Catholic Women Religious and Human Trafficking


In 2014, Vatican officials and Catholic bishops launched a number of high-profile activities designed to address human trafficking.  In April of that year, Pope Francis famously described trafficking as a “crime against humanity” and an “open wound on the body of contemporary society,” requiring “the international community to adopt an even more unanimous and effective strategy against human trafficking.” On December 2, 2014, a Vatican-hosted meeting resulted in the “Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders against Modern Slavery.” Bishops’ conferences have invested time and energy in important initiatives to fight trafficking, including the Santa Marta Commitment, signed by global police chiefs during the April meeting of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and the UK Police Force, hosted by the Pontifical Academy for the Social Sciences.  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has ongoing, deep experience in fighting human trafficking through Catholic Relief Services and through its own programming based in Washington, DC, providing direct services in the United States or education and outreach (especially the 2013 Amistad and 2014 Become A Shepherd initiatives). Bishops’ conferences throughout the world are linked to Caritas national organizations, which carry out programming targeting the roots and effects of human trafficking. 

Today’s efforts to eliminate human trafficking can be traced to the 1990s, when there was increased awareness of globalization’s role in facilitating modern-day slavery and of stubborn, enduring forms of historical slavery.  The international community launched a concerted, more comprehensive effort to address trafficking with the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol in November 2000 (“Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, Supplementary to the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime”).  Two months earlier, President Clinton signed into law the bipartisan Trafficking Victims Protection Act (“TVPA”).  Ever since, governments, the private sector, and civil society have stepped up their efforts to fight trafficking on legal, business, civic and religious fronts. The Palermo Protocol with its 165 states parties, the TVPA and new national laws, numerous EU directives, and other international anti-slavery instruments combine governmental and civil society efforts through a common anti-trafficking framework across the globe.

The story of Catholic women religious’ fight against trafficking dates to the earliest days of this modern battle and has been sustained at a fevered pitch ever since. In May of 2001, less than six months after the UN anti-trafficking treaty (the “Palermo Protocol”) was signed, the almost 800 women leaders of the International Union of Superiors General (“UISG”) passed its resolution dedicating their over one million members “to work in solidarity with one another within our own religious communities and in the countries in which we are located to address insistently at every level the abuse and sexual exploitation of women and children…” This “insistent” work has expanded to address all forms of trafficking, and mobilizes its million sisters, resulting in a myriad of concrete, sustained initiatives. Highlights include:  founding of Unanima International based at the United Nations (2002) and its initiation of end demand strategies for sex trafficking;  establishing  the international UISG network Talitha Kum (2010);  organizing  U.S. Catholic Sisters United Against Human Trafficking (2013); launching annual campaigns to fight trafficking around sporting events, from local golf tournaments to Super Bowls to World Cup and Olympic meets;  engaging in sustained corporate dialogue and shareholder activism strategically aimed at pressuring companies to adopt policies and practices to combat trafficking; advocacy to approve laws and regulations that address this complex problem;  establishing and running established or temporary shelters for trafficking survivors the world-over; initiatives to identify and support survivors—including through the sisters’ ministries in health care systems; providing legal advice to survivors and to activists; creating spiritual resources, whether through prayer  support, hosting retreats, prayer services inspired by Saint Josephine Bakhita; disseminating educational, outreach and networking resources through websites, newsletters, and other publications.   In advancing their “delicate mission of counter trafficking in persons,” these women exercise bold, faith-filled leadership and service as they “take a prophetic stance that requires [of themselves] conversion and change of mentality.” (IUSG Rome Declaration, 2008 Congess).

This wide range of work includes examples of startling commitment, bravery and creativity:

