January 25, 2019 — As a feminist engaged in the fight against the exploitation of women, Sr. Claudette Bastien participated in a meeting at Maison Bellarmin this week of the Action Committee against Internal and International Human Trafficking (CATHII), an organization that she helped found in 2004. The gathering in which the Centre justice et foi took part was founded at the beginning to help women get out of the vicious circle of sexual exploitation, but its action extends to every aspect of the question of human trafficking both in Canada (it does exist!) and abroad.
Sr. Bastien agreed to give us an interview. With a gentle calmness, she clarified proudly that this organization was started to fight against the trafficking of people for the purposes of prostitution or forced labour and that it has succeeded in forging a solid reputation in this area.
Once settled around a table, we began our conversation over coffee…
How did your commitment against the exploitation of women get started?
I have to say right at the start that the main instigator of this work among female victims of sexual exploitation is an Italian nun well known in the area, Sr. Eugenia Bonetti. At the beginning of the 90s, while she was living in Turin, Sr. Eugenia was approached by a young African woman in distress. Pursued by her pimp, from whom she was trying to escape, this young woman begged St. Eugenia to help her get out of the prostitution ring in which she was trapped.
Sr. Eugenia took the young woman under her wing. This encounter transformed her. Sensitized to the plight of Italian prostitutes, of whom many are of African origin, she began to get involved with female victims of sexual exploitation.
Then, in 2001, the real kick-off occurred during a meeting prepared by an organization of Mothers Superior, The International Union of Superiors General (IUSG). Shaken by the magnitude of the phenomenon, the IUSG invited religious communities around the world to unite in the fight against the trafficking of women and children.
In Quebec, several religious communities answered the call. Three years later, eight of them met to create CATHII. That’s when I began my involvement in the cause, inspired by the work of my fellow sisters.
What is human trafficking in 2019?
It’s forced labour with little pay. It’s about reducing human beings to the status of mere things. It’s depriving people of their freedom and their fundamental rights. And this definition of human trafficking also applies to sexual exploitation which, in 95% of cases, reduces women to insignificant objects.
Let’s be clear: some women choose to work in the sex trade. Those do not fit our definition of sexual trafficking. For 5% of the women, prostitution is a choice, a business. These women are not vulnerable and are capable of controlling men. For the rest, they are victims of the sex industry, victims who live under the control of a pimp who takes the fruits of their labour, between $200,000 and $300,000 a year per woman. These pimps isolate them, limit their movements, and even lock them up.
In 2018, the Federation of Women of Quebec recognized prostitution as work and you understand that I could not agree with this perspective. So I have not renewed my membership. CATHII is an abolitionist organization that fights to eradicate prostitution. So this recognition is for us just nonsense…
Do you have other examples of human trafficking?
Unhappily, yes. Migrant farm workers are equally exposed to bad treatment because of the precariousness of their status. They too can become vulnerable, especially when they are required to remain with an employer who keeps their passport. They are often poorly housed, poorly fed, poorly paid.
Recently, in Ontario, a dozen Hungarian workers were housed in a basement, malnourished and underpaid; their passports were taken and they were forbidden to have any contact with people outside their controlled circle. Whenever freedom of movement is suppressed, there is human trafficking. In Côte-des-Neiges, a centre for migrants and refugees informed us that Asian families had arrived here with their servants who did the housekeeping and cooking. These women were prevented from leaving this situation.
And what is CATHII doing to change the situation?
We put pressure on elected officials to change the causes of these injustices. Our priorities for now to 2021 have just been adopted. First we want to get Quebec to adopt a provincial plan of action against human trafficking, such as exist in Ontario and British Columbia. In addition, the federal plan should be updated soon.
Then, we have put pressure on Canada through the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC) which periodically examines the performance of member states. Canada was dragging its feet in certain ways and we have put together eight recommendations and communicated with 20 embassies so that they would ask questions of Canada. Three countries have responded to our call and we intend to really hound Canada within the ECOSOC. Finally, we should improve our ability to communicate, to take advantage of social networks. Let’s say that we’re not very good at that just now.
To learn more, consult the website of CATHII.