An Interview with Sister Melanie O’Conner

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism



Dr. Knight: How did you begin you initiation into the human trafficking crisis?


Sister Melanie: It was in 2008 that my Provincial superior of the Holy Family Sisters in South Africa asked me to set up a Counter Trafficking desk – a joint project of the Leaders of Consecrated Life (LCCL) and the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC). Up to then I had little knowledge about human trafficking.


Dr. Knight: What actions have you taken to push for change and help in working toward alleviating the problem in the Church?


Sister Melanie: I attended a workshop on human trafficking organized by IOM. Then I began to give workshops on human trafficking in our various Dioceses, parishes and schools. Communities and parishes were given a lot of material with regards what human trafficking is They were asked to be nosey neighbours. We are our brothers and sisters’ keepers.


Dr. Knight: What support do you give to Catholics in the pews I assisting in this cause?


Sister Melanie: We try to launch St Bakhita Day as human trafficking awareness Day in different dioceses and parishes each year during the month of February. We begin by having a procession before Mass. Sometimes we have interfaith marches followed by Services in churches.


Dr. Knight: Can you tell us how you dedicated your expertise to this cause?


Sister Melanie: It meant building up materials; organizing training workshops for concerned people; raising funds; collaborating with government and other organisations that were also taking up the challenge.


Dr. Knight: Why do Catholics need to hear survival stories and tell us about your ways to listen well.


Sister Melanie: Everyone needs to know the horror of human trafficking and what victims of it go through. There are occasions that we invite a survivor to a workshop and give her an opportunity to speak if she wants to. Such occasions have been very emotional for all. The horror of hearing what has actually been done to victims becomes very real. This is even more so when a family member has actually been the recruiter.


Dr. Knight: What kind of programs have you initiated in your area?


Sister Melanie: Trainees form their own groups. They raise awareness in their own areas.


Dr. Knight: Could you tell us how to talk to kids about human trafficking?


Sister Melanie: 1) School teachers have a way of educating the kids about human trafficking. They have made banners for our marches, each kid having space to do their own drawing and write their own words about human trafficking. WE have used their banners in some of our marches.

2) We have given kids footballs while explaining what human trafficking is. While they played with them they sang “ kick human trafficking out”.

3) Some have produced little plays after hearing the story of Bakhita.


Dr. Knight: What has your involvement in these programs assisted your own spiritual development?


Sister Melanie: I have continued to accompany survivors post shelter who come my way. This also involves at times having to pay rent etc, which also means having to have funds. I have to rely on Providence. It is God’s work after all. The Lord provides.


Dr. Knight: How do you work with clergy on the human trafficking crisis, without making them the crisis?


Sister Melanie: - The office has produced pastoral letters for the Bishops’ Conference on occasions to be read in the churches.


We are trying to get the Pope’s Pastoral Orientations on Human Trafficking reflected at the parish level.


Some priests have attended our workshops and have been good at spreading the message about human trafficking especially around the feast of St Bakhita.


Dr. Knight: How does the conviction that we are the Church affect your work?


Sister Melanie: Fighting against human trafficking has been a collaborative effort. Our Core Team consists of youths and adults, with representatives mainly from the Catholic, Lutheran Evangelical, and Lutheran BapediChurches. The slogans on our “No” to human trafficking card is what we aspire to live out: “ She’s my sister” “He’s my brother”.


Thank you so much for helping us to understand your model of healing/for human trafficking survivors.