A “symbol of hope for all children, women, and men who are victims, who suffer shame and trauma.”
This is how Sister Seli Thomas, an Indian nun from the Sisters of Mary Immaculate, defined the Common Good Award, the recognition she received in London on October 31 during the first edition of the Sisters Anti-Trafficking Awards (SATA).
This event celebrated the remarkable contributions of Catholic nuns to the fight against human trafficking.
Sister Seli received the award alongside two other nuns for their outstanding demonstration of courage, creativity, collaboration, and success in protecting their communities from human trafficking.
The Sisters of Mary Immaculate in Krishnagar, West Bengal, work tirelessly to prevent young women from falling victim to exploitation networks.
To this end, they provide free legal assistance and conduct awareness seminars to educate women and the community about safe migration and human trafficking prevention.
They also reach out to the children of prostitutes who reside in the brothels of Krishnanagar.
Upon receiving the award, Sister Seli expressed her gratitude to the organizing bodies and shared a poignant story of one of the many victims she had rescued—a woman in her thirties who tearfully asked, “Sister, where were you all these years? If I had met you earlier, I would never have become a prostitute, I would not have been trafficked, sold, and resold to men repeatedly from the age of 12.”
“It was a heartbreaking and painful cry. All I could do was simply hug her, but that cry pushed me to go further,” the nun commented.
“I know well that I cannot change the whole world; what I can do is bring about some transformation and give hope to those who are desperate, thus saving some lives from trafficking, one person at a time,” added Sister Seli. “This is what I’ve been doing for the last 12 years, and I hope to continue doing it for the rest of my life.”
The Sisters Anti-Trafficking Awards were sponsored by Arise, an NGO dedicated to fighting exploitation globally, the International Union of Superiors General, representing approximately 600 thousand religious women from 80 countries, and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, established by the renowned hotelier in 1944.
The event brought together 200 individuals from both the Catholic and non-Catholic world, including former British Prime Minister Theresa May and Somali-origin marathon runner Mo Farah.
According to United Nations data, detection rates of trafficking-related crimes dropped by 11%, and convictions decreased by 27% in 2020, highlighting a general slowdown in the fight against human trafficking worldwide—a problem that is worsening in some developing countries.
Religious women are hailed as “the greatest force against human trafficking in the world,” as stated in a press release by Arise.
They often serve in remote areas that might be otherwise unreachable and are deeply integrated into their communities, earning their trust—a crucial aspect of effective anti-trafficking efforts.
In addition to Sister Seli Thomas, Sister Francoise Jiranonda of the Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres from Thailand and Sister Patricia Ebegbulem of the Sisters of St. Louis from Nigeria also received multiple awards.
After her significant contribution to the development of the Talitha Kum network in Thailand, Sister Francoise now works in the capital city of Bangkok, where she has established two schools to protect young Thai women, particularly offering support to ethnic Karen women from rural areas. Female students are provided with free professional training courses to enhance their skills.
Sister Ebegbulem, on the other hand, founded Bakhita Villa, named after the Sudanese slave who later became Saint Josephine Bakhita, to rehabilitate and reintegrate women who have survived trafficking.
Her organization also conducts awareness programs in rural areas and high-risk schools, delivering education and employment opportunities to keep young people away from the perils of trafficking.