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A hidden army of ‘very brave’ nuns fights child trafficking

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GUWAHATI, India Sister Rose Paite stepped inside this main train station in the city and scanned the crowd. She often visits public gathering places like this as part of her lifelong mission: to save children from trafficking.

In seconds, Paite was out. She had noticed a situation that bothered her a young girl, maybe 15 years old, sitting next to a much older man in a soft shirt. Paite approached them and started asking questions.

Where are you going? How did you meet this man?

The responses confirmed Paites’ suspicion.

The girl said she had just met the man on the train. It was not clear where he was headed next.

Paite, who was wearing a black tunic and a white veil, talked to her for nearly four minutes and handed her her card. She wanted to be able to control the girl, but the girl refused to give Paite her phone number.

Before leaving, the humiliating Roman Catholic nun warned the man, but she said he was contemptuous.

That girl, indeed, will get into trouble, Paite said. She is so vulnerable.

Then Paite skittered again. The Guwahati train station was busy. There were more children at risk.

Trafficking in human beings is everywhere

Paite is not a single crusader. Merge part of a vast but little known network of Catholic nuns dedicated to the fight against human trafficking across the globe. The organization, Talitha Kum, was formed in Rome in 2009 and now operates quietly in 92 countries.

The group consists of approximately 60,000 religious sisters. The work they do is often dangerous and daring to face pimples in the dark streets, patrolling dusty alleys holding brothels. The sisters also operate safe houses in some places, providing shelter for women and girls fleeing their captors.

Their work does not only take place on the streets. The organization pushes for systemic change, lobbying for stronger laws to combat human trafficking.

If you want people to understand the urgency of the problem, you can not point the finger around it, said Sister Jeanne Christensen, a member of the board of directors. U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking, who works with Talitha Kum.

The scale of the problem is large: The International Labor Organization estimates that approximately 25 million people are in forced labor across the globe, with nearly 5 million facing forced sexual exploitation. Most victims of sexual exploitation live in Asia and the Pacific region around 3.5 million compared to 200,000 in America, according to recent estimates.

Human trafficking is everywhere, Christensen said.

If you live in a small town in Iowa and there is a highway running through the city, she added. The airport. Train depots. Bus depots. Take your choice.

Leslie King was a 15-year-old fugitive from Michigan in the late 1990s when she met an elderly man who promised to take care of her but turned out to be a pimp. Studies suggest that over 60 percent of those trafficked for sex were runaway children, often lured into that life within 72 hours of leaving home.

Pimponi and his associates told King that she had better start cheating or otherwise.

They told me if I ran, if I told the police, they would kill my mother, my son, my sister, my brother, King recalls. And I cut my body parts up and spread them all across the state of Michigan.

King began walking