by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism
Dr. Knight: You have been the coordinator of a generous ministry having to do with human trafficking. Can you tell us what that entails?
Sr. Gabriella Bottani: Since 2015 I am in Rome at the International Union of Superiors General for the International with the task to coordinate at an international level Talitha Kum, a network of 54 local networks. The main goal of Talitha Kum is to strengthen the collaboration among the diverse anti-trafficking activities led by religious sisters all over the world. Every network of Talitha Kum is different, each one organized according to their local context. In Brazil “Um Grito pela Vida” is like a movement, the US Catholic Sisters against Human Trafficking created an NGO, like the sisters in Australia. In many countries, the networks are projects or initiatives under the local Conference of Major Superior, like Talitha Kum Thailand, Sri Lanka, or TAKUMO (Talitha Kum Mozambique).
I am impressed by the dynamic and growth of anti-trafficking networking among religious sisters. I feel I have only to accompany and link, what the Spirit of God is moving throughout the world, for the good of our sisters and brothers trapped in human trafficking. I am enriched by Talitha Kum. When I visited the Philippines I received a picture painted by an adolescent girl survivor of human trafficking for sexual exploitation. She painted a triptych with a ballet dancer, moving from the darkness to the light. I hang this painting in Talitha Kum’s office, it helps me to be connected with all survivors, it helps me to pray, to remind me why I am here in Rome!
The main challenge I face is to build relationships based on trust, in order to promote collaboration and dialogue among the different religious congregations at different levels and with other organizations. Networking has an important added value, but it requires shifting our paradigm and way of thinking about collaboration. “Traffickers are very well connected, we need also to be” used to affirm Sr. Estrella Catalone, fma, the first international coordinator of Talitha Kum from 2009 to 2014, and I agree with her. Coordination and collaboration are our present and future.
Dr. Knight: How were you called to this ministry? Was it in conjunction with your call to sisterhood?
Sr. Gabriella Bottani: I have the feeling that God was preparing me for a long time ago. I don’t have here enough space to recount my story in detail. I will only mention that in 2007, when I was in Fortaleza, I started my commitment against human trafficking, especially with children and adolescents sexually abused and exploited. They connected me with the painful and violent situation of trafficking in persons. I realized that anti-trafficking and networking were deeply connected. The children and adolescents introduced me to the complexity of exploitation and human trafficking. They taught me how to build with them a relationship based on trust and respect. I do not know why, but it was natural to start with other sisters, who shared with me their passion for God and for humanity. I was able to identify my chains. They introduced me to real freedom, the deep freedom, which makes flourish the inherent dignity of each person, mine, and their dignity.
I am a Comboni Missionary Sister, a member of a congregation founded in the 19th century for the evangelization of Africa. The founder Saint Daniel Comboni (1831-1881) – the first Bishop of Sudan - was an anti-slavery activist. He invited laywomen and religious sisters to join his Mission in Africa for the implementation of a plan of evangelization, which included the care of women and men set free by slavery, under the responsibility of educated girls rescued by slavery and religious sisters. When I started my commitment to anti-trafficking I perceived that it was part of me, of my vocation, of my life.
Talitha Kum Network is part of this global sisterhood!
Dr. Knight: What is the vision that you follow for the ministry of human trafficking? Has it changed since the COVID epidemic?
Sr. Gabriella Bottani: Talitha Kum envision a world without human trafficking, where people stand up for human dignity, and for the care of people in vulnerable situations like women, children, migrants, and ethnic minorities. For these reasons, Talitha Kum networks are actively committed to offering services to survivors for their social rehabilitation, access to justice, income generation projects, and education. Talitha Kum links sisters in the region of exploitation with the places of recruitment of trafficked people inside the same country and internationally. Many of the sisters focus on prevention, raising awareness in those groups that are in a situation of vulnerability, working to reduce the demand, and promoting collaboration with many other faith-based organizations, and governmental and non-governmental organizations.
