Prevention called key to curbing trafficking

An image of St. Josephine Bakhita, a former Sudanese slave who became a nun, hangs from the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica Oct. 1, 2000. January is Human Trafficking Awareness month in the U.S., the Church celebrates International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking Feb. 8, the feast day of St. Bakhita, who was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery in Sudan and Italy. (OSV News photo by Paolo Cocco, Reuters)

By Kayla Bennett, Record Staff Writer

Amy Nace-DeGonda believes the field of human trafficking prevention is changing to look more closely at its root causes.

“A lot of the focus has been on ‘We need to prevent trafficking’ and we do a lot of work putting a bandaid on it,” she said. “But we’re not really preventing. There’s no way to make a dent in trafficking if you aren’t making a dent in the systems that cause trafficking in the first place.”

Nace-DeGonda is the program director for the Bakhita Empowerment Initiative (BEI), which is the anti-trafficking program of Catholic Charities of Louisville.

The systems she referred to — racism, poverty, homelessness, among others — make people vulnerable. That vulnerability makes people susceptible to being trafficked, she said.

“Look at the things that make people vulnerable — if people can’t get access to resources readily, if they live in an area of town that’s a resource desert, if they’re kids in the foster care system — it’s going to consistently make them vulnerable in different ways. … Until we’re addressing these really big vulnerabilities in these systems, we aren’t going to make a dent in trafficking.”

She noted that the Bakhita Empowerment Initiative keeps the plight of a saint at the forefront of its mission: St. Josephine Bakhita, a Canossian Sister and the patron saint of human trafficking survivors. Her feast day, celebrated on the day of her death, is Feb. 8. It follows Human Trafficking Awareness month, which is observed in January.

As a child living in Sudan, St. Bakhita was kidnapped and sold into slavery. One of her owners gave her the name Bakhita, which means lucky, and because she couldn’t remember the name given to her by her parents, she kept it.

After years of cruelty and torture, the saint was sold to an Italian consul. She was then moved to Italy and began living in the convent run by the Canossian Sisters of Venice.

“Sister Bakhita, the patron saint of trafficking, was someone who was trafficked,” Nace-DeGonda pointed out. “We thought that a great way to honor her would be to name our program that. And having the name ‘empowerment’ in there — because the nuns really empowered her. So we want to encompass all of that together.”

The initiative provides direct services to survivors of labor and sex trafficking and works to educate people about prevention.

On the education front, the BEI provides prevention education curricula for boys and girls. It also offers training sessions for parishes, schools or other community groups interested in learning more.

Nace-DeGonda said she’s found that training sessions with small groups allow for in-depth conversation and participants gain an understanding of what human trafficking is.

“There’s so much misinformation being spread,” she said. “Like in summer of 2020, when people were talking about children being sold in cabinets on (e-commerce website) Wayfair. That wasn’t correct. … This doesn’t help anybody when we have these misconceptions. If we’re pushing this narrative then nobody’s going to know how it actually happens.”

Theresa Hayden of the PATH Coalition of Kentucky agreed, saying education is key. PATH stands for People Against Trafficking Humans.

Hayden said it’s imperative for people to realize that all people contribute to labor trafficking every day, usually without realizing it.

“It’s easy to talk about, ‘Oh, those bad guys are trafficking, they’re selling their kids to pay rent,’ ” Hayden said. “But it’s harder to take a lens and look at myself. By that I mean in the way I use the raw products produced worldwide (by trafficking victims) for my advantage.”

What comes to mind for Hayden, as Lent approaches, is where the fish used in parish fish frys originates.

“The fishing industry in Asia is largely produced by people being trafficked for labor,” she explained. “That fish gets into our supply that we buy in our grocery stores. Those are most likely the providers for our fish frys.

“The social teaching of the Catholic Church says we have to respect the dignity of human life. But this little area where we don’t know where we’re getting our fish from is part of the problem,” she said. “Because we don’t know that food chain, we’re part of the problem.

“We don’t understand we’re part of the problem — we just want the cheap product. My question for the parishes buying the large orders is, what is the origin?”

Hayden said the PATH Coalition of Kentucky feels a sense of connection to St. Bakhita. The coalition was founded by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Ursuline Sisters of Louisville and the Dominican Sisters of Peace.

“She’s a great example of someone who has survived that horrible exploitation for many years of her life,” Hayden said. “She was kidnapped and trafficked. In that sense, we’re connected, absolutely.”

For more information on prevention education, visit https://pathcoalitionofky.org/ or https://cclou.org/bakhita-empowerment-initiative/. For a list of national hotline numbers, visit https://pathcoalitionofky.org/hotlines-1.

Kayla Bennett
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Kayla Bennett
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