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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 102 (Suppl.), December 2006




USMIS National – “Trafficking” Sector





I thank the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral of Migrants and Itinerants for organizing this 1st International Conference in Rome to discuss the need for a specific and common Pastoral Plan to help mainly immigrant women victims of a new form of modern slavery. I am happy to share with this audience the commitment and involvement of many women religious in response to the plight of Trafficking in Women and Children imported and exported all over the world like commodities, for the "sex market". We need to know that "slavery" still exists in the year 2005 and that the main victims are women and children who do not choose voluntarily to become prostitutes but are forced into the mechanism by many different circumstances.

I am a Consolata Missionary Sister that, after spending 24 years of my missionary life in Kenya in 1993 I was asked to return to Italy to work as a missionary in my own country with immigrant women, first in Turin in a Caritas Drop-in-Centre and since the year 2000 as the national anti-trafficking coordinator for the Conference of the Italian Women Religious. My sharing is, therefore, based on the experience of several years of pastoral commitments by Italian women religious working all over the Country and abroad to help young victims to regain their lost freedom, dignity and self esteem as they struggle to recover the meaning and values of their life, culture, traditions, faith and womanhood, which have been denied, abused or even destroyed.


The Conference of the Italian Women Religious, known as USMI, which numbers 627 Women Congregations working in different fields in Italy and abroad has 83.000 members, while the International Union of Superiors Generals, UISG, counts 2.000 congregations spread in 98 Countries with almost 1.000.000 members. They are women who have consecrated their life to God for an active and meaningful presence in the world.

One of the major concerns of almost all the Congregations of women has always been the attention paid to women: vulnerable, discriminated, marginalized, and submitted to a male patriarchal culture. Such religious families, throughout the centuries, have been able to adapt themselves to new emergencies in changing condition of the society in general and of women in particular; they have also re-discovered the validity and actuality of their own charisma in today's challenges. 

1. The Genesis and Context of the "New Slave Trade" in Italy

At the beginning of the 1980s, following ongoing economic difficulties in developing countries, thousands of women came to Europe in search of work and a better quality of life. Clandestine, poor and vulnerable, many became the prey of international and trans-national criminal organisations linked to the sex industry. Italy was not exempt from this phenomenon; in fact, very quickly Italy became a "country of transit" and "of destination" for thousands of young women bought and sold as mere commodities.

The phenomenon of immigrant women from developing countries "imported" to Italy for the sex industry began in force in the early `90s. Since then the number of women working mainly on the streets of our towns and villages--in dehumanising conditions--has been steadily on the increase. Italy's geographic position lends itself to easy entry by slave traders looking to "sell" women to satisfy the demand of millions of consumers.

Several convents and Caritas centres accepted the challenge and the risk of the unknown by taking the girls in and hiding them within their structures. At the outset, we faced many difficulties in assisting the victims - the language barrier, cultural differences, moral issues, public opinion and legal status of the victims. Very soon, by listening to their dramatic stories, we came to understand that their "work" as prostitutes - still referred to as the `world's oldest profession’- was not a choice they had made. No. What we were faced with was a horrible and new form of slavery. This situation was challenging our values, our mentality, our tradition and our security, at the same time asking for immediate answers. Some female congregations responded positively with a prophetic intuition by providing shelters, language courses, training skills and job opportunities for the victims they encountered. In this new environment, victims were also helped to heal the deep psychological and spiritual wounds caused by the dehumanising experience. They were helped to regain their sense of self-worth, trust and hope. A major obstacle however remained - the legal aspect. Having no documents, these victims could not claim any legal rights in Italy.

In 1996, with courage and determination, the Union of Major Superiors in Italy (USMI), the Union of International Superiors General (UISG), the Italian Caritas and a few other NGO's, approached several women parliamentarians to highlight the phenomenon of human trafficking. This started a lobbying effort for a newad hoclegislation for prevention, protection and prosecution. The Immigration Decree No. 286, dated July 25, 1998, crowned the efforts of collaboration between the Italian government and NGO’s. To date, Italy is the only European country that has granted legal status to trafficking victims through issuing residence permits and programs for full reintegration into society. 

2. The Phenomenon of Street Prostitution in Italy

In the last 15 years, Italy has had a large involvement in the sex industry. Individuals directly involved with victims speak of roughly 50 to 70,000 immigrants from West Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe who live and toil on the streets of our cities and countryside. Recently, this activity has also moved into many nightclubs. Of these victims, roughly 30-40% are minors (between 14 and 18 years of age), coming mainly from Eastern European countries. The majority are found in industrialised zones, such as those of central and northern Italy. Since they are in Italy illegally, it is difficult to estimate their true number, age, origin and movement. What we do know is that the majority of them areslaves-victims. There is no doubt that Italy’s geographic position offers slave traders numerous opportunities to “import women for sale” to satisfy the great demand of an affluent society, where with money anything can be bought - even the body of a minor.