Covid-19 worked like a lens that magnified and worsened the injustices and vulnerabilities of billions of people around the world. It has accelerated processes, triggering a disruptive effect that requires us to combine more commitment to the care of the environment and the person (LS 48), promoting real paths of conversion and change. The main groups affected by Covid-19 are the same groups of people in the situation of vulnerabilities exploited by traffickers: women, children, ethnic minorities, foreign citizens - especially those who are without legal papers and indigenous peoples, as reported by the Talitha Kum networks in the Amazonia. The pandemic accelerates the shift of exploitation from the public to private (indoor) places and is making it more difficult for pastoral agents to identify and approach victims. This is a concern presented by all networks, and the need to change the strategy of action emerged.
We, religious sisters, continue our service in protected houses where Covid-19 has increased anxiety, insecurity, and instability. In this context, we seek to restore and maintain a space of hope and care for all. The reorganization of life is important, and new protocols of hygiene and social distance have been introduced. With creativity, the empty spaces left by the absence of volunteers are filled and we try to cope with the excessive increase in expenses, against a reduction in offers.
Dr. Knight: What do the people involved in human trafficking think they are accomplishing for the society or Church?
Sr. Gabriella Bottani: Pope Francis in his address to the participants of the first Talitha Kum Assembly said: “Your work brings together the missions of different institutions and demands cooperation between them. You have chosen to be on the front line. Therefore the numerous Congregations that have worked and continue to work as the "avant-garde" of the Church's missionary activity against the scourge of human trafficking deserve gratitude. This is also a model of how to work together!”
Talitha Kum is part of the mission of the Church, which continues the mission of Jesus: “The spirit of the Lord is on me, for he has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, a sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18)
Dr. Knight: Did your time in Latin America prepare you for the ministry of human trafficking?
Sr. Gabriella Bottani: I started my commitment against human trafficking in Brazil, in the North East of the Country, and later in Amazonia. I am grateful to Brazil. There, I could understand better the root causes leading to the exploitation of vulnerabilities. In Amazonia was very clear that social and natural environments are strictly connected and are being destroyed together. The impact caused by the exploitation of forests, deforestation, the mining industries, and the big project is very much connected with the exploitation and human trafficking of women, men, and children. In Porto Velho I could witness how the big dumps for hydroelectric projects destroyed the social environment and increased forced prostitution, dragging with it consumerism and violence. In this context, traffickers can flourish.
The experience in Brazil was important to understand the complexity and multi factors connected to human trafficking.
Another important learning was within the Brazilian Network of Talitha Kum named “Um Grito pela Vida”. The network grew inside the group of “irmãs inseridas” (inserted sisters), Religious Sisters sharing their lives among the poorest. They had a strong and old tradition of collaboration and networking. That was a great school for me.
Dr. Knight: In your work, what have you learned from the victims?
Sr. Gabriella Bottani: I have learned that we are one only humanity, their pains are my pains, their wounds are my wounds, their joys are my joys, their dignity is my dignity, and vice-versa. With children and adolescents, I learned to trust, care, collaborate, and joy. Children are very honest and spontaneous. I had to work hard with myself. I love them so much!
Dr. Knight: One of the reasons for this interview is to assist the general public in knowing the breadth of this evil. Is there blindness to the evils of our society?
Sr. Gabriella Bottani: But, it is not enough. The fight to end human trafficking is always combined with the commitment to address structural injustice affecting principally women, children, migrant people, and ethnical minorities. It is urgent to transform the hierarchy of values in society, promoting the centrality of human dignity also for future generations.
Profiles in Catholicism is very thankful for helping our public to know about this evil and how we can assist in changing it.
 the full report is available on the Talitha Kum website
 ADDRESS OF HIS HOLINESS POPE FRANCIS TO PARTICIPANTS IN THE FIRST GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF TALITHA KUM 26 September 2019