A Conversation on Anti-Human Trafficking

A Conversation on Anti-Human Trafficking
Children rescued from a human trafficking network, Mexico, July 2020


Sr Gabriella Bottani and Sr Jean Schafer in conversation together remind us that human trafficking is real and happens in every corner of the globe.

By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp

On 8 February, the International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking takes place. In preparation for the event, the Global Sisters Report organized a webinar featuring Srs. Gabriella Bottani and Jean Schafer, both of whom are recognized as leaders in anti-trafficking efforts. They were joined by over 350 participants.

Sr Gabriella Bottani joined the webinar from Italy. As International Coordinator of the international network against trafficking in persons sponsored by the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), Talitha Kum, she brings a wealth of knowledge regarding the breadth of this pandemic on the international level. Sr Jean Schafer, board member of the U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking, sheds light regarding the plight of trafficked persons in the United States.

Key is exploitation

Sr Gabriella explained the international reality of this evil, which she described as complex and difficult to identify. Exploitation is one important issue she said needs to be considered. “It is the entry-door to identifying trafficking,” she said. While types of trafficking are nuanced throughout the world, “the dignity of the person is destroyed through exploitation and the limitation of freedom”, she emphasized.

Forms of trafficking

Some forms of human trafficking are domestic servitude, sexual exploitation, forced labor and begging. A common element, she said, is that women and minors are particularly vulnerable. The ratio is about 70% women to 30% men. One in every three trafficked persons is under 18 years-of-age. Thus, human traffickers primary targets are women and children. Trafficking takes place in every corner of the globe, whereas Southeast Asia and Africa have higher rates of trafficked persons. She also made the connection between ecological exploitation and human trafficking.

“Another element that we observe when we speak about human trafficking is the connection of exploitation of human beings and the exploitation of the environment. Often, they go hand in hand.”

United States reality

In the United States, trafficking exists in “every zip code”, Sr Jean Schafer said. The myth that there is an area in the US untouched by trafficking is false. It affects primarily people of color, citizens and immigrants. African Americans, for example, represent 13% of the overall population, but represent about 40% of those who are trafficked. Sr Jean said that higher sex trafficking areas are found in larger cities that attract large numbers of tourists. People are also becoming more aware of how much grooming of children is taking place online. “We thought it was something happening in Southeast Asia. But suddenly we find out our children are caught in the trap of vulnerability,” Sr Jean said. Many are learning about it and finding out how to counteract it.


Sr Gabriella Bottani (bottom left) and Sr Jean Schafer (upper right) during the webinar

Sr Gabriella Bottani (bottom left) and Sr Jean Schafer (upper right) during the webinar

Migrants and trafficking

Human traffickers specifically target migrants as well. Sr Gabriella explained that both migration and human trafficking are based on inequality. Those who carry certain passports can travel more freely than others. Many migrants experience trafficking along the migration routes until they reach their destination.

Unique gift of women religious

Sr Jean said education is necessary in every sector of society so that each sector knows how it can do its part to prevent human trafficking. Women religious are essential in this education process due to both the local and international nature of their lives and the networks they form among them. Sr Gabriella says the element of trust is shattered in those who have been trafficked. Where NGOs can help in so many ways, only women religious can provide the spiritual help needed by those who have been trafficked. Sr Jean said this has also been noticed by law enforcement who sometimes seek partnerships with women religious.


Coronavirus has only magnified and exacerbated the problem since the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer during the pandemic, Sr Gabriella explains. Some specifics have changed. For example, she said that fewer are being trafficked by plane, whereas more numbers are trafficked over land. Many people in the service industries who had been trafficked for that purpose lost their jobs. Online sexual exploitation has increased, especially among children in Brazil and the Philippines, Sr Gabriella cited.


Sr Jean explained that the trauma experienced can be physical, psychological, social, spiritual, and in some cases, familial. Sometimes, those who have been trafficked bear permanent scars in each of these areas of their lives. “Each trauma needs time for healing: counseling, mentoring, companioning”, Sr Jean said. To continue on with their lives, they need ongoing services, not only to continue the healing process, but to acquire the skills needed to survive independently in a world that truly is foreign to them in so many ways. “It’s a long, long process”, she says, and many times is abandoned only to be begun again.