22 October 2019
Talitha Kum is a network of 1,100 sisters operating in about 80 countries. Photo: Talitha Kum
Talitha Kum is a network of 1,100 sisters operating in about 80 countries. Photo: Talitha Kum

Religious sisters pose as prostitutes to save sex slaves

An army of religious sisters who rescue victims of human trafficking by posing as prostitutes to infiltrate brothels and buying children being sold into slavery, is expanding to 140 countries, its chairman said.

John Studzinski, an investment banker and philanthropist who chairs Talitha Kum, said the network of 1,100 sisters currently operates in about 80 countries but the demand for efforts to combat trafficking and slavery was rising globally.

The group, set up in 2004, estimates one percent of the world’s population is trafficked in some form, which translates into some 73 million people, according to a report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Of those, 70 percent are women and half are aged 16 or younger.

“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,” Studzinski, a vice chairman of US investment bank The Blackstone Group, told the Trust Women Conference on women’s rights and trafficking hosted by the foundation.

“These are problems caused by poverty and equality but it goes well beyond that,” he said. 

Detailing some cases involving trafficking and slavery, Studzinski said the treatment of some victims was horrific.

He told of one woman enslaved as a prostitute who was locked up for a week without food, forced to eat her own feces, when she failed to have sex with a target of 12 clients a day.

In another extreme case, one woman was forced to have sex with a group of 10 men at the same time.

Studzinski said the religious sisters working to combat trafficking would go to all lengths to rescue women, often dressing up as prostitutes and going out on the street to integrate themselves into brothels.

“These sisters do not trust anyone. They do not trust governments, they do not trust corporations, and they don’t trust the local police. In some cases they cannot trust male clergy,” he said.

The low-key group preferred to focus on their rescue work rather than promotion, he said. “They work in brothels. No one knows they are there.”

The sisters were also proactive on trying to save children being sold into slavery by their parents, setting up a network of homes in Africa as well as in the Philippines, Brazil and India to shelter such children.

He said the religious sisters raised money to purchase these children.

“This is a new network of houses for children around the world who would otherwise be sold into slavery. It is shocking but it is real,” he said.

Studzinski said the network of religious sisters, that was in the process of expanding, also targeted slavery in the supply chain with sisters shedding their habits and working alongside locals for as little as 2 US cents an hour to uncover abuses.

He said Talitha Kum was now being hired by companies to see what is going on with respect to the supply chain and expanding globally would help address this issue.

“You can’t generalize about trafficking and slavery as no two countries are the same,” Studzinski said.

Talitha Kum means “Arise, little girl” in Aramaic, referring to a passage in the Bible in which Jesus speaks those words to bring a dead girl back to life. It is also known as the International Network of Consecrated Life Against Trafficking in Persons.

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