Human trafficking during COVID-19: Virtual exploitation is not fiction

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Amid the lockdown, exploitation and human trafficking is still taking place. It has taken on a different form, also indoors, hidden from the street. It has also put many girls who rely on prostitution for their livelihood out of food and money.

Sr. Gabriella Bottani, coordinator for Talitha Kum, discusses how religious sisters in 22 regions help the vulnerable amid the pandemic.

Coordinator for Talitha Kum
Their dignity also is the product of sexual exploitation that is sold throughout the internet and not physically in prostitution for example. The difference is the tool that is used. Because of the lockdown, it also reduces the services, let me say, the sexual services they offer. So they are really suffering from hunger.

For many, selling their body is the only way they survive. The sisters that make up Talitha Kum in 76 countries thus bring food to them, give psychological help, and offer career training so women can provide for themselves and leave these dangerous situations. 

The problem is, many of the sisters' “safe shelters” are unable to take in new girls due to social distancing. As a result, psychological assistance has gone virtual through social media or phone calls. 

Now, vulnerable victims are now trapped inside, instead of being trafficked on the streets. 

Coordinator for Talitha Kum
We do not have it [prostitution] anymore in an 'official way,' so it is more and more in a hidden context. So we do not have it anymore on the streets, but in apartments, in flats. The problem is how we can reach them now and it makes it more and more difficult.

Sr. Gabriella says instead of being passed around on the streets, girls' are exploited and then distributed online during the lockdown, in the form of pornography.

Coordinator for Talitha Kum
In this time of particular lockdown, where maybe they are afraid to go out and buy these kinds of services. So there is the risk, the increase of the demand for online sexual services is real. We buy it virtually, but it is not fiction. It is reality. So the real exploitation, there is going on a real exploitation. What I am accessing in the computer is not like you see in movies.

Talitha Kum continues to offer career training during this time, with many girls making face masks to distribute. However, another issue is how these girls can make a living after the pandemic, when jobs are scarce and prostitution seems like the “easy way out.” Problems like these lead the sisters to discern how to do their jobs more effectively.  

Coordinator for Talitha Kum
“What is the most important thing? The process of healing, the process of staying together with survivors. Trying to build, trying to renew their life, build again life, a rebirth. It's something that is helping us also in this different time to listen deeply to what life is asking us to do.”

The sisters are also adapting to this changing time, as doors are closed and people are indoors. They are figuring out how they can better serve the most vulnerable in society, who seem to be highlighted even more with the current crisis. 


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