Dee: Sr Flolyn S. Catungal, OSA, is an Augustinian Sister of Our Lady of Consolation and she says she doesn’t mind at all if I shorten her name. Flo, we’ve only just met for the first time today, so can you tell me a bit about the work you are currently doing?
Flo: I co-coordinate the Women and Gender Commission of the Association of the Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP). Last year the Unione Internazionale Superiore Generali (UISG) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) sponsored two seminar workshops, “Counter Trafficking Course for Religious Sisters in the Philippines”, participated by both religious sisters and some lay partners from Asia Pacific. After the follow up seminar workshop last July 2007, we asked ourselves: What can we do? How can we organise ourselves to combat trafficking? So we formed the Asia-Pacific Women Religious Against Trafficking in Humans (APWRATH).
Dee: And sitting next to Flo is Pauline Coll, SGS, who is a Sister of the Good Samaritan whom I’ve known for quite a few years.
Pauline: I am the Coordinator for the Sisters of the Good Samaritans Working Against Human Trafficking and I chair ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans), a national body of religious working in that area. We’re endorsed by Catholic Religious Australia (CRA) which is the conference of leaders of religious congregations in Australia representing 180 congregations comprising some 8,000 women and men.
Dee: Amongst the Catholic religious in Australia working on the issues of trafficking are these just the women’s congregations or are the men involved too?
Pauline: It’s mostly women, but at the last CRA Assembly we organised for two leaders of religious orders to present a motion around this area. It was carried unanimously and CRA includes the male religious as well. To what degree they are presently actively involved, that’s a different question, but at least they give in-principle support to the work that we do as a group and we hope that it will be much more than in-principle support as we go along. Certainly, Franciscans International are very active in this work. They have just established a new office in Bangkok, Thailand where Julie Morgan is based. She’s an Australian employed by Franciscans International and her work is largely concerned with trafficking. Also, the Bishops are kept informed and they wrote a letter to the Australian government about the need for a more human rights based visa regime. We hope the Bishops will be getting more involved as we progress.
Dee: And are the male religious in the Philippines involved in anti-trafficking work?
Flo: Yes there are, not only religious but also our lay partners. For us in the Philippines this is somewhat a new apostolate, except for the Religious Sisters of the Good Shepherd who are well advanced in this work. For now we are just trying to organise the sisters and give education on what human trafficking is all about. But this is not only the work of the sisters, it should be for all. Why? Because in the Philippines there are about 600 to 800 thousand people who are trafficked. They are not only brought to other countries but also trafficked within our country. For example they are taken from the provinces to Manila where they are exploited to serve as sex slaves or factory workers even without pay. The Women and Gender Commission being a mission partner of the AMRSP conducted a lecture on Human Trafficking: A Modern Day Slavery. It is in this way that we can educate the sisters, and not only the sisters but even the priests. We were happy that at least 10 priests attended, even giving gender sensitivity talks. So we are trying to learn how to introduce our apostolate to them. We collaborate with different groups and our lay partners like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women—Asia Pacific (CATW-AP) and also the crisis centres working with the victims of human trafficking who are sheltered and helped with repatriation. The overseas consulates are also involved.
Pauline: In Australia we also work very closely with other groups, non-government organisations who are active in this field - for example the Anti-Slavery Project which is part of the University of Technology in Sydney and Project Respect in Melbourne - as well as other church groups, such as the Salvation Army, the Uniting Church, etc. We also work with the Australian Federal Police and with state police when it is necessary. Some of our people are working on the ground with the women who have been trafficked or with people who have been brought to Australia for labour exploitation. There are also lawyers and law centre workers helping them with their visas and all of that side of things, people who are working in that direct service model. We also are very keen to raise awareness and educate the broader community, both the secular civil society and congregations of church people. Education is critical in Australia because Australians really don’t believe that trafficking happens here, and at times we can still be a very racist and sexist country.
Flo: Sexism is a problem in the Philippines as well. Patriarchy as an ideology and at the same time a way of thinking or consciousness that men are superior while women are inferior, is still felt in our society. That is why, violence against women is still increasing because men treat them as second class or inferior on the basis of their being women.
