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Sr Eugenia's struggle against modern slavery

posted Feb 14, 2014, 9:53 AM by Vidal Martinez   [ updated Mar 2, 2014, 11:29 AM by Theresa Orozco ]
 
I want to introduce you to someone who’s been a constant source of inspiration for me in my work and for many other people around the world, united in the fight against human trafficking….

“Even though we come from different backgrounds and different realities, we all have the same aim…to save the dignity of these young women, to protect them and help them to regain their life.”

‘I first met Italian Consolata Sister Eugenia Bonetti over a decade and half ago, as the Church was preparing to mark a Jubilee year for the turn of the new millennium. Short of stature and looking like so many other nuns in her grey habit, veil and shoes, she was already a force to be reckoned with, an intrepid and indomitable spokeswoman for the victims of trafficking and prostitution. In particular she saw the potential for sisters like herself to offer a unique ministry of protection, healing and prevention – not just here in Italy where the sex slaves end up, but also in countries of origin where they’re first approached by traffickers promising jobs and prosperity overseas. While most Church leaders were still unwilling to speak out, Eugenia was already galvanizing sisters in different congregations to meet girls on the streets, to understand the issues they faced and to open their religious houses for those seeking to escape.

“Now we had many congregations who wanted to open the ‘Holy Doors’ of their convents – and they did it. We had several communities started during the Jubilee where all over Italy we could receive these women, welcoming them, helping them to heal the deep wounds they carry within themselves after their ordeal of being bought and sold like commodities, so now we opened these communities and we started working together.”

Eugenia told me her own dramatic story of how she first got caught up in this work. After spending 24 years as a missionary in Africa, she’d returned to Italy and was shocked to see how many African women were waiting for clients on the roadside in her native city of Turin. One evening as she was leaving the Caritas Centre where she worked, one of these girls turned up asking for help. Eugenia told her to come back when the office opened the next day, but the girl followed her to Mass and sat sobbing quietly in a pew at the back of the Church. It was a moment of conversion that profoundly challenged all Eugenia’s ideas about her attitudes, her religious ministry and her mission. In short, she told me, the girl whom she calls Maria, became her catechist and teacher, helping her understand the complex routes by which so many women end up trafficked from countries around the world, to be bought, sold, beaten and raped, even dying or disappearing from the streets of our so-called ‘civilised’ nations.

“We really have to speak about this but instead what we see, even in the media, is only women’s bodies. But women should rebel, should feel indignant, we can no longer tolerate this but we really have to change mentalities, to work with schools and educate young people, helping them to understand the meaning of respect, the meaning of relationships and the dignity of every person”

I’ve spoken many times to Sr Eugenia, as she’s developed the network of women religious, written books, set up the ‘Slaves No More’ organisation and taken her powerful personal witness to other anti-trafficking groups across the globe. I even watched her speaking once at a women’s demonstration against sexism in the Italian government and was struck by the respect she received from a strongly feminist crowd that doesn’t often have much time for the Church.

Last autumn she met Pope Francis and gave him photographs and personal letters from women who’ve been rescued from the traffickers but are now being held in a detention facility here in Rome. She and her sisters also presented the pope with a small blue and white rug that detainees had made by working strips of paper bed sheet together with a plastic fork. I’ve no doubt she touched him as deeply as she’s moved me with the urgency of her message to save lives and stamp out this modern form of slavery.