Many Women Religious Congregations, together with the Diocesan Caritas and groups of volunteers, were the first to acquire a clear awareness of this phenomenon, to understand its drama and to offer such women alternative solutions of the problem. Urged by the new phenomenon several Congregations have put some of their buildings at the disposal of victims who rebelled against their exploiters and offered them new opportunities in life. This is how the first shelters came into being. 

3. Consecrated Women for the Dignity of Woman

At present 250 Sisters work in 110 projects in Italy, often in collaboration with Caritas and other public or private bodies, with volunteers and associations, yet keeping their identity as consecrated women motivated by the Gospel demand. Several hundred women from different countries are present in our communities and helped to rebuild their future lives.

The various ways in which the religious life prophetically witnesses to its own identity, are as follows:

  • Outreach Unit: as means of first contact with the victims working on the street, mainly at night, by offering friendship and creating trust, by providing information and offering alternative solutions to coercive prostitution.
  • Drop-In Centres: in collaboration with Diocesan or Parish Caritas Centres, in order to listen and become aware of the problems of women seeking help.
  • Safe Communities or shelters: there are almost 100 small shelters, run by sisters who offer hospitality to 6-8 persons for a period of time that varies from 6 to 12 months, or even more, with programmes of human, social and spiritual re-integration. Many communities also welcome mothers with their children or pregnant women to protect them and to safeguard the gift of a life about to be born. In it they feel welcomed, loved, understood and supported in their difficult journey of social re-integration. The Congregations, Caritas, Associations of volunteers, were facing all the expenditure for the running of these communities until 1998, when different projects were financed by the Government according to Article 18 of the Law Decree 286/98 of the Unique Text on Immigration. These communities become families for those who are without a family and are important reference points even after finishing the project of social reintegration.
  • Professional Preparation: in these communities they follow language and professional courses to be well integrated into a paid working environment to become fully autonomous, with a regular work.
  • Pastoral ministry: several religious are involved in the delicate ministry of interior healing to help the young women overcome the traumas and the deep wounds that they carry within themselves, in order to restore their own self-esteem. This is done through prayer and contact with the Word of God that helps to create a person anew by rediscovering her femininity and her Christian faith. Almost all the women come from Christian families and have a strong sense of God and of the transcendent. Many experience strong feelings of guilt and, therefore feel the need of being reconciled with God, with themselves and with their families. In a special way with Nigerian women we have to face the big problem of the Voodoo rituals they have to perform in Nigeria before coming to Italy which has a terrible psychological impact on them. As a result of this many girls go mad.
  • Besides the above-mentioned ministries, many other initiatives are carried on by religious that are worthy of being mentioned:
  • Preparation of a formation kit for Religious Communities, seminaries, schools, parishes and various groups, in 4 languages: English, Italian, Spanish and French. It has been prepared by the Working Group on Trafficking in Women and Children of the JPIC Commission of the International Congregations (UISG/USG). It is a very much appreciated education kit which is being used throughout the world. Copies are available through the following contact points: Email:  Tel/Fax: 00-39-06-66-22-929
  • Temporary Detention Centres: since March 2003 a group of 10 religious of different nationalities and languages pay a weekly visit to one of the 14 Centres, the one in Rome, to offer religious assistance, moral and psychological support to many women who are awaiting deportation because of being found with no documents. Not having any documents, they may be kept there for 60 days according to the "Bossi-Fini Law". This pastoral ministry is very important, though delicate; it is the art of giving hope to desperate persons who do not want to go back home empty-handed and labelled as "prostitutes". A prayer leaflet is prepared every week in different languages, used by different groups and left for further deepening during the week. Some copies are available for information.
  • Involvement of monasteries and contemplative nuns, through information, which asks for their prayer, as well as through their sharing of financial helps.

4. Formation Courses for the Religious Personnel

Aware that the phenomenon of the "21St century trafficking of slaves" is a very complex one constantly evolving, Italian religious who initially opened themselves to this ministry with simple means and without specific preparation, have later received a professional formation which can address this problem adequately.

Besides participating in various meetings and conferences aimed at acquiring a deeper knowledge of the phenomenon and of the forces working in the area, in 2004 there have been 4 formation courses for 85 Religious from the countries where the phenomenon is most evident: Italy, Nigeria, Albania and Romania. The courses were proposed and financed by the USA ambassador in the Holy See and planned by the OIM (International Organization of Migrants) in collaboration with USMI (Union of Major Superiors in Italy) andUISG(Union of International Major Superiors). The main aim of the courses was to offer an adequate professional preparation which would enable participants to deal with prevention in the countries of origin and the reintegration of victims through specific interventions. A book for such courses has been issued in Italian and in English.

