Cardinal Vegliò's Address on Women Migrants

«Building bridges of opportunity»

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ROME, MAY 24, 2012 ( Here is an address given today by Cardinal Antonio Maria Vegliò, president of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers, at the second in a series of “Town Hall Meetings on Migration,” held at the Centro Studi Americani (American Study Center). The event is sponsored by the United States’ embassy to the Holy See.

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Signor Ambasciatore, 

Distinti ospiti,

Dear all,

I am happy to be here with you today, upon invitation of His Excellency the Ambassador of the United States of America to the Holy See, joining this Town Hall Discussion on the particular vulnerabilities that face women migrants. My contribution is mainly focussing on the role of the Church to address women’s migration issue, in my capacity as resident of the Dicastery of the Holy See that cares for the pastoral assistance of migrants and itinerant people.

1. Women’s hope

Women in forced migration, despite everything that has happened to them in their lives, respond to their situation with remarkable courage, resourcefulness and creativity. They believe wholeheartedly that the future offers change and possibilities, and are confident to reconstruct their lives. They are convinced that their children will be educated and successful. And it is visible in their smiles. … the smiles that seemed to suggest “tomorrow will be better.” 

2. Women facing threats and violence

However, each of them has faced a tragic situation full of brute force, violence and traumatic experiences. 

Most conflicts nowadays are civil wars, in which civilians are accounting for more than 80% of deaths. Women are increasing part of those who are forced to move. At present 43 million people fled their homes because of war or human rights violations, of which 80 percent are women, children and young people. They are facing special needs reflecting their situation.

It is common that during the flight they lost one or more children, since they were running into the opposite direction. 

Women and girls have become the targets in the many conflicts, leading to abduction and brutality. Their vulnerability is deliberately exploited in order to dehumanise them, to create fear in the region and to disrupt daily life. That’s why they are raped, and forced into sexual slavery. Its impact is not just on the individual’s physical and psychological health, but is also felt at the family and community levels. Rape has been used strategically, as a weapon of war in attempts to destroy the opposing culture, leading to ‘ethnic cleansing’, and to control the territory. If women do not comply with their captors, they are often killed.

3. Women in camps

Once escaped, the displacement is followed by a stay in camps inside or outside the country. However, even these camps do not protect them sufficiently. Women risk sexual violence when collecting firewood. In many countries they are not allowed to work, resulting in dependency on aid organisations. Shortages of basic items and cuts in food rations can put women and girls under pressure to go into survival sex.

That stay in camps can take years and years. At present the average length of time in displaced is 17 years, a lifetime for those displaced as young children or born in one of the camps. One could raise the question which future do these children face, who do not have any other experience than a camp life.  But also how do cope parents seeing their children grow up under such circumstances?

If they settle in urban areas, they face other challenges. They are living among the local population, the urban poor, with whom they have to compete for employment, social and other infrastructural services. Many times they are living without the necessary documents, which further complicates life.

4. Commitment of the International Community

This all happens despite the obligations of the international community to protect them, in accordance with the letter and the spirit of human rights, refugee and international humanitarian law. This includes having access to basic items as food, shelter, clothing and medical care, but also the right of work and free movement. 

Women also have to adapt to their new life. They have to assume new roles and responsibilities, many times as head of the household. If resettled, children have to get used  to a new society, culture and language. The situation for the parents is even more problematic. An adaptation to ordinary daily life activities, sometimes quite different or not known in the country of origin, needs to take place. How to wash windows, when you have been living in the tropics in a house without glass windows? How to clean the kitchen, when you have been cooking outside? Which plants are flowers and which ones are weeds which need to be cut? They are important to become accepted by the neighbours and gradually become integrated into society. 

Women refugees express themselves that they want to have a new future, and seen as human beings. As one of them said: “We need to be integrated into society. Then we can contribute to our second country. We hear sweet words, but this is not the reality. We do not get documents. The hurt has to be taken away. We need more than food. Do they know the really deep down problems of refugees? We are human beings with feelings. Look for solutions for our children. Do not talk, but do some practical things. We do not ask for psychological assistance, but an encounter with people who show that they care”.

5. Commitment of the Church

Such remarks are also heard by Church organisations, who act on them. The Jesuit Refugee Service, the International Catholic Migration Commission, Caritas, Episcopal commissions and members of Caritas Internationalis. They are all present on the ground. Sometimes assisting materially, preparing ways for resettlement, dealing with the physical, emotional and psychosocial needs of women and adolescent girl mothers and developing social and economic reintegration programmes.

The church community is called to accompany displaced women and girls with quality, affection and care; along with a specialized attention toward those who have been wounded in their dignity and deprived of their innocence.

6. Trafficking in human beings

May I raise a question? Do you always buy at the lowest price? Many people take that into account. Another question to raise would also be: How are these products made, what were the working conditions? Under which conditions were these products harvested? After all it is quite well possible that the products we buy are made under forced labour conditions, one form of trafficking in human beings. 

Trafficking is happening in our backgarden. One has to remark that almost every country is confronted with trafficking problems, whether it is sexual exploitation, forced labour or bonded labour, child soldiers, or abusive ways of adoption. No country is excluded from it. It is a human right abuse. Persons have been deceived about the goals of their future activities and are no longer free to decide about their live. They end up in slavery-like situations or servitude from which it is very difficult to escape. Threats and violence are used to obtain this. The root causes of trafficking are not just poverty and unemployment in developing countries. The demand for cheap labour, low priced products or “exotic or unusual sex” is also a root cause of trafficking that must be addressed. 

Victims should be protected and  assisted, whereby we must ensure that they have access to justice, social and legal assistance and compensation for damages that they have suffered.

The integration of victims includes medical care and psycho-social counselling, accommodation, residence permit and access to employment. In certain cases it means the return to the home country with micro projects and/or loans. One has to be careful t
hat they do not return to the same circumstances which make trafficking again possible. 

7. The Church in the forefront

The Church in many different countries is involved in assisting the victims by being present with them. This involves listening to them, providing assistance, giving support to escape from sexual violence, creating safe houses, counselling geared towards integration into society or helping them to return in a sustainable way to their home country. In addition prevention and raising awareness activities are promoted. Women religious congregations started years ago in different countries by assisting trafficked women for sexual exploitation. An International Network of Consecrated Life Against Trafficking in Persons, Talitha Kum, has come into existence in 82 countries, while COATNET (Christian Organisations against Trafficking in Human Beings) is present in thirty countries and is operating under the legal authority of Caritas Internationalis.

8. Conclusion

Preventive measures are made up of the implementation of anti-trafficking laws, the adoption of labour laws and the regulation of employment conditions, and consequently their enforcement. A special responsibility rests with the consumer who should be aware of conditions under which products are cultivated or manufactured. The introduction of trade labels and codes of conduct could strengthen decent labour conditions.

Combatting trafficking in human beings is a task for the Church, governments, NGOs, employers and business, labour unions and the general public, together with all women and men of good will: fighting together makes the difference, Important steps are dialogue and cooperation: exactly what we are doing today in this meeting, which is already faithful and successful towards sharing our views and efforts in order to help women migrants to build bridges of opportunity.

Thank you.

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