GUWAHATI, India – Sister Rose Paite walked into the main train station in this sprawling city and scanned the crowd. She often visits public gatherings like this one as part of her life’s work: saving children from human trafficking.
Within seconds, Paite was turned off. She had discovered a situation that alarmed her – a young girl, maybe 15 years old, sitting next to a much older man in a crisp button-down shirt. Paite walked up to her and started asking questions.
Where are you going? How did you meet this man?
The answers confirmed Paite’s suspicions.
The girl said she had just met the man on the train. It wasn’t clear where she was going next.
Paite, wearing a black tunic and white veil, spoke to her for almost four minutes and handed her the card. She wanted to be able to check on the girl, but the girl refused to give Paite her phone number.
Before leaving, the little Roman Catholic nun warned the man, but she said he was dismissive.
“The girl is really going to get in trouble,” said Paite. “She is so vulnerable.”
Then Paite scurried away again. The Guwahati train station was full. There were probably more children in danger.
“Human trafficking is everywhere”
Paite is not a lonely crusader. She is part of a huge but little-known network of Catholic nuns dedicated to fighting human trafficking around the world. The organization Talitha Kum was founded in Rome in 2009 and is now quietly active in 92 countries.
The group consists of around 60,000 religious sisters. The work they do is often dangerous and daring – it confronts pimps on dark streets and patrols dusty alleys that house brothels. The sisters also run safe houses in several countries, offering refuge to women and girls fleeing their kidnappers.
Your work doesn’t just take place on the street. The organization is pushing for systemic change and advocating stricter anti-trafficking laws.
“If you want people to understand the urgency of the problem, you can’t walk on tiptoe,” said Sister Jeanne Christensen, a member of the board of directors of the US Catholic Sisters Against Human Traffickingwho works with Talitha Kum.
The extent of the problem is huge: the International labor organization It is estimated that around 25 million people worldwide are in forced labor and almost 5 million are subjected to forced sexual exploitation. The majority of victims of sexual exploitation live in Asia and the Pacific region – around 3.5 million according to the latest estimates compared to 200,000 in America.
“Human trafficking is everywhere,” said Christensen.
“If you live in a small Iowa town and you have a freeway through town,” she added. “Airports. Train depots. Bus depots. Make your choice.”
Leslie King was a 15-year-old runaway from Michigan in the late 1990s when she met an older man who promised to take care of her but turned out to be a pimp. Studies suggest that over 60 percent of people trafficked for sex were runaway children, often lured into this life within 72 hours of leaving the home.
The pimp and his co-workers told King she’d better start doing tricks or something.
They “told me if I run, if I tell the police, they would kill my mother, son, sister, brother,” King recalled. “And cut open my body parts and distribute them all across the state of Michigan.”
King was walking up and down Division Avenue in Grand Rapids, jumping into the cars of men offering money for sex. “Every time I got in one of those cars, there was a 50:50 chance I would get back,” King said.
A woman often showed up in the division and spoke to the road runners, King said, although she was clearly not one of them. Her name was Sister Francetta and she was accompanied by other Catholic sisters.
“Sister Francetta would walk up and down the division and try to pray with the women and talk to the women and help the women, but I would never talk to her,” King said.
King said she managed to take steps to abandon life after attempting suicide on July 4, 2000. She checked into a 30-day drug rehab program. At the beginning, King told her to empty her purse. To her surprise, there was an unknown card at the bottom of the wallet.
“From Sister Francetta,” it said. King had no idea how it got into her purse.
The card contained a phone number that King called. After completing her rehab program, she moved to a place called Rose Haven, run by nuns who worked with Sister Francetta.
The experience changed her life. After completing the year-long program in Rose Haven, King joined the staff. She eventually began working as a road worker for the Grand Rapids Police.
“I went back on the streets with the same women I used to go high with – some of us had the same pimp – to mentor and advocate,” King said.
King went on to start her own group, Holy beginnings, modeled on Rose Haven. She credits Sister Francetta and her fellow nuns with saving their lives.
“They are a very brave bunch,” said King, now 57. “The pimps got to the point with the nuns where they just left them alone. Because nothing you say or do makes them run away.”
Sister Francetta is now sick and was not available for comment.
In the United States, the number of women who become nuns and sisters has fallen sharply, resulting in an ever thinning group of women who have done Sister Francetta’s form of dangerous public relations.
But in places like India a small army of sisters continues to work.
“How can I get scared?”
Sister Lourenca Marquesis on a dirt road in the coastal state of Goa, a popular tourist destination in the West Indies.
A few years ago the area was home to a booming sex trade. The tangle of concrete huts overlooking the beach was used as a brothel, and the men and women who ran them worked with impunity.
Marques said she had visited the area many times to rescue young girls, an effort that was fraught with risk.
“We were attacked by a man over there,” she said, pointing towards a mud-colored house.
The man wrapped his hands around Marques’ neck, she said, and threw her to the ground.
“We were the enemies of what was happening here,” she said.
Yet Marques said the attack did not stop her or her fellow sisters.
“How can I get scared?” She said. “We come here to work for these people.”
Marques then went to one of the little huts where the man she said attacked her stood by a sink and washed his hands.
They greeted each other warmly. Marques asked how he was and whether she would see him in church on Sunday. The man smiled and nodded his head.
“I love you as if you are my brother,” said Marques to him.
The government bulldozed the area in the mid-2000s. But women and girls remain trapped in sex work elsewhere in Goa and beyond.
Sister Lisa Pires lives in Calangute, a city in Goa that she describes as one of the busiest areas in all of Asia.
She may be a woman of the matter, but Pires works like a die-hard private investigator. She devotes her days to walking the streets of tough neighborhoods and interviewing local shopkeepers and others to identify places where human trafficking may be taking place. She uses the information to create detailed maps that she shares with the police.
“It’s very hidden work,” said Pires.
Before Sister Rose Paite left Guwahati Railway Station that day last year, she stopped to speak to a group of young people who appeared to be college-aged.
They told her they were part of a government training program that sounded legitimate to Paite. But she handed out her card anyway because it’s so easy to fall into the hands of a trafficker.
“They just follow someone who invites them with a promise of a job,” said Paite. “And they can be sold to someone else in the process.”
The sisters work with limited outside support but groups like the one based in London Arise Foundation help fund their work and also arranged for NBC News to meet with many of the sisters.
They also have the support of the Pope himself.
Pope Francis met with more than 100 members of Talitha Kum in the Vatican last year to draw attention to a new donation program called Super Nuns. “The best way to solve problems is to take to the streets,” said Francis.
Paite, 57 years old and a breast cancer survivor, has been doing this type of job for nearly a decade. But it has downplayed the role it plays in protecting children.
“I’m a simple nun. A little one,” she said with a laugh.
“I can do very little. Not even a drop in the ocean. “