ROME (CNS): With her hair dyed an unnatural shade of red and a thin green shawl draped over her, Carmelite Sister Begona Arroya stands out among nuns in a convent overlooking St Peter’s Square.
But when she is ministering in southern Spain to prostitutes from all over the world, she blends right in.
“I dress so I won’t intimidate the women I need to reach,” Sr Begona, 41, said with a smile. “I have no office, just a cell phone and a car.”
Good Shepherd Sister Magdalena Barsan Bilibok, 28, of Romania is studying in Italy. She participates in a street outreach group in Rome that befriends exploited women.
“There are places in Rome where men in cars come to buy sex and there are many, many women, all from foreign countries, lined up to go with them,” said Sr Magdalena. “Of course, pimps are behind almost all the girls on the streets.
“It is so terrible. The girls get in the car, and when they come back, most look completely gone, like they don’t exist, they are destroyed by this,” she said.
“We talk to them and pray with them. We serve them hot tea.”
Consolata Sister Eugenia Bonetti, who spent 24 years in Kenya before returning to Italy “as a missionary in my own country,” recalled the words of a woman who sought shelter in a safe house run by women religious.
“She said, ‘They destroyed my life.’ And she repeated it, ‘They destroyed my life.’ And a third time, again. Every word was like a bomb,” said Sr Eugenia.
Srs Begona and Magdalena shared their experiences and knowledge of prostitution and human trafficking with women religious from around the world who gathered in Rome in mid-October to consider their unique role in confronting sex trafficking.
The conference was funded by the US Department of State and was organised by the US Embassy to the Vatican and the Italian Union of Major Superiors.
The nuns created a new organisation, the International Network of Religious Against Trafficking in Persons.
Under the guidance of Sr Eugenia, who has emerged as a world leader fighting human trafficking, participants presented detailed assessments of trafficking trends in their countries, as well as strategies to prevent women and girls from being lured into prostitution.
Many of the participants had been engaged in activities to help people in prostitution – men as well as women – for decades.
In the Paris neighbourhood of Pigalle in the 1970s, Sr Magdalena was part of a group of nuns and a priest who converted a brothel into a bar and restaurant to become integrated in the community and serve its spiritually needy residents.
“Our goal was to give compassion to women in violent situations. We helped hundreds of people,” she said.
“I will always remember one woman in particular, from Gabon. She was involved in drugs and prostitution, deeply despairing.
“After a few years, we helped her find her birth father, and we helped her find a new job. She’s a flight attendant, with a child today.”
In Colombia, a New Zealand nun who identified herself as Sr Mary said she teaches English six hours a day to raise money for her real job.
“I serve the girls and transvestites in the street, dear,” said the youthful looking 65-year-old.
“I love what I do. They are so badly, badly mistreated.”
Sr Mary, a Marist, exemplifies the ability of the nuns to withhold personal judgment of the prostitutes while rejecting those who enslave them.
“The drug lords own the sex clubs that drag these vulnerable people into a life that is very hard to escape,” said Sr Mary.
She said she hopes Colombian church leaders will do more to confront sex traffickers.
“Many of them are Catholic and know our priests through the sacraments. We should use our influence to tell them to stop exploiting people in sex,” she said.
Sr Eugenia said women religious have a long history of reaching out to people in distress, especially women and children.
Some congregations, for example, Spain’s Sisters of Adoration, Slaves of the Blessed Sacrament, were founded specifically to confront the abuse and social exclusion suffered by women in prostitution.
“We have a unique charism to be the good Samaritan. Women religious will reactivate our communities through our commitment to protecting human dignity, fighting human trafficking,” Sr Eugenia told the nuns gathered in Rome.
“We must be silent witnesses of personal suffering but eloquent denouncers of social injustice,” she said.