw-dropping conversations about the sheer depravity Sisters were having to confront on a daily basis.

One such conversation was with two Sisters from rural Assam (pictured). They were candid about their work. They told us how hard it was to get the indigenous children to stay in school because the attraction of smartphones and other modern luxuries offered by traffickers were a greater lure than the help they could afford to provide. They told us about how it would often take a decade to see any marked improvement in a traumatised survivor to whom they were offering loving accompaniment (together with the necessary services such as shelter, counselling and skills training). They told us about the physically punishing journeys they had to undertake on a daily basis to get to the most vulnerable villages, where the poverty is so crushing that some parents will sell their children to escape it.

The work they described was thankless, self-emptying and demoralising. But it was also full of hope, purpose and even progress. Their story would be typical of the work of any abolitionist Sister anywhere in the world. But it is also helpful to highlight the distinctive character of Sisters’ anti-slavery work. These two Sisters were engaged in work that was very rural, long-term and directed by a spirit of loving accompaniment. In these three respects, at least, Sisters are different.

International NGOs tend, for the most part, to be concentrated around major cities. It is simply too expensive to attempt to maintain offices in rural areas, especially in a country the size of India. Sisters, by contrast, have community houses and anti-slavery projects throughout the country.

This year, Sister Annie Jesus spoke on this subject as Arise’s guest at the United Nations. She said: “I work in a very rural area of India, Chhattisgarh, among tribal people who are very vulnerable to this exploitation. My location, and so many other rural locations like it, are the origins of the sex trade supply chain. The people I serve have very little. They have very little money. The standard of education is very poor. Access to sanitation and healthcare is sparse. They are hundreds of miles from the nearest city. There are no NGOs in the vicinity.”

The Assamese Sisters also spoke of working for decades, often feeling as if their uphill battle didn’t yield much of a reward. Those considering investing in anti-slavery work don’t want to hear this kind of thing, and so they don’t donate to it. They want to hear about how many thousands can be saved, and about the high ideals of “systemic change” and slavery abolition. Fair enough. But once someone has been raped, they are never “un-raped”. They have to learn to live with the trauma, and some cope better than others.

The Sisters do not make their help for such people contingent on whether they check the right boxes. They will stick with them, through thick and thin, for as long as it takes. In short, they make a priority of accompaniment – being with those who have suffered. They won’t allow their work to be subverted by the economics of maintaining a successful charity.

So the Sisters are more rural, their commitment is longer-term, and they are often from the communities that they serve with love and faithfulness. On top of this, their standing in the community often means that they are trusted more readily. Still now, in an India increasingly defined by Hindu nationalism, the police ask Sisters to accompany them on anti-slavery raids because their testimonies are considered more credible in court and are more likely to secure a conviction.

These are precious jewels to be coveted and preserved at all costs. They are the fruit of generations of service and give Sisters a unique perspective which deserves to be heard and appreciated.

This isn’t to canonise the Sisters. They make mistakes. Some of their work could be more strategic. But for anyone who is serious about sustainable development there is simply no comparison between the grassroots, vocationally driven, long-term, community-based work of Sisters and that of so many of their secular counterparts.

So what difference would it make if Sisters were more a part of the policy conversation around modern slavery? It would bring the voice of long-term, self-sacrificial accompaniment to the table – a voice insistent that almost all meaningful anti-slavery work relies upon love and trust, however difficult it might be to measure.

And when future generations look back upon the abolition of modern slavery, maybe, just maybe, the names of the Sisters will be remembered in the tradition of William Wilberforce, with the reverence their sacrifice deserves.

This article originally appeared in the Catholic Herald. Click here to view it.

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