We are naïve if we believe slavery is a subject for the history books. Nor can we tell ourselves that slavery is only an issue in foreign countries. It is estimated that 17,000 men, women and children in the United States each year are victims of modern day slavery called human trafficking.
Human trafficking is defined by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime as “the acquisition of people by improper means such as force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them.” It is often involved with activities such as prostitution, pornography or illegal labor practices.
This crime creates slaves right here in Pennsylvania, but legislation is proposed to address it through prosecution, prevention and protection. Legislation was already passed unanimously by the Pennsylvania Senate in December and hopefully it will be considered by the House of Representatives in the near future.
Pennsylvania is known as a “pass through state” whose laws and atmosphere make it easier for traffickers to carry out their heinous actions. Pennsylvania is just the start. Look around you – the electronics you listen to and watch, the vegetables and meat you eat, the clothes you wear – all of these consumables could have involved human trafficking from the first moments of production to the moment they entered your home. A lack of awareness and transparency compounds the issues of human trafficking.
Pope Francis has pointed to our personal responsibility, saying we each must make an “examination of conscience: how many times have we permitted a human being to be seen as an object, to be put on show in order to sell a product or to satisfy an immoral desire? The human person ought never to be sold or bought as if he or she were a commodity. Whoever uses human persons in this way and exploits them, even if indirectly, becomes an accomplice of this injustice.”
He said we “must not allow these women, men and children to be treated as objects, to be deceived, raped, often sold and resold for various purposes, and in the end either killed or left devastated in mind and body, only to be finally thrown away or abandoned. It is shameful.”
This crime defies and violates the dignity of the person. Human trafficking impacts many more women than men: 55 percent of forced labor victims are women and girls, as are 98 percent of sex trafficking victims. This is a true war on women, one that we must work to end.
What can we do to help? First, if you suspect human trafficking, please notify local law enforcement, call 1-888-373-7888 or text BeFree (233733). The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) is a national, toll-free hotline, available to answer calls and texts from anywhere in the country, 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
Further, we can pray. Feb. 8 is the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, who was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery. Once freed, St. Josephine devoted her life to Christ, sharing her personal story of release from slavery and comforting the poor and suffering. As we approach St. Josephine’s feast day, let us pray for her intercession for an end to slavery.
Finally, we must demand legislative action that supports the dignity of the person and prevents victims from even getting involved in human trafficking. Please send a message in support of legislation that ends human trafficking by visiting www.pacatholic.org.
Joelle Shea is the Director of Outreach for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs agency for Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania.