Nuns pose as prostitutes to save victims of sex trafficking

The international team of 1,100 religious sisters currently operates in 80 countries and seeks to combat human trafficking and slavery.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Anti-slavery activists rally outside Parliament on October 18, 2013 in London, England.

Human trafficking is a grave problem.

According to the International Labor Organization, nearly 21 million people, including children, live in slavery worldwide, many of them trafficked by gangs for sex work and unskilled labor.

A network of nuns is doing whatever it takes to solve the problem, according to its chairman.

The group, known as Talitha Kum take actions that include dressing up like prostitutes to infiltrate brothels worldwide in an effort to rescue victims of sex trafficking. 

The initiative launched in 2004 by British investment banker John Studzinski, consists of 1,100 sisters, and currently operates from 80 countries.  

“I’m not trying to be sensational, but I’m trying to underscore the fact this is a world that has lost innocence ... where dark forces are active,” Studzinski, a vice chairman of US investment bank The Blackstone Group recently he told the Trust Women Conference on women's rights and trafficking hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “These are problems caused by poverty and equality, but it goes well beyond that.”

Besides going undercover as sex workers and rescuing trafficking victims, the team has also been raising money to buy children who are sold into slavery by their parents in places like Africa, Asia, and South America.

“This is a new network of houses for children around the world who would otherwise be sold into slavery. It is shocking but it is real,” Studzinksi said, according to Reuters.

Human trafficking for labor, as defined by a US federal law in 2000, is “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.” A parallel definition applies to sex trafficking and coerced prostitution.

In October, the largest-ever FBI sex trafficking sting operation arrested 150 perpetrators and rescued children being exploited in 135 cities across the nation, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

The full scope of human sex trafficking is notoriously difficult to track, but the Polaris Project, an organization that works to raise awareness of modern slavery and rehabilitate its victims, said they received 3,598 reports of sex trafficking in the US in 2014. 

About one in six of the children reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children are trapped in sexual slavery, the agency reported, up from one in seven in 2013. 

In the resent past, civil authorities and non-profit organizations have joined efforts to combat the scourge of human trafficking and forms of modern-day slavery. 

But the work of Talitha Kum does have critics. 

According to Christina Arnold, founder and CEO of Prevent Human Trafficking, the group of nuns, while they mean well, “May be doing more harm than good.”

“When you buy the victim, you just drive up the cost for brothel owners or traffickers trying to sell in the future,” Ms. Arnold said.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.