Another formation course for 24 women religious in Poland, was sponsored by USMI and run by ICMC (International CatholicMigration Commission).

A second phase of the programme has been planned for the year 2005 and already completed in Rome, Albania, and Nigeria. Next month we will be in Romania to asses the implementation of the programme. Before the end of the year two new places will benefit from such programmes: Thailand and the Republic of Santo Domingo. 

5. Co-operation with Religious Women in the Countries of Origin

Our role and our intervention for women in the countries of their destination cannot be incisive if it is not in strict collaboration with the local churches and with the religious communities in the country of origin. We have been establishing during the past few years channels of co-operation with the Conference of Religious in Nigeria and we have already obtained noteworthy results. The aim is to:

  • have a constant and timely exchange of information between USMI and other NGOs to monitor and understand the phenomenon on both frontiers and to discover new strategies of intervention;
  • offer a vast informative campaign to prevent the "exodus" of many young women from their families, schools and parishes towards the "thepromised land";
  • seek and protect the families of the victims against eventual extortions and retaliations on behalf of the exploiters;
  • welcome and accompany towards social re-integration young women who choose to go back to their families, through ad hoc projects;
  • assist the mass of young girls without documents expelled by the European countries: unluckily 10-15% of these women go back home HIV positive.

Thanks to the above-mentioned courses of formation for religious, we have started our contacts with some Conferences of Major Religious Superiors in East Europe, such as Romania, Albania and Poland, and we hope to establish contacts of exchange and collaboration with religious of other countries of origin to hit the problem in all its forms. 

6. Some Proposals for Action

In spite of the goals courageously reached in this service, members of religious communities in Italy, together with other public and private forces, are aware of what still needs to be done. Urged by the “fantasy of charity”, they have still many dreams to realise. We want to work courageously and with deep motivations that are our strength to reach our unique objective, namely: to break all the chains of slavery and to make ourselves available up to the last person. Strengthening our already existing network is our goal.

We think that it is of particular importance to focus our attention also on the one who, with his constant demands, supports and increases the paid-sex market. The "client" himself is a victim of the consumer system of life where, today, everything can be bought, yet the "poverty" of many immigrant women and even the body of undefended minors. We are called to join forces to form and to inform, to recuperate the values of reciprocal respect, of interpersonal and family relations, to find once again balance and harmony, mainly in the man-woman relationship. 

7. We particularly feel the urgency of:

  • helping the religious congregations in the country of the victims with financed projects to face the emergency of the mass repatriation of the many young women who are sent back home empty-handed, labelled, rejected by their own families and society. We rely on a full involvement of religious with their welcoming efforts and their social re-integration projects. We expect to create an authentic network of communication and collaboration with the religious in Eastern Europe. This would help all of us to grow in the knowledge of the problem and of the way to oppose it;
  • organising, as soon as possible, meetings with the religious Associations that work in different parts of Europe, to help the exploited women. This will allow us to meet, to confront, to share our projects, to stimulate strong legislative positions for victims, against the traffic and the traffickers, to study new strategies of intervention capable of stopping the "trade in human beings" as soon as possible;
  • stimulating the Episcopal Conferences of the countries involved in the "Trafficking" to assume their responsibility and to denounce this social scourge forcefully;
  • involving also the male religious institutes who, unfortunately, are still absent; their service would be very important for the formation of young people and for the contact and rehabilitation of the "consumers";
  • offering full collaboration to all the public and private forces, lay and religious, that work in this sector towards a common effort of crushing the "trade" for ever;
  • collaborating with the mass media for correct information about the problem;
  • keeping contacts with the Monasteries asking the support of their prayers, knowing that, "If Yahweh does not build the house, in vain do its builders toil" (Psalm 127, 1).


Let the Post Synod Apostolic Exhortation of the Holy Father,"Ecclesiain Europa", be a warning and an encouragement for all of us. "The Church has not failed to raise her voice in denunciation of injustice and the violence perpetrated against women wherever and however this occurs. She demands that laws protecting women be enforced, and that effective measures be taken against the demeaning portrayal of women in advertising and against the scourge of prostitution" (No. 43).

May the Woman par excellence, Mary, who has lived her femininity and maternity in the fullness of grace and of donation, accompany all the consecrated women and all other women -the strong and the weak, the ransomed and the ones still exploited- so that the great value of our femininity, identity, dignity and liberty may be re-discovered and put at the service of the kingdom of God through the culture of true love, of life, of solidarity, of justice and peace.