There is a side to the Eternal City that most of us are loathe to acknowledge.
Passing through certain parts of Rome and its surroundings, one is likely to see women — or often, girls — lining the streets. Via Guilia is one such street known for prostitution, but there are others.
Sister Eugenia, who is also the head of the Italian Union of Major Superiors, was recently presented with the Woman of Courage award by the U.S. State Department for her efforts to combat trafficking in persons.
The work of the religious was also acknowledged in 2004 when she was named one of six Heroes Acting to End Modern Day Slavery in the annual Trafficking in Persons report published by the State Department.
First in Rome, and now throughout the world, Sister Eugenia has trained women religious to provide shelter and rehabilitation to women rescued from prostitution.
According to Sister Eugenia, most of the women who are bought and sold for sex in Italy come to the country under the pretext of a job. In Italy, many are from Eastern Europe or Nigeria.
"The girls are tricked into this," Sister Eugenia said. "They are offered what they believe to be good jobs."
Once beyond the safe bounds of home, their documents are taken away and they are forced to sell their bodies for money. Many of the girls are just barely teenagers when they are forced into prostitution, she said.
"It takes a Nigerian girl an average of 4,000 sexual encounters before she is released," the woman religious said. "Who can survive that? If a girl manages to survive physically, it is a miracle is she survives psychologically."
Nevertheless, Sister Eugenia said there is hope for these women. Once they are safe, many recover and learn to support themselves. The Consolata Missionaries provide respite and rehabilitation for girls courageous enough to leave their traffickers.
The religious said: "Our sisters leave the safety of our convents at night to reach out to these girls who know no safety. But there is always a danger.
"When a girl leaves her captors, her family at home is often threatened. Many girls are afraid to leave their traffickers.
"In some ways, we are fortunate in Italy because our laws offer some protection for these girls. When they cooperate with authorities, they receive other benefits and can be granted citizenship."
Together with other religious sisters, the Consolata Missionaries have established an international network of shelters among women religious of various denominations.
"Sisters can do this work," said Sister Eugenia. "When the girls see us, they know they can trust us. They see us as mothers, and they know they are loved. When I visit my girls, they call me ‘Mama.’"
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