  • The Sisters of St. Joseph made a bold move that captured the attention of the tourism industry: they insisted on booking their 2011 U.S. national meeting only in hotels in St. Louis that had taken a public stand against trafficking and exploitation of children. This initiative inspired Catholic women religious world-over to engage the hospitality industry, especially hotels, in the fight against trafficking.
  • In a similar vein, coalitions world-over with Catholic sisters’ leadership and participation engage the hospitality industry, especially hotels, to raise awareness of trafficking around sporting events, whether Super Bowls, World Cups, or Olympic Games.  This sustained, innovative campaign is aimed at “Celebration without Exploitation;” for the 2012 Super Bowl in Indianapolis, sisters approached hotels within a fifty mile radius of Lucas Oil Stadium.  
  • U.S. sisters employ shareholder activism to pressure corporations to eliminate labor trafficking in their operations, especially in supply chains.  Sister-investors are engaged in dialogues with companies to establish practices that minimize human trafficking in all aspects of their business. One particularly successful initiative with their shareholder partners resulted in Hershey’s 2012 pledge to eliminate child slave labor in its cocoa production by 2020.
  • In the Amazon region, sisters have partnered with universities to fight cross-border trafficking in sex and labor exploitation (including in extractive industries) with cooperative plays and games that empower children to understand and face down traffickers’ entrapment techniques.
  • Canadian sisters’ trusted international networks enable them to support trafficking victims outside of Canada. One example involves these sisters responding to a request from an Ethiopian-Canadian woman to help her young sisters who had been trafficked to Saudi Arabia, returned to Ethiopia, then fled violence to Sudan.  Thanks to this close-knit network, the Canadian-based congregation’s sisters in Sudan took them into their care for two years, pending their resettlement in Canada.
  • Since 1998, the Good Shepherd Sisters in Thailand have run the Fountain of Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya offering spiritual, physical and psychological services to sex trafficking survivors along with those at risk for trafficking.  The Centre, founded by a Catholic sister and a Buddhist nun, serves over 100 children daily.
  • Catholic women religious’ overarching strategies and individual successes advance the initial “3P” paradigm for anti-trafficking work—prosecution, protection and prevention.   One hallmark of the sisters’ efforts is success on a fourth “P”—partnership.  They have consistently made partnerships a centerpiece of their strategy, building relationships with local, national and international governmental entities, corporate interlocutors and co-shareholders, ethical investment organizations, faith-based organizations, universities, health care providers, and others falling across the spectrum of civil society.  Their strategic focus on engaging networks of partners, in the midst of seizing initiative and playing leadership roles, suggests models for effective advocacy more broadly.


The Need

In recent years, the media has periodically latched onto narratives around Catholic sisters’ anti-trafficking efforts. As one sister observes, “The combination of sex, sisters and Super Bowl is irresistible.” Apart from periodic bursts of publicity, there is a need to make the wide range of anti-trafficking work of Catholic sisters visible, raising awareness of their efforts. To our knowledge, there is no systematic research documenting and analyzing Catholic religious women’s fifteen-plus years of work spurred by the 2001 UISG Declaration.  A thoroughly-researched and well-told history would expand awareness of these anti-trafficking efforts across a wide range of audiences.

This story combines successes and failures, with strategic lessons to be drawn from both. The story is replete with gripping examples of the sisters’ unflagging dedication, intelligent creativity, and persistent courage in their efforts to educate and inspire.  The sisters’ work reflects their unique approaches, such as:  their holistic systems approach and emphasis on building strong coalitions; focus on breaking the cycle of demand; facing the tension between empowerment and rescue strategies; indefatigable efforts at addressing structural root causes; religious community culture’s role in the well-being of the sisters and others impacted by their work; their institutional transnational identity and capacity; and their faith-based approaches, such as the spirituality of encounter, accompaniment, and fundamental focus on valuing the dignity of the human person. 

The Catholic Church is one essential audience for this story.  Catholic parishes, schools, clergy, and all faithful would benefit from learning how communities of Catholic women religious have engaged the fight against slavery and slavery-like practices.  Many in the Church and our global society would not be surprised at the sisters’ work supporting trafficking survivors; however, their many other creative, ground-breaking efforts addressing trafficking are not widely known.  The Church (and the international community) would benefit from a thorough account of the long, varied, and extensive experience of Catholic women religious in addressing modern slavery head-on.  With the Vatican’s recent initiatives bringing new attention, energy and networks to fight human trafficking, this is an excellent time to bring to the forefront the full range of Catholic women religious’ contributions—both anchors and beacons for the Church’s work.


Project Proposal: Research Agenda

Historical roots

While Catholic sisters’ work against trafficking is on the leading edge of a current crisis, this work has historic roots. Each institute’s founder/foundress articulated a charism that defines that institute’s mission and spirit. The charism is the purpose of the institute and the basis for sisters’ ministry, and many institutes include care, education, and advocacy for women, children, and/or the poor—populations vulnerable to trafficking—as part of their charism. The post-Vatican II renewal of women’s religious institutes grew out of a mandate by the Council for each community to examine the original charism in light of a reading/reflection on the “signs of the times,” and to scrutinize how their lives and ministries measured up. Thus, the commitment of many women religious to fight trafficking during recent decades connects directly back to the roots and original ministry of their communities. How specific individuals, orders, partnerships, and cooperatives have made this connection between their current ministry against trafficking and their charism deserves further research.



