Breaking the Chains of Modern-Day Slavery


The slave trade, an ages-old enterprise, has updated its modus operandi, added the internet to its dealings and undergone a name change: human trafficking. Modern-day slavery—sophisticated but still nefarious—perpetuates its ancestor’s evil.

Human trafficking is “organized criminal activity in which human beings are treated as possessions to be controlled and exploited (as by being forced into prostitution or involuntary labor),” according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

Trafficking forces its victims—80 percent of whom are girls and women—into prostitution, child pornography and slave labor. It is organized crime’s fastest-growing industry, profiting the perpetrators $34 billion per year.

Sisters of Saint Francis vs. human trafficking

In the summer of 2011, the Rochester Franciscan Sisters of Assisi Heights met to set their direction for the next six years. Determined to “speak respectfully and act courageously on the issue of oppression and marginalization of women and children,” the Sisters launched a crusade to raise public awareness about human trafficking and its presence in Rochester, the State of Minnesota and the world; educate people to take informed action; and liberate and restore dignity to human trafficking victims.

As part of that endeavor, the Sisters held a three-day awareness-raising event this January called “Breaking the Chains of Modern-Day Slavery.” It included rallies, a film screening and two informational workshops with panel discussions to answer questions about human trafficking in Rochester.

The panels included Rochester and Olmsted County police officers, two trafficking survivors, representatives from the Olmsted County attorney’s office and victim services, State Representative Kim Norton, and two non-profit, human trafficking victim advocacy agencies—Mission 21 and Breaking Free.

The workshops drew crowds that filled University Center’s Hill Theater and Assisi Heights’ auditorium. They raised awareness of facts and perversions important, and horrible, to learn.

Yes, it happens here

“Human trafficking happens in the world, in the United States, in Minnesota, in Rochester,” Sister Marlys Jax told attendees at the event at Assisi Heights.

City and county law enforcement officers agreed, explaining that that prostitution and child pornography occur here regularly with approximately 72 prostitution-related arrests and at least 37 child pornography investigations since 2010.

“The demand in Rochester to purchase sex is huge,” said Investigator Brent Petersen, Rochester Police Department. Law enforcement officials emphasized that this demand is not coming from Rochester’s visitors but from people who live and work in and around Olmsted County.

Rochester-based Mission 21—which helps exploited boys and girls ages 15 and younger—added that the average entry-age of children forced into prostitution is 12–14.

Members of the panels explained that victims of child pornography can be much younger than 12 and that child pornography—covertly purchased and viewed online—often leads to the sexual assault of children.

“A lot of people think of a man looking at pictures,” Petersen said, “but research shows that 85 percent of convicted child porn possessors admit to hands-on contact with children.”

Petersen also stressed that pornography victims include boys and girls: “In that underground world of child porn, pictures of little boys are especially highly prized.”

The workshop closed with a prayer service for human trafficking victims, which included a presentation by seven Lourdes High School drama students who brought human trafficking stories to life.

Call to action

So what can we do to help?

Sisters Briana McCarthy and Anne Walch encouraged attendees to:

  1. Talk to others about human trafficking;
  2. Read about it by Googling “human trafficking” for web-based articles or read the books “Half the Sky” and “The Blue Notebook;”
  3. Watch DVDs like “Lives for Sale” and “Not My Life;”
  4. Invite organizations like Mission 21, Breaking Free or the Rochester Franciscan Sisters to speak to your volunteer, civic and church groups.

Meanwhile, the Sisters continue their relentless efforts against modern-day slavery this spring with “Breaking the Chains, Part 2,” which will feature two events at Assisi Heights: a fundraising concert including Bella Voce Young Women’s Choir, March 15, 7 p.m. at Lourdes Chapel, Assisi Heights, and another awareness-raising presentation on May 18, 9 a.m.-noon.