Missionary of The Street

Sister Eugenia Bonetti is known around the world as the “Trafficking Sister.” She runs a Caritas drop-in center in Turin, Italy, for migrant women being used in prostitution.

Sister Eugenia Bonetti is known as a “Missionary of the Street.”

That’s for her extensive advocacy, in more than 25 countries, on behalf of victims of human trafficking and prostitution, especially women and children. The 69-year-old Consolata Missionary Sister has served as national coordinator of the Italian Union of Major Superiors’ (USMI) Counter-Trafficking Office since 2000, having gained front-line experience with thousands of women trafficked to Italy for sexual exploitation when she worked, beginning in 1993, at a Caritas drop-in center for immigrant women. She has discussed what she calls “21st century slavery” with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

Sister Eugenia recently led a week-long anti-trafficking seminar for women religious from every continent, funded by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See. Register correspondent Victor Gaetan interviewed her in Rome.

You have been working in the area of human trafficking, especially sex trafficking, long before most people knew what it was. Please describe this phenomenon.

Trafficking in human beings takes many forms, including trafficking into unpaid or underpaid labor in miserable, oppressive conditions, and the trafficking of children for begging. My work has concentrated on the plight of women trafficked into prostitution.

Trafficking for sexual exploitation is a grave violation of human rights and human dignity. It amounts to 21st-century slavery.

There is a well-organized mafia-type organization of men and women who identify victims in their home country. By exploiting the local socio-economic situation, these new slave traders mislead women and their families, promising them well-paid jobs in other destination countries or in another part of their own country. Most victims are brought into developed countries using various unauthorized means — often with the complicity of corrupt officials. Once in the new location, traffickers brutally exploit them.

What is the connection between trafficking in persons and prostitution?

Prostitution is not a new phenomenon. What is new is the existence of a global and complex trade that exploits situations of poverty and vulnerability that many women find themselves in, and exports them into the sex industry.

In Italy, there are an estimated 50,000-70,000 women and girls from East Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe who are prostituted on streets, in nightclubs and in private brothels. Some 30%-40% are minors. They typically have no documents, because traffickers seize their passports and papers in order to control them. Upon arrival, traffickers and pimps often tell women they must work off a huge debt, which they had not heard about before leaving home.

To pay back this debt bond set at 40,000-70,000 euros, Nigerian women must undergo at least 4,000 sexual encounters. On top of this, they are charged for food, lodging and even the space on the sidewalk where they stand.

Based on your experience, what is the impact of prostitution on the individual?

On the street, the “prostitute,” who is also a victim, completely loses her psycho-physical identity, her personal dignity and her freedom of choice. She must consider herself to be an object, a thing, a piece of merchandise. She lives as a social and cultural outcast, with only one option open to her — to demand payment for a sexual service. Yet she keeps little or none of her earnings.

Sexual abuse degrades a person, empties her of her deepest values and destroys her womanhood, her femininity, her self-esteem, her concept of love and life, her interior beauty and her dream of a peaceful future.

When did you become personally engaged in this effort? How were your efforts, together with other sisters, able to make a difference?

After being a missionary in Kenya for 24 years, I was brought back to Italy in 1993. I was shocked and disturbed at what I found at the Caritas drop-in center in Turin: women, many from Africa, in a state of great suffering and misery. Yet we were able to bring hope.

By my speaking their language and knowing their life at home, it was easier for me to guide them, and say, “Don’t be afraid. We want you to enjoy your God-given gifts.”

I’ll give you just one example of hope: Patricia was the oldest of eight children. She left Nigeria at age 19 to earn money in order to send her brothers to school. During the journey to Europe, she was repeatedly raped and became pregnant.

For six months, she was forced to work on the street to pay off a debt bond of 40,000 euros. Women religious who formed an “Outreach Unit” met with her every week and convinced her to leave the street. She was welcomed into one of many shelters run by nuns, and despite her initial fear and despair, she welcomed the gift of new life, her baby.

I am aware of people who intend to propose you for the Nobel Peace Prize. Wouldn’t this prize benefit your cause?

We never look for such things. We sisters look to be present where there is a need. We are not interested in external recognition. We are not searching for that. We are just doing our duty.

When did women religious get involved in this struggle and what exactly do you do?

Religious congregations, together with Caritas and Caritas volunteers, were among the first to interpret this phenomenon in the early 1990s and to offer alternative solutions.

In Italy, the work of USMI manifests itself through outreach teams coordinated by parish groups in the streets as first contact with victims, drop-in centers to welcome women who seek help, safe houses or shelters, work-training courses, legal assistance, collaboration with relevant embassy personnel to obtain identification papers, and psychological and spiritual assistance to victims sheltered in detention centers awaiting deportation.

These programs are being replicated around the world. I have seen congregations rediscover their original charism as they address trafficking in human beings.

In training seminars for women religious which you have conducted over the past few years, and in your seminar last week, what do you aim to accomplish?

We are trying to network the countries of origin, transit and destination. Women religious are a natural network. Sisters are working around the world with women in distress, both victims and survivors of trafficking, and they need to know they are not working in isolation.

We have created several formation courses for the sisters so they will be professionally aware and prepared to tackle this problem.

Each one of us has a role to play. Each is equally important.

Women religious are mainly giving support to the most vulnerable people where needed. Our work is done at the grassroots level, not at the top. If we have a chance to talk to a president or the Pope, we speak for the voiceless.

I understand you created a new International Network of Religious Against Trafficking in Persons (INRATIP) and issued a statement last week. What will this network accomplish?

First, we pledged to use our personnel, resources and historic commitment to people in distress to eradicate human trafficking. We included a message to victims, to traffickers themselves, to those who demand, to governments, to religious leaders and to people of good will. Through INRATIP, we are committed to building a network that eloquently denounces trade in human beings.

Are men religious engaged in this effort?

Men religious have an important role. It is essential to have men help confront the demand for victims of prostitution.

In the chain of slavery of the third millennium, the consumer, or client, is one of the strongest links. He supports and fuels the sex industry.

We must inform youth, especially male youth, that using prostitution is harmful, degrading to women and against God’s will. I see priests and men in congregations doing more work in this area.

You joined the Consolata Sisters at age 24 in order to be a missionary. Now, you have spent the last 24 years based in Europe. Do you ever think about going back to Africa?

To be a missionary today is to be where people are living and suffering. It is being the Good Samaritan, wherever you find the needy.

I am a missionary in my own country, living the Gospel of Christ. The women and girls we help are so grateful, so responsive to love and charity. Every day I witness the fact that Jesus’ message is very much valued, so relevant, even after 2,000 years.

Victor Gaetan is based

in Washington, D.C.