Mapping of varied work globally, with a strong focus on U.S.-based anti-trafficking work:  There is an extraordinary range of anti-trafficking efforts by Catholic women religious.  Particular attention will be paid to strategies, structures, systems, networking, and partnerships.  An initial list of the kinds of efforts include: direct service work, legislative and legal advocacy, share-holder activism, industry-specific outreach, coalition-building, and spiritual support.  The sisters’ strategy to include a range of responses to all caught in web of trafficking—survivors, survivors’ friends and family, traffickers, buyers of sex, consumers, and businesses—will be explored.  From a historical perspective, we will likely have a deeper research focus on the U.S. work, but will describe and investigate global efforts since 2001. For this mapping, we will rely and build on existing directories (such as the UISG’s Talitha Kum) and collected data (such as that of Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate).


Individual stories of success, failure, impact and barriers

This project will include individual granular narratives of Catholic sisters and their congregations, in addition to the above broader picture.  It will examine the experiences of individual actors, including honest assessments of challenges, paths to achieving goals, and spiritual resources supporting the work.



Describe and analyze features that contribute to the Catholic women religious’ effectiveness as well as challenges in their wide-ranging anti-trafficking work.  Identify those features that may be instructive for Catholic women religious, other faith-based as well as secular actors in anti-trafficking work and other advocacy initiatives.  We envision the research project divided into two stages, with a mapping process first and then analysis.  Scholars from a range of disciplines (e.g., history, sociology, theology, psychology, anthropology, political science, linguistics, social work, communications studies, and business ethics) would be involved in the mapping design.  Building on the resulting information, the scholars would complete studies for publication and help in crafting key elements of the documentary.  We expect action research and reflexivity to be among the methodologies applied by scholars. Special efforts would be made to incorporate “Sister Scholars”— women religious with interest in the project and relevant expertise—into the research team, along with scholars from Catholic women’s colleges.


Support required for ongoing anti-trafficking work of women religious

From our projects’ engagement with women religious working on trafficking, we will attempt to identify current and anticipated major gaps in resources for these efforts—financial, human, institutional, etc. 


Project Deliverables


Documentary of the highest caliber showcasing the anti-trafficking work of Catholic women religious globally. Elements would include interviews with a range of women religious, individual stories of those impacted by the sisters’ work (especially through direct services), and explanations of  the struggles and victories across the broad range of activities addressing human trafficking.  We envision a series of at least six documentary screenings in the United States and abroad, with panel discussions where possible. 



Social and print media would be energetically used to disseminate the project’s insights. Articles/opinion pieces published in magazines, newspapers, and internet-based outlets (e.g., blogs, news websites, podcasts, twitter,  the Global Sisters Report, etc.) to reach a wide-range of target audiences, including but not limited to Catholics, Catholic Church leadership, human rights/anti-trafficking activists and organizations, academic communities, grant-making organizations, and governments.  One key publication will be an edited volume describing and analyzing women religious’ work, locally and globally, to confront human trafficking.  Hard copies of the edited volume and short 15-20 page summaries would be distributed internationally.  We would actively provide briefings or referrals to the press interested in reporting on this project.

Media-rich website would disseminate the full study and short summary with photos, video and audio resources.  The website would also provide links to additional resources. This website would be launched early in the project, including information mapping women religious’ anti-trafficking work, to build interest and support. 



We would organize an international conference to share widely the research results (and probably documentary); possible locations include Rome, Washington, DC, and Notre Dame.  Project collaborators would participate in other events, especially conferences, to disseminate and build upon our work.



Curriculum packages would be distributed for high schools and parishes for education on trafficking which emphasize the contributions of Catholic women religious; for university students, we would generate curricula for class sessions for incorporation into longer courses.  The project would also provide informational support for homily preparation.



We will support partnerships between congregations of women religious and university students (at Notre Dame as well as other colleges) to address trafficking collaboratively.  One potential vehicle for partnership is the initiative to combat trafficking linked to major sporting events, especially through support of “Celebration without Exploitation” initiatives and other similar campaigns.


Impact Sought

  • “Make religious life more widely known and compelling” (2013 Conrad Hilton Strategy Proposal),  especially the role of Catholic women religious as taking the lead in designing and implementing effective strategies to address the scourges of trafficking.  Raising the profile of this work, made visible across many audiences, could attract resources to congregations of women religious, expand and strengthen their networks and partnerships, and inspire women of varied ages, skills, education and professions to learn more about religious life in these congregations.  This project would help identify and publicize resource gaps experienced by women religious congregations in their fight against trafficking and spur initiatives to fill these gaps, whether they take the form of personnel, financing, publicity, or spiritual solidarity.  We expect the stories told will provide inspiration to women discerning a call to religious life.
  • Provide new leadership and membership resources for spiritual witness and service (2013 Conrad Hilton), focused on a full, well-researched account of religious women’s worldwide anti-trafficking work.  Information about the wide range of strategic action and direct service, often in productive partnership with diverse organizations, would be shared widely and of use in defining congregations’ future activities on trafficking and other similar initiatives.  The insights drawn could help women religious answer the questions: “What are the most strategic moves over the longer-term for our congregations given size and resources?” and “What are the effective approaches and best practices congregations can incorporate on anti-trafficking initiatives ranging from addressing root causes, direct encounters with survivors, to system transformation?”
  • Explain a “new narrative” for understanding and describing human trafficking.  The basic approach of many religious is to eliminate the vulnerabilities to trafficking (especially linked to systemic violence) while challenging sensational rhetoric on the problem.  This sophisticated approach and its impact on the root causes of trafficking would advance deeper conversations around effective strategies.
  • Raise visibility and appreciation by Catholic Church actors of the profound contributions of women religious over more than 15 years addressing human trafficking.  This information might persuade Church leaders at all levels to actively and deeply incorporate women religious in Church initiatives and support their anti-trafficking efforts.
  • Generate insights into why these Catholic women religious globally have been effective in their endeavors and identify best practices for the benefit of their communities along with governmental and civil society actors. These insights would provide inspiration to others beyond the anti-human trafficking movement—especially lay Catholics, individuals of other faith traditions, and secular actors-- to learn from these activities, support women religious in this work, adapt insights for other social justice initiatives, and draw on strategic and spiritual insights generally.  For example, new lessons are expected around: partnerships, coalition-building and networking with diverse actors; leadership frameworks; role of spiritual resources; practices focused on accompaniment in a wide array of circumstances; implications for the well-being of sisters and those they serve; apostolic and contemplative approaches; and other topics.


Implementing Partners

The lead partners for this project will be the University of Notre Dame (through its Center for Civil and Human Rights (CCHR),  and the U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking (USCSAHT) .

The University of Notre Dame is dedicated to advancing teaching and research on civil and human rights, along with the study of women, particularly Catholic women.  This decades-old commitment is realized through the work of two university centers: the Center for Civil Rights (founded in 1973, with one of CCHR’s current core research and teaching priorities being human trafficking); and the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism (founded in 1987, widely-recognized as a leading center for the study of Roman Catholicism in the United States).  Both Notre Dame Centers will collaborate on this project, with CCHR taking the organizational lead. The other partner, U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking, is the coordinating body for congregations of women religious and coalitions working against human trafficking in which women religious participate, and individual partners.

This partnership is well-situated to spearhead and disseminate the results of an interdisciplinary study of Catholic women religious’ work fighting trafficking through a variety of publications, a documentary film, conversations and conferences.  CCHR will take the organizational lead in the partnership, drawing on the extensive scholarly, administrative and other resources of the University of Notre Dame.  Cushwa’s contributions will focus on the scholarly exploration of the historical aspects of the project.  USCSAHT will bring its coalition’s range of experience, expertise, and global connections; it will also ensure the real-world relevance and impact of this project.

The partnership sought the advice of a group of Notre Dame faculty, Catholic sister-scholars, and sisters in leadership at a consultation at Notre Dame on Nov. 10, 2015. Their advice has been incorporated into the project’s research design and other features.


Looking Ahead

Establishing administrative support. In terms of funding priorities, our immediate need is to secure an initial contribution to hire a Project Director to lead this initiative.  The Project Director would be based at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Civil and Human Rights, and would advance all aspects of the project—including meeting our fundraising goals.  Position funding for one year is sought; full-funding of this position for the three-year effort would be optimal.