Human trafficking begins at school

Sister Genoveva is a 70-year old Colombian nun. She teaches city kids on human trafficking and she objects that the Bible was written by men with a patriarchal vision. Español

Pilar Cuartas Rodríguez
2 August 2017

This article is a product of the alliance between Cosecha Roja and Democracia Abierta. Read the original content here.

Sister Genoveva does not look down as she speaks. Her eyes, which she inherited from her maternal grandparents, are as blue as her habit and her veil. There are pictures of Pope Francis and Mother Teresa hanging from the walls of her office and a wooden, carved Mafalda (the famous Argentine comic strip character). She speaks of God and human rights, she considers herself an activist, and she thinks that the woman's body has historically been diminished, including in the Bible. She is one of the voices fighting against human trafficking in Colombia.

She is an absolute fan of Quino's character, Mafalda, with whom she shares the role of leader of a gang of friends. She is part of the Tamar network, established in 2013 to prevent human trafficking. She never thought of getting married or having children, and before she decided to become a nun, she dreamed of being a famous journalist and a writer.

Schools have been her battlefield: she was a teacher for 15 years. She met there for the first time a victim of trafficking, and this prompted her to start inquiring about it. One of her students had to prostitute herself because her father had died and she needed to buy medical drugs to treat her mother's epilepsy. She became a sex worker until an Italian man fell in love with her and promised to pay for her college fees, on the condition that she quit being a prostitute.

Sister Genoveva bumped into her a couple of years ago on a Transmilenio bus. Her former pupil was dazzled: the man was a stranger, he used to visit her every six months, and she had to satisfy his sexual demands. On his last trip he had promised to come back and take her with him to go and live in Europe. The nun asked the young woman for the man’s passport data and the company he said he worked for. Her colleagues at the congregation in Italy checked the data with the police and confirmed that it was a false passport and that the company did not exist.

Girls are not the same as boys: "They carry a much heavier burden, especially after they are 10 years old, when their bodies go through physical and hormonal changes. 

"It was a servile marriage case", says Sister Genoveva. This is one of the modalities of human trafficking, together with sexual exploitation, forced labour, mendicity and organ trafficking. 71% of the victims of this crime are women and girls. 

Sister Genoveva took her former pupil to file a complaint, but the civil servant who attended them victimized her again asking private questions which were absolutely irrelevant for the proceedings. Since then, Sister Genoveva has not stopped talking about the issue. And this experience she used as an argument in a claim of unconstitutionality before the Constitutional Court. For her case and that of a dozen other people, last year the Colombian high court removed the requirement for victims of human trafficking to file a complaint in order to get immediate attention from the State – namely, helping the person to return to his or her place of origin, receive medical care, legal advice and assistance to find employment.

"As far as laws are concerned, even laws against trafficking, Colombia is a standard bearer. But there is no follow-up, no national record of the victims, each organization has its own data, and fewer and fewer cases are currently brought to justice. There is a gap between legislation and practical strategies to eradicate the phenomenon", says Sister Genoveva.

According to a Women's Links Worldwide report, while the Colombian Ministry of the Interior has recorded a total of 235 victims of human trafficking between 2012 and 2015, the Office of the Attorney General has recorded 908 during the same period. Indeed, between January 2011 and April 2016, 908 cases were investigated, resulting in merely 52 convictions.

Less prayer, more street

Sister Genoveva prefers to lead an apostolic consecrated life, in the streets, which is where the Vincentian order was born 400 years ago, in Paris. She prays for two hours every day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and then works with 11 other people in preventing human trafficking. Her team created a "Trip for life" book, designed for elementary school teachers and pupils in the fourth and fifth grades.  "The idea is getting children to become advocates for their own lives and for the life of others. The recruitment in human trafficking happens when children are leaving school or by infiltrating schools. It is important for them to discover that their life is beautiful, but that there are threats and that they should be able to identify them", says Sister Genoveva.

The book has been distributed to schools in Bogotá, also in Arauca and in 10 indigenous schools in the Amazon. Sister Genoveva explains that in border towns and villages, such as Leticia and Puerto Nariño, there is a permanent mobility of sexually exploited minors: crossing to the other side, they can be in Peru or Brazil in a matter of minutes. "Everyone knows that this is happening, but no one is pointing their finger to it, because in these places there is a strong interest in keeping the tourist paradise idea alive - so, human trafficking grows because it has become normal."

She always prepares her workshops without knowing to whom she will be speaking. At the end of the day, several girls who are usually the most active and smiling, end up asking for a private meeting. Then, in privacy, they break down and tell her that they are being sexually abused or threatened. Like that young girl who told her that she never wanted Friday to arrive, for that was the day she had to go back home, and her stepfather would be waiting for her along the path and rape her all night.

Girls, Sister Genoveva points out, are not the same as boys: "They carry a much heavier burden, especially after they are 10 years old, when their bodies go through physical and hormonal changes. Their body becomes a prey for all, a right of all, and a permanent risk factor. "

There are some 1.300 Daughters of Charity, like her, in Colombia. Her sensitivity to the situation of women was strengthened 17 years ago when she began her bachelor's degree in Sacred Scripture at the Latin American Biblical University in Costa Rica. "I spent four years looking for women in the Bible. You have to use a magnifying lens to find them, because the Bible was written by men with a patriarchal logic", Sister Genoveva explains.

What is the best religion there is? "Tell me which is the one that makes better human beings and you will know the answer".

The title of her thesis was "When bodies speak", meaning the bodies of women who have been suffering oppression. According to her, one of the biblical episodes that shows this bias is the story of the little lady who was stooped over for 18 years and went to the Jewish synagogue in search of healing. "She does not speak, because in that cult a woman should not be there in the first place, but she is fearless and Jesus sees her, calls her, touches her, and incorporates her. That is my inspiration. If there is a woman bending over, we want to act. "

After she got her degree, she went back to Colombia in 2004, with the idea of joining a women's group. But endometrial cancer forced her to postpone her projects for two years. In 2007, the national network Tamar was created and she was quick to join it.

The oldest of seven siblings and a mother’s trauma

Her mother never forgave Genoveva, her eldest daughter, for getting into a convent, but her father was the happiest of men when he got the news, because in his village (La Uvita, Boyacá) it was a source of pride to have a nun or a priest in the family. She does not regret having left the engineer with whom, she says, she got to know true love. She rejected the proposal to get married at 17, after a relationship that lasted one and a half years, by handing him the letter in which the mother superior admitted her to the congregation.

"Genoveva, you were intelligent, why did you get into that?", one of her two sisters asks her every so often. "Why didn’t you marry Hernando?", retorts Sister Genoveva. "Because I fell in love", her sister replies. "Oh, well, me too!", she says. In her tiny room, she keeps pictures of her family. On her nightstand, there are two books: War does not have a woman’s face, by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexeievich, and Women who run with the wolves.

In the midst of the current polarization in Colombia, to which the Catholic Church has contributed, Sister Genoveva says that "religious feeling has been manipulated in the same way as political feeling has". What is the best religion there is? "Tell me which is the one that makes better human beings and you will know the answer", she concludes.

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