The Holy See, joint with Arise and other NGOs, hosted a side-event at the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women on 13th March 2018. Arise brought Sr. Annie Louis, a pioneering frontline worker who is embedded in a rural Chhattisgarh helping those who are most vulnerable.

Watch the speech, and read the full text below.

The title of my short presentation today is “the rural origins of the sex-trade supply chain”.

The title captures what I want to communicate to you today.

Sexual exploitation is big business. It is governed by exactly the same principles as any commercial activity: supply and demand.

Members of the community that Sr Annie serves.

You have a product. Someone buys, someone sells. In this case, the product is sexual access to another human being. The seller is often a pimp. The buyers are all around us.

The sex industry treats people like products. But, for reasons I am unable to understand, the principles of supply chain transparency are rarely applied to the flow of people.

My friends, I am here to confirm what you already know:

Yes, the sex trade has a supply chain.

I work in a very rural area of India. Chattisgarr among tribal people who are very vulnerable to this exploitation. My location, and so many other rural locations like it, are the origins of the sex-trade supply chain.

The people I serve have very little. They have very little money. The standard of education is very poor. Access to sanitation are healthcare is sparse.

Water is in short supply in the communities Sr Annie serves

They are hundreds of miles from the nearest city. There are no NGOs in the vicinity.

Traffickers know all of this. They know that the parents of children in my area are easily deceived, and sometimes so desperate that they willingly sell their own children.

These traffickers use age old means of deception to draw women and girls away from their homes. They often promise opportunities in cities. Sometimes they dress up their evil in benevolence, pretending to offer education in return for work or money.

Allow me to illustrate what I mean with a case study from one of my girls. 

Myra* was sold into slavery by relatives when she was only thirteen years old. They had promised her a city job that would allow her to send money back to her impoverished family. Instead she was knowingly sold to a fake agency, who sent her to work as a domestic worker in northern Delhi. The family made her work from 4am until midnight every day. For even tiny mistakes, she was beaten and scolded. 

Myra believed that the money she was earning was helping her family. In fact, it was taken by the agency, and her family never received a rupee. Her belief meant that Myra took the abuse, working for this family for two years, before being sold again by her agency to a family in a city north of Delhi. She was only 15. 

Her new family treated her even worse. Myra suffered more physical abuse as well as torture. At least one of the male members of the house raped her, threatening her with death if she told anyone. 

When the sister-in-law of her relative promised her a better job, Myra went to meet her. However, she was sedated and gang-raped for three days. When she became conscious again, she was threatened before being returned to her domestic slavery. Myra later discovered she was pregnant, and having been told by her agency to get an abortion, found herself having to steal from her employers to find money. 

Myra was rescued, and we are trying to help her put her life back together.

Elements of her story are extreme. But some are commonplace: there is always greed, always vulnerability and always deception.

But, and this is the crucial point of my talk, there is also always an origin – a location. And place matters, because, so often, that origin is rural.

I am here to say simply that these women and girls did not wake up one day and decide to move to the city to enter prostitution.

Sr. Annie with just a few of the girls she has rescued

They were manipulated from their homes. The notion of free choice here is an illusion. Let us stop pretending that these girls came out of a vacuum. Let us stop pretending that that there isn’t a clear and acknowledged supply chain of exploitation. These girls came from somewhere. And we know where. For many of these girls, that somewhere is a rural community, like mine in India. And not enough is being done to prevent them from being taken.

When we seek to address labour exploitation, we look at the reasons people are exploited throughout the supply chain, and try to address them. Companies are spending millions on this as we speak, and much of it is good work.

Why does this does not happen with sexual exploitation? Yes, there is a criminal element, but the very same factors that lead people to accept exploitative work in a tea plantation are the factors which lead to sexual exploitation.

I will finish with a call to action: let us join together to campaign for sexual exploitation to be treated with the same seriousness as other supply chain issues. Let us insist that rural women and girls are protected with at least the same level of investment that is put into labour exploitation. Finally, and most importantly, let us try to think differently about how to support local work in rural areas against human trafficking. Prevention work in areas like mine is almost non-existent. These families need loving accompaniment. They need opportunities. They need to feel like society cares about them. Yet, where I work, I am almost alone. And there are so many like me.

Thank you.