The Catholic Church’s opposition to human trafficking is deeply rooted within its principles of social teaching.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly forbids “acts or enterprises that, for any reason, lead to the enslavement of human beings – to their being bought, sold, and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity” (Article 2414).
As Co-ordinator of Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans (ACRATH) in WA, Sister Lucy van Kessel PVBM knows too well the repercussions of human trafficking on people.
Since 2009, when, with the help of two sisters, she set up ACRATH in WA, Sr Lucy has been at the forefront of the battle against what Pope Francis recently labelled “a shameful wound that is unworthy of civil society”.
“I believe it is absolutely vital to have a Christian organisation that works towards the elimination of human trafficking,” Sr Lucy said.
“Human trafficking is endemic; it is the third biggest money maker from crime after arms and drugs throughout the world, making approximately 32 billion dollars per year.
“The people involved are not going to let go of it easily and it is often very difficult to have law enforcement involved.
“I see my work as an essential element of my Christian life and of my commitment to creating a better world,” she added.
Sr Lucy went on to explain that the impetus for ACRATH in WA came from Catholic Religious Australia (CRA), a peak body for leaders of religious institutes and Societies of Apostolic Life resident in Australia, comprised of more than 180 congregations of sisters, brothers and religious priests.
CRA was itself influenced by the work of Sr Eugenia Bonetti, an Italian nun who raised concerns regarding women forced into prostitution in the 1980s.
“Today, there’s still approximately 80 per cent of trafficking which has to do with sex, prostitution, but 20 per cent has to do with forced labour, and this is increasing daily,” Sr Lucy said.
Reflecting on some of the challenges faced by her organisation, Sr Lucy alluded to the difficulties of finding sufficient numbers of volunteers to work in the organisation, and having a stronger male presence involved, which would particularly benefit awareness raising with young boys.
However, one of the greatest issues identified by Sr Lucy in her work is convincing government authorities to recognise trafficking for what it is, and not dismiss it as simply illegal migrants being coerced into forced labour.
“The definition of trafficking is quite limited, making it difficult to have government and non-government authorities actually recognise the signs of trafficking and be prepared to follow the steps to prosecute.
“We have very few prosecutions in Australia because often the victims are too afraid to report that they are being trafficked,” Sr Lucy explained.
Given the significant presence of women working within ACRATH, and the remarkable work they are doing within the organisation, Sr Lucy emphasised that more women are needed in roles of leadership, both within and outside the Church.
“I believe whether it is in leadership or not, there is certainly a place for women to stand up for themselves and recognise their strength, responsibility, independence and ability to contribute.”
Commenting on the advice she would give to women, both religious and non-religious, seeking to take on roles or leadership, Sr Lucy listed a number of necessary stepping stones which, in her view, are requirements for good leadership.
“Have a strong and grounded sense of who you are and what values you would like to uphold; model them on people you truly respect but develop your own sense of identity.
“Secondly, develop emotional intelligence, which is the ability to hold your position emotionally in any given situation while being open to empathise and be compassionate.
“Thirdly, listen well and be flexible; in leadership roles today, we need to hear what others have to say and reflect on it before making final decisions.
“Finally, be compassionate, be gentle and do not intimidate other people. Developing your own reflective space will help.
“It is extremely important to take time to reflect or pray each day as a way of grounding oneself.”
Sr Lucy sent a final message to all those committed to ending, or at least significantly limiting, human trafficking in the world.
“Every one of us can make a difference, and the important thing is for us to not feel overwhelmed by what we see in the media and to say ‘I CAN make a difference’. I want to die knowing that I’ve done as much as I can to make the world a better place.”
On 8 February this year, Pope Francis marked the Day of Prayer and Awareness against Human Trafficking. The Day of Prayer coincided with the feast of St Josephine Bakhita, the 19th-century Sudanese nun who, as a child, had been a victim of slavery.
More information about ACRATH and its work towards the elimination of human trafficking in Australia can be found by visiting the organisation’s website: http://acrath.org.au/.