Pauline: The on-the-ground services, in whatever capacity that can happen, are, for example, making sure that women are okay once they have been rescued.
Flo: Also doing advocacy especially in the grassroots because they are more vulnerable to this situation. We try to coordinate our efforts with the different congregations if we could give seminars to their respective pastoral area so that people will be informed of this crucial problem.
Pauline: Advocacy is very important and lobbying to have the visa regime changed from one that’s based in criminal justice to one based on human rights so that remaining in Australia is not aligned to the victim’s willingness to testify in a prosecution case. They should be allowed to stay in Australia for rehabilitation and, if necessary, reintegration into their home country. Currently, victims of trafficking can stay in Australia for an extended period of time only if they are prepared to be a witness for a prosecution which means that they are being victimised all over again. Part of education and sensitisation is about helping the whole court system to be sensitive to the needs of these women. We began lobbying very strongly in 2006 by going to New York to the CEDAW Committee  with a shadow report. Being signatories to the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Australian government has to report regularly to the CEDAW Committee, so we decided that we would do a shadow report. We had some wonderful legal women who helped us do that and we sent them to New York to present our shadow report. And they also submitted a joint Thai/Cambodian/Australian NGO statement. Out of the recommendations we made in our shadow report, the CEDAW Committee sent back most of those in their recommendations to the government about what Australia still needs to do. So we continue to use that as leverage when we’re working with the Federal government. Also in 2006 after CEDAW, we did a big lobbying week in Canberra and we intend doing some more this year because we see there is a systemic change that is required.
Dee: Do you get much international cooperation?
Pauline: At this stage, we don’t yet require the aid of foreign embassies because Australia has fairly good laws which, if they were put into practice, could bring convictions, although the laws are still not quite tight enough. But we are setting up an international network and there’s a Congress taking place. Will you be there, Flo?
Flo: Yes, I will represent APWRATH and I will be with Sr Estrella Castalone, FMA, the Executive Secretary of AMRSP. Actually, the APWRATH has members from Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.
Pauline: Good. So we’re all going to the USG/UISG  Congress in June this year in Rome. We’ll be looking to establish a truly international network of religious against trafficking. It will be a really critical meeting because it’s our international umbrella organisation. In its 2001 Assembly Declaration UISG urged religious communities worldwide to address the issue of trafficking of women and children by working in solidarity with one another, and it was reiterated in 2004. The UISG and IOM (International Organization for Migration) have conducted training sessions for women religious in several countries during 2004 to 2007  and now the next stage is to establish a network and see how we can really help each other.
Flo: We really need to establish ourselves, especially in the Philippines where even the government is not that really cooperative. We have a very good law – RA 9208 the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003  – but the problem is implementation, we can not get support of some government officials because of corruption.
Pauline: Another aspect we focus on in Australia is how we NGOs can assist the work of other countries that perhaps aren’t as well off as we are. We can’t give lots of money because we don’t have it, but we can perhaps help lobby the U.N. or get our government to talk to their governments about tightening things up. That’s something a network could engage in. Another aspect is the promotion of fair trade because we always talk about the Millennium Development Goals and particularly about the elimination of poverty to prevent the vulnerability of the poor, especially women and girl children, at the point of origin. For instance, 85% of the Philippines’ income comes from overseas remittances.
Flo: Actually we have a floating economy. Without the overseas workers our economy is bleak. President Arroyo says that our economy is improving but in fact it’s not because it’s dependent on our OFWs and that’s the sad thing because sometimes they are not helped by the government, even women who are abused cannot get their help sometimes.
Dee: We’re being called to lunch, is there any last word you’d like to say to our readers?
Pauline: Awareness about human trafficking is growing internationally but it’s a major issue for Australians to really believe that it happens here too and we need to start talking about demand. UNANIMA International, a coalition of congregations of women religious who have combined to obtain NGO status at the U.N., have started a campaign Stop The Demand for Trafficking in Women and Children.
Flo: As part of our major campaign against human trafficking it is very important for us, especially for us religious, to network and forge our efforts.
Dee: Thank you so much for allowing me to record this conversation for our newsletter and please keep us informed. CPCA and SPAN members have an ongoing interest in supporting anti-trafficking work. Come on, let’s eat now!