ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Letter From the United Nations

My work as an advocate at the United Nations on behalf of trafficked girls and women began after years as a missionary in Ethiopia, where I witnessed firsthand the pain and trauma they experienced.

I am a sister of the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, appointed by my congregation 16 years ago to work as an N.G.O. representative to the U.N.

The charism of my congregation is to uphold the rights of girls and women, inspired by St. John Eudes, a 17th-century priest who sought to address this same issue in France, through the teaching and the pastoral care of prostituted women.

Ending human trafficking is not a simple task. It is complex, multidimensional and intricate.

Human trafficking is a violation of human rights and an organized criminal activity with an annual estimated global profit of $150 billion.

In my early days in advocacy, I would ask myself: “Where and how do I insert myself in the world of advocacy to make a difference?”

My goal at the U.N. has been to create awareness about trafficking among member states and to urge the adoption of policies that address systemic root causes, including poverty and violence against girls and women.

Sister Winifred Doherty in front of the United Nations, in New York City.
Sister Winifred Doherty, R.G.S., a Good Shepherd sister, has worked with people at risk of becoming victims of trafficking in Ethiopia. (photo: Michael Scott)

I like to explain advocacy to end human trafficking with the scriptural image in Matthew 13:33 of the yeast that a woman mixes into three measures of flour, “until the whole batch was leavened.” Even though she adds only a little yeast, it permeates every part of the dough.

So, I seek to influence by presence — a presence that is proactive, networked and relational. However, advocacy is not a solo venture. Advocates against human trafficking must be as well networked as the criminal network. Effective advocacy is always with like-minded people who coordinate for a helpful outcome.

The emergence of survivor advocates has been the biggest highlight for me in the advocacy field. They are instrumental in creating a new level of awareness of the harms of human trafficking. My work at the U.N. is most effective when informed by recent advances or setbacks at the national, regional or local levels from survivor advocates. They represent multiple experiences and powerfully inform the discussion. Their advocacy is critical to where we are today.

Advocacy is about navigating the challenges that present themselves. Gaining access to the space — a seat at the negotiation table at the U.N. — is critical. Equally important is meeting with member state representatives, building relationships while highlighting the need to adopt and implement policies and legislation conducive to ending the scourge of human trafficking in all its forms. Researching and organizing well-prepared points with recommendations is another step in the process.

However, the post-COVID-19 world has seen a breakdown of the trust required for multilateralism. With the rise of autocratic regimes around the world, we have witnessed an intense backlash against girls and women and the reversal of the many gains made in eliminating poverty. All of this has made advocacy work much more challenging.

Trends seeking the normalization and legalization of prostitution, pimping and brothel-keeping, pushed by market concepts of supply and demand and reinforced by neo-liberal capitalism with its sole drive for profit — even arguing for a person’s “right” to buy sex — are antithetical to human rights and dignity. I call this the “corporatization” of women’s bodies.

Major advances in technology have added to the problem. Traffickers use technology for their criminal operations, remotely identifying and recruiting individuals on a larger scale than what was possible through traditional offline schemes.

Positive characteristics of recent laws against trafficking are the focus on criminalizing demand and the push to follow through with prosecutions. It is a shift from the blame traditionally placed on the victim. However, it can prove extremely difficult to implement this law and to prosecute perpetrators.

In my years at the U.N., I have seen the evolution of the 2010 General Assembly Resolution, called the Global Plan to Combat Trafficking in Persons, with its appraisal every four years. I have seen the establishment of the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, 30 July, to heighten awareness on the issue and the harms of trafficking, as well as the publication of the Trafficking in Persons Report every two years.

Global mechanisms and international days, however, are not sufficient. For effectiveness, they must be adopted at the regional and national levels and implemented in each country. In the case of human trafficking, this is complicated further by trafficking across borders, necessitating relations between the trafficked person’s country of origin, country of transit and country of destination.

I spent some years traveling to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna to advocate for a review mechanism for the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, adopted in 2000. The review mechanism was finally achieved in 2020. I mention this to underline the amount of work behind the scenes — meetings by member states to achieve a global point of view, the untiring work of N.G.O. advocates — as well as the persistence and dedication required to get a review mechanism in place.

When I address these processes, I remember the many girls and women whom I have had the privilege of meeting in such situations: the girls and women in Ethiopia who were engaged in street prostitution and especially the 11-year-old girl in Thailand, whom I met while accompanying two religious sisters whose mission was to visit brothels at night.

What kind of system or structure permits an 11-year-old girl to be in a brothel? Systems where poverty is rampant, systems that permit the sexual exploitation of the girl child with impunity and that profit financially from applying the market forces of supply and demand to human beings, creating the slave trade of today.

I face each day holding not only girls and women, but every person impacted by these unjust systems and structures in my heart and in my prayer. It is their suffering and pain that motivate me to seek every opportunity in U.N. diplomacy that their rights may be upheld.

Herein lies my raison d’être for my persistent and constant advocacy to end human trafficking in all its forms everywhere. The U.N., while not the only advocacy platform, offers such opportunities at the global level.

Read this article in our digital print format here.

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