Sister to Sister: Why a Group of Nuns are Going Undercover as Sex Workers

nuns2For the last five years, more 1,000 nuns have been going undercover as sex workers to help women trafficked into prostitution and sex slavery. And while you’ve probably never heard of them, the sisters of Talitha Kum—a reference to the Gospel of Mark meaning, “Maiden, I say to you, arise” in Aramaic—are worthy of your attention.

The sisters run prevention programs in schools, offering education and training to young people to keep them out of the hands of traffickers. They also provide safe haven to victims in convents and the homes of sisters, and they pose as sex workers to help women out of trafficking rings and purchase children who are being sold into slavery.

John Studzinski, chairman of Talitha Kum, recently announced that the group will be expanding its work from 80 to 140 countries due to the rising global demand to end human trafficking and slavery.

“I’m not trying to be sensational but I’m trying to underscore the fact this is a world that has lost innocence … where dark forces are active,” said Studzinski in a recent address at the Trust Women Conference hosted by the Thomas Reuters Foundation.

He went on to tell a story of one enslaved women who was locked up for a week without food or water after she failed to meet the target of 12 clients per day, and another woman who was forced to have sex with 10 men at the same time.

The religious sisters of Talitha Kum are not the first of their kind; Catholic nuns have a long history of participating in social activism. In 1965, for example, six nuns marched to Selma, Alabama with hundreds of other civil rights advocates. More recently, Sister Simone Campbell, a feminist nun, lawyer and executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK, spearheaded the national Nuns on the Bus Tour, a group that travels across the country engaging Americans in spiritual dialogue about social justice issues.

In an interview with Women of the World, Campbell explained, “It’s important to recognize that the sisters do a very specific type of ministry. Our charge is to walk with the people, understand the needs of our communities and compassionately respond.”

As for the sisters of Talitha Kum, there’s a huge need for their work. They estimate that 1 percent of the world’s population is trafficked in some form, which totals about 73 million people. Of those, 70 percent are women, and half are age 16 or younger.

“We are committed to working against the trafficking of persons because it is trampling upon the dignity of the child of God,” said Sister Estrellita Castalone, coordinator of Talitha Kum. “Human trafficking treats them as objects, as commodities, as merchandise to be bought and sold.”

Photo via Shuttershock.

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Lily Wujek is currently a student at Bennington College and an editorial intern at Ms.