loading live map...hang in there
They walk for months and months and months
1 Jun 2010
Published To

“One sister had a secret shelter in the garden of the convent, here, in the South of the Netherlands. The first group of trafficked women that were discovered in the Netherlands, five Filipino women, they stayed in her shelter for many months.”

SRTV (Stichting Religieuzen Tegen Vrouwenhandel): Dutch Foundation of Religious Against Trafficking in Women. Organization of Catholic priests, nuns, and lay people working around the world against human trafficking. Interviewed: Ivonne van de Kar. Starting as a teacher, she studied history and third world studies, focusing on women’s rights and the feminization of poverty. Elma van den Nouland. Lived in Ethiopia for ten years as a missionary where she was faced with girls being trafficked. When she was in Ethiopia, she was in contact with SRTV and translated a leaflet into two Ethiopian languages. When she returned from Ethiopia, she began to work at SRTV. Interviewed June 2010.

They walk for months and months and months

We are a small organization called the Dutch Foundation for Religious Against Trafficking in Women. We are two staff members, thirty volunteer co-workers, and Sister Jeanne, she does the finances.  There is another Sister who keeps track of the bills.

Some volunteers work as editors of the newsletters and others, they do small jobs like folding SRTV-cards or working in information stalls. Everybody does what he feels is his talent. We have one lady who is a retired lawyer and she keeps track of all the legislation changes in the Netherlands and Europe.

We were founded in 1991 by religious sisters who gathered together to discuss the issue of trafficking and what to do. Most of them were missionaries who had been working for forty years in Africa, thirty-five years in Latin America or Asia. When they retired, they came back to the Netherlands and they knew the problems of the girls and of women, what they suffer in the countries of origin, and what they suffered if they were trafficked.

We were started by different Dutch congregations, and we all belong to Catholic Church but we are independent from a church. We are an independent NGO.  We don’t belong to a diocese. It’s a national network. We are also involved with all the international contacts and many of the congregations that belong to our organization also have international branches. The sisters, you see them everywhere.

The religious always are in the front of a lot of new developments, pioneers. For instance, when there were no girls going to school, the sisters started to educate girls. When nobody looked after prisoners, the religious came and they looked after the health of prisoners. Orphanages and all these things were started from religious congregations. With the fighting of trafficking, it is something the religious do in many countries. It goes well with their Charisms.[1] They have shelters and they help people, mainly women, who are in difficulties. To work against trafficking or to prevent trafficking, it’s a very natural thing for a religious to be involved in. The religious really claimed attention for trafficking. They said, “There are so many girls misused and misinformed.”

Some of the sisters from our organization, they had shelters in the years when we started. One sister had a secret shelter in the garden of the convent, here, in the South of the Netherlands. The first group of trafficked women that were discovered in the Netherlands, five Filipino women, they stayed in her shelter for many months.

There’s actually a book written by a Belgian journalist about how these five Filipino girls were discovered and how the police tried to fight the brothel keeper. It’s called, They are so sweet, sir. That’s the excuse many of the men who visit these brothels have, “Oh, they are so sweet, sir. We can’t believe they are trafficked because they are so sweet and so obedient and they love to do it.” That’s the title of his book, and he was the first to really reveal that it happens everywhere, and it happens in the Netherlands. The king of Belgium, he also helped these five Filipino girls. When he died, one of them spoke at his funeral.

All these religious have their own work and some of them are very much involved in the anti-trafficking and some of them have shelters, some of them are in contact with the country they have been working in for forty years. We are the center of this network.

We also work in other networks. Last year, we were involved in starting a European network of religious against trafficking, RENATE. We’re also involved in an African network against trafficking. We are in the international network in Rome and there is also a network in Indonesia and Australia and Latin America. If you see these networks, they have members all over the world.

I don’t know if you’ve traveled around, perhaps a lot. You see religious people everywhere and also Catholic Sisters. So they are a very natural network and as religious organizations, we trust one another.

A nice example, we were here in the office and we received a phone call from our Filipino coworkers, and she said, “I now have a girl from the Philippines on the phone. She traveled to Abu Dhabi and thought she were going to work as a dancing group and now it turns out, they have to work in a brothel. But because of Ramadan, they will start tomorrow. We have to help them now.” The girls were in Abu Dhabi. We were here in the office. We were on the phone and looking in our directory and in our data system. We found a congregation of Carmelite Sisters in Abu Dhabi with a phone number and an address.

We called these sisters, and they replied: Let them come. We gave the Filipino organization the address, and she gave it to the girls. The girls went there, to the Carmelite Sisters, and they got out. With the help from the Sisters and the embassy, they returned to the Philippines.

So it works. We didn’t know the Sisters in Abu Dhabi, but because we are religious organization and they are religious, they come from us. If you go there, you ring the bell and just say you are from the Dutch religious, they will open and help you. That’s how it works. It is this natural network because the people are already there. We only have to ask them.

It is not necessary that everybody is involved in counter-trafficking. The Dutch here, they phone us and say, we need a phone number in Mozambique. We need to get a birth certificate for a woman. Often, when the women want to go home, they need a passport, and in order to get a passport, you need a birth certificate. So they phone us. Do you have an address in Mozambique? We don’t, no, not directly, but then we are going to phone around. Then, for example, Father Frans, he’s from an international congregation with Fathers all over the world and maybe there are some colleagues in Mozambique working. They will give us an email address or a phone number and say, “Oh, just say hello from Father Frans.” Then you know you can send an email saying, “I got your email from Father Frans. He sends many greetings. I’m looking for somebody who can help me to get a birth certificate for one of the victims.”

These people are all over the world and perhaps they are teaching in schools or they are working for street children, but if you need them, you can contact them. They are all related to this organization of religious. That’s why this kind of networking works. We just know that the person on the other side of the computer is also trustworthy and is going to help you, without charging five hundred Euros to travel five minutes.

We also work with other networks who are working on anti-trafficking. For example, somebody went to Australia for holidays and took a photograph at a petrol station where there was a leaflet, “Do you want a Thai wife? We can arrange it. Make sure that you will have a wife from Thailand.” That was just this small advertisement in the petrol station. They just took a picture and sent the picture to us. “This is what we found. What can we do?” We forwarded this email to our colleagues in Australia who are also in the network of religious against trafficking, and they investigated, together with the police, to find out what happened.

If people are aware that we are here and they see something like that, they feel, you know, this is not right. We have to do something but what can we do? They send us the email and we think, yeah, what can we do? So we also forward it. Then it shows how networking works.

Many of the anti-trafficking organizations, we know one another. We are in contact. For instance, one of the organizations is called Blinn in Amsterdam. We have a fund that has a small amount of money to donate to victims who are in need or in special circumstances so on a weekly basis, we work together on cases. With the other organizations, we meet four times a year to talk about what we are doing and what they are doing and how we can work together.

In the Netherlands, we have different types of work that we are involved in. For instance, one is working for sheltering and helping the women with lawyers. They are the national center point where all victims are sent to, and they have all the information. Sometimes they need a special shelter for somebody. I had a phone call this week from a male worker in a shelter who said, “We have this trafficked girl here and she’s so damaged, she really has to go to a shelter with only women and also only women workers. Do you know a place? Perhaps in one of the convents?” That’s how we work together.

We don’t work together on small cases but in the overall things. For example, two years ago we had for the first time a big campaign on October 18th. It’s the European day against human trafficking, and we had this campaign together with all the organizations. Sometimes we do things like that together but we all have our different approaches and different working style.

What I find most difficult is to work together with other organizations when it comes to projects you want to do together. Then, it’s always about money. There’s always a lack of money and it is all, “I’m not going to share with you,” including knowledge, finances, personal contacts. “I know somebody at the Ministry but I’m not going to tell you because then you also know.” That, I find very hard because we are all working on the same kind of work and we’re all working for the women but what it comes to a certain point, it’s always me. Your own organization first.

In one way, we are very fortunate that we are partly financed by the religious congregations who believe in the work we do. Most organizations have to live on subsidies, so they have to think of new projects at least every three years because only new projects are subsidized.

It’s also perhaps very fortunate for us that we don’t have to rely on subsidies from the government because with subsidies, you have to compete with all the other organizations and you are also competing for your own job. You want to make sure that your job is secure. So it’s legitimate to say, you know, I’m not going to share. Then, we are so fortunate because we can say, “We work for the women.”

If we have materials, everything we produce is free for everyone to use because we don’t have to earn money by selling it. We only want to stop trafficking, and we don’t have to secure our jobs. We are so fortunate that we live from donations and gifts and the religious who support us.

I think it’s also very important that you see the positive things that are happening. It’s very easy to only focus on the negative things. This doesn’t work, and, oh, another victim, and another trafficker was released from jail. It’s very important to see the positive things and to see the things that have worked and the steps that we have taken and how legislation is changing and how the parliaments are getting the idea of trafficking. Even the TIP (Trafficking In Persons) report that came out last week, it now has the United States as one of the countries. They were never in their own report. They review everybody but themselves. Now, they’ve learned it’s also that American girls are trafficked in America and are forced to work.

That’s a reaction that you always get when you talk to people in other countries. They say, “Oh yes, trafficking is bad but it doesn’t happen in my country.” I had some Sisters visiting from the United States a few years ago, and they said, “Yeah, that’s bad but it doesn’t happen in the United States.” I said, “Well, Sister, I hate to disappoint you but it does happen also in the States. The people are not aware.”

That’s, I think, what we have been doing in the Netherlands, we and the other organizations in the last twenty years, this awareness-raising. It helps that the people are aware of the problem. Awareness-raising is so important because then the police know about it, and the judges, and everybody really wants to work against it.

We think that awareness-raising is a very powerful part of prevention. We have these talks and we have our newsletter that we send out for free in the Netherlands. We have three newsletters in Dutch a year, and two in English that we send to all our contacts all over the world. Then we have a leaflet campaign.

The sisters who started our organization knew very well that people around the world are looking for an opportunity for a better life. The girls think, “The person I met, he’s a good one.” Or, “This job that I’m offered is a genuine one.” They are still determined to go, but you can warn them. On this leaflet, we have addresses of people and organizations that can help them and we advise them.

We have this leaflet in fifty-two languages and we use our religious network to spread the leaflets. It’s in a simple, plain form so you can print it in your own copying machine, and you can download it very easily if you have a small computer somewhere in Ghana. You can download it and print it.

That’s how we spread these to all the contacts that we have and many religious use it. For instance, I met a Sister two years ago in Rome and she works in Kenya and she took the leaflet and she copied ten thousand of the leaflets and she’s spreading it all over the country. I know the same happens in Ghana, Chile, and in the Philippines, Indonesia. It’s just to have something in your hand if you are in Indonesia or in Brazil and a young girl says, “Oh Sister, I have this wonderful opportunity and I’m offered a job in the United States.” They can say, “Be aware. Ask information. Don’t believe all the stories but be aware.”

It works. I just talked to a sister that was in Malawi and she used the leaflet in Malawi to raise awareness among the women groups and she went back and one of the women came to her. “I have to share something with you because my daughter, after she graduated from school, she was offered a scholarship in the United States at University with six other girls. But then I remembered that you gave us the leaflet. You talked to us.” So she sent her husband to the US embassy to find out more about the University. Turned out, the University did not exist. Fake.

We have many of those stories. Like, we got an email from somebody whose parents are living in Bali. There was a girl, illiterate, who was offered a job. She doesn’t know English. She only speaks Indonesian, and she was offered a job in Canada, to work as a cleaner in the zoo. So the question came to us, is that ok? Can we trust that? You have to ask the question: Is there nobody else in Canada who can do this work? Why do you want to have a girl who cannot read and write, who doesn’t know any English? Is it necessary then to bring a girl from Indonesia to Canada for this job? Is there nobody else? I mean, if there’s no unemployment in Canada and there is a lack of employees and too much work and then you bring in migrants to work. But in every country there is a high unemployment. So that’s the main message: Ask questions. Why would they offer this job to you? Are they really who they say they are?

It’s the whole debate on trafficking and the whole theme on trafficking. It changes all the time. Then again, people and governments get aware of the problem and then they feel, “We have to do something.” Then, they make these laws that they feel are anti-trafficking but these laws can sometimes be counter-productive. For instance, I heard in Nigeria, there’s a big problem. Girls travel from Nigeria all over the world and are forced into prostitution. So what they did is they said, “Young girls can no longer travel out of Nigeria, they will not get a visa.”

Well, that’s very bad for all women because many girls have a genuine opportunity to go study or to travel, so what happens then is these girls, they travel to Europe anyway, only now they walk through the desert. They walk for months and months and months. They are abused while they walk through the desert. They are raped. You also have to be aware of what it is you want to do and how you want to stop trafficking.

One of the big things of this moment is that anti-trafficking is all about crime fighting and then even the victims are criminalized. To us, anti-trafficking should be about human rights, your right as a person to work and to migrate but also your right to be protected. Governments are only interested in anti-trafficking as long as it fights crime and fights the big international crime organizations and if it keeps people out of Europe or out of the United States. So we build fences and we build everything to keep them out. But that’s not the problem.

Crime-fighting doesn’t talk about the people and about the women or about the rights of people and how they are protected. It’s very painful to see a victim of trafficking and she goes and she talks to the police and she gives her testimony and she has to be a witness in court and when the case is over and the trafficker is punished or not, doesn’t matter, she’s no longer needed. She will be removed. She has no longer the right to stay in a country. What is our message then? We only allow you to stay as long as we need you and we need you only because we need to arrest or punish this trafficker.

You have to look at the rights of people, and you have to make a good procedure so that people who really are victims of trafficking, if they assist you in fighting your crime, that they are not being victimized again. They should not be a victim of our system and then sent home without any money or any education.

But what keeps me motivated is that you really can see that the awareness grows and that the networking grows and that more and more people are convinced of what we believe is right for the women, for the victims.

Men are also victims. It’s not only women being trafficked. There are different ways of being trafficked. We also have the domestic work in the agriculture sector, in the restaurant sector. Dutch girls are being trafficked in the Netherlands. Dutch boys are being trafficked in the Netherlands. We try to give a global picture and a local picture. You have all these different kinds of trafficking and vulnerable people.

But we talk mainly about the women because the law changed from ‘trafficking in women’ to ‘trafficking in persons.’ The focus has shifted from women. That’s my conclusion. It’s easier to talk about people being exploited in agriculture or people who are being exploited in the harbors. It’s much easier to talk about people exploited in the restaurants than to talk about women and rape and forced prostitution and abuse in the household. So I always talk about women.

With women, trafficking very often has to do with sexuality, and that’s a problem we meet a lot. We are not an organization that fights prostitution. We fight trafficking and we fight forced prostitution. To us, prostitution is not a problem of trafficking. It’s the abuse that’s the problem of trafficking, and of course, we live in the Netherlands so we have to live with the Dutch law. I feel that the law in the Netherlands works and it’s something we approve of.

So we give lectures at schools, women’s organizations, churches, youth groups, among migrant groups, all different groups, and we also do workshops. We talk about what is trafficking, how big the problem is in the Netherlands, worldwide, and also new developments. The topic of trafficking is changing all the time.

Then, when I’m at a group of organizations or a school, you can see the faces, how they change. In the beginning, they don’t know anything about trafficking. They don’t believe it and finally they realize that it is reality, and it is also happening in their village. You can see the change. They usually ask at the end of a meeting, “What can we do?” That’s always the question. Well, when you go home, tell at least one person something about what you have heard.

The awareness is not only the one person you are explaining something to but if that person goes to another person, then two people know. I find it always inspiring then to see how people are also committed to do something, whether it is to give the funding for victims or to help the local projects that we support in different countries.

When there is a question, people always respond in a very positive way. Recently, we had two Chinese girls, fifteen and sixteen years old, and they were both nine and ten when their parents died and an uncle in China said, “I’ll take care of my little cousins” and took the girls to Eastern Europe. He trafficked them. They ended up in forced prostitution. Then, they were freed by police here. Fifteen and sixteen years old, both were pregnant, and one had already a child. They now have three children. They have no rights for legal aid or for assistance for the babies because they are illegal in the country. We were called, “Can you do something?” 

We only had to ask one church, “Can you help us?” and they started to collect diapers and clothes and everything that you need for a baby. It’s not only that they collect it and give it to us. To this day, they’re still asking, “How are our girls doing?” They want to know if they are ok and if they need something. I just have to tell them and they will collect it again.

That is what I find also the nice part of our job. You meet a lot of people but also people are willing to do some action in many ways, like organize a concert or high tea, a benefit or dinner to raise awareness, to do some fundraising.

We meet a lot of nice people, good people, and a lot of good will. Yesterday, we were on the phone talking to somebody. We want to make a small film and the cameraman who worked with us a year ago, he called and he said, “You know, I know somebody who perhaps can help you to do that.” And you just say, wow. All these people who just want to help you, and they don’t want money for it. They do it on a volunteer basis. Sometimes it’s really unbelievable.

This morning I phoned that lady about the film and said, “I got your phone number from this person.” She said, “Professionally, I cannot do anything for you because that would cost you too much money but on a voluntary basis, I would like to work with you because it’s a good cause. I could use my network to inquire a little bit for you and when I have a good idea, I’ll let you know.” Ok.

That gives me hope.


“Now then go and work for the liberation of these women.” Exodus 3.


[1] Charisms:In Christian theology, any good gift that flows from God's love to man; the spiritual graces granted to Christians to perform their tasks in the Church; or the extraordinary graces given for the good of others

Community Justice Activism Advocacy
Comments (0)