Pope Francis is leading the fight against prostitution and other forms of human trafficking. He is not only getting police authorities, political and religious leaders worldwide involved, he is also encouraging young people to take an active part in this struggle.
Last weekend (November 15-16), for the first time ever, some 100 young people, aged 18-30, from 50 countries and all continents gathered in the Vatican. They profess different faiths – Catholics, Evangelicals, Lutherans, Buddhists, while some are feminists. They came together to share their experiences, and join forces in this important fight. They agreed to network together to more effectively combat these various forms of human enslavement.
“We are certainly living in an epoch in which the human person is used as an object and ends up being material that can be thrown away”, Pope Francis told them when he visited them at the end of their two day gathering. He encouraged them to fight hard against such human trafficking and the mentality that makes it possible. He reminded them that “in God’s eyes there is no throw-away material, there is only dignity.”
One of the organizers of the conference was a courageous Argentine woman, Alicia Peressutti, 44, head of an anti-trafficking NGO in Cordoba called “Vinculos in Red”. A mother of four, she is a force of nature and has been working in this field for the past 18 years. She has also written nine novels on the subject based on true stories. She set up an NGO in Cordoba with the help of religious women - the Adoration sisters of Villa Maria, who assist women that are sexually exploited. Through this work she got to know the then archbishop of Buenos Aires, who supported her efforts. They have remained in contact since then and when, at his urging an international conference against human trafficking was held in the Vatican, November 2013, he had the organizers invite Alicia, and the same happened in the follow-up conference in April 2014.
This time she is one of the organizers of the event, and came with her eleven-year old son and they stayed at Santa Marta, the Vatican guesthouse, on the same floor as the pope. The two other organizers of this international conference were the Global Freedom Movement and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences which is headed by a fellow-countryman of the pope, Archbishop Marcelo Sànchez Sorondo. The conference was held in the Casina Pio IV which is the seat of the academy. FADICA helped fund it.
The young people at the conference gave very moving personal testimonies. They spoke freely, and did not use euphemisms, Alicia Perssutti told America; they spoke about prostitution, a word that is often avoided in such international gatherings, she added. Some had been victims of human trafficking but survived; others had family members trapped in this slavery, while yet more were activists who had come to know the problem in other ways and worked to combat this dehumanizing trade.
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio had worked against this trafficking of human beings, and now as Pope he is doing all in his power to try to eliminate this “crime against humanity.” It is a trade in human beings in which an estimated 21 million children, women, and men are coerced, bought and sold as slave labor. An estimated 3 million people are inserted into this market every year; some are sold as workers in manufacturing, agriculture etc., but the vast majority is forced into prostitution, pornography, sex tourism, forced marriage, child soldiers, or their organs are sold.
“The world of human trafficking and prostitution is a world of total darkness, of the mafias, where much money is moved. A victim of slave labor earns (for the owner) about 2,000 dollars a month, whereas a victim of prostitution earns around 20,000 dollars a month, and a victim of child pornography brings in some 40,000 dollars a month”, Alicia stated. Given the big money involved she wondered why states don’t take action, track the money and identify the beneficiaries.
“The rich countries – like the United States and European countries - are the point of destination for human trafficking and prostitution, while the poor countries are the places of origin, from where the victims come”, she said. She also pointed to the fact that there are internal networks in these countries for this trade in human slavery and exploitation.
At the conference, the young people – including some from the USA – called for the penalization of the clients, not the poor victims. It seems this is happening in at least one Nordic country, but there is little sign yet of such penal action spreading to other rich countries. At the end of their conference the young people issued a declaration against prostitution and human trafficking, and promised to continue their struggle, also by networking across national boundaries. (The text is here: http://www.news.va/en/news/young-activists-issue-declaration-against-human-tr)
Pope Francis encouraged them to be committed in the struggle against this “crime against humanity”, and then – to their great delight – he greeted each of the participants individually.
This was the third international conference to focus on human trafficking since the Argentine Pope became the leader of the Catholic Church, just 20 months ago. A fourth conference will be held in the Vatican at the beginning of December, yet another sign of how seriously Pope Francis takes the problem of prostitution and trafficking in human beings. He hopes to wake up the whole Church to join in the struggle.