Nuns dress as prostitutes to save trafficking victims

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LONDON – In a less traditional piece of charitable work, more than 1,000 nuns worldwide are swapping their habits for outfits typically worn by prostitutes or laborers.

The 1,100 sisters belong to the group Talitha Kum, an 11-year-old network of women fighting human trafficking based in Rome and funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, according to the group’s website.

Under federal law, sex trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.” Statistics for those held in bondage for sex are difficult to track. The International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, estimates that there are 4.5 million victims of forced sexual exploitation out of about 21 million people worldwide who are held against their will as laborers.

In 80 countries, the Talitha Kum nuns raise money to be used to buy the freedom of children being sold into sex slavery, and sometimes disguise themselves as prostitutes to enter brothels to ferret out such victims. The group’s name means “arise child” in Aramaic, an ancient Mideast language, and is taken from a Bible story that describes Jesus bringing a little girl back to life. The Thomson Reuters Foundation reported last month that the nuns plan to expand their efforts to around 140 countries, citing John Studzinski, an investment bank executive and the Talitha Kum chairman.

“These sisters do not trust anyone. They do not trust governments, they do not trust corporations, and they don’t trust the local police. In some cases, they cannot trust male clergy,” Studzinski, a Blackstone Group vice chairman, said at a conference on women’s rights and human trafficking, according to Thomson Reuters. “They work in brothels. No one knows they are there.”

Another way that they disguise themselves, Studzinski said, is by dressing in work clothes alongside those victimized as slave laborers. Such forced labor can include people held in debt bondage, or by being paid too little to escape their often abusive situations. Studzinski said some employers hire the nuns’ organization to investigate abuse in global supply chains that feed their industries. The UN agency said slave labor generates about $150 billion a year in illegal profits for companies and individuals.

The sisters also work in countries like Brazil, India and the Philippines to prevent parents from selling their children to traffickers, a practice that can be common in disadvantaged families.

Not all view the nuns as heroic. Christina Arnold, the chief executive of Prevent Human Trafficking, told Fox News Tuesday that the group might be harming the fight against traffickers.

“People have their hearts in the right place,” she said, but noted that while it may affect prices, interceding to buy a child from those who would sell that child into slavery merely perpetuates the trade. “It sounds like a good idea but it’s actually a ludicrous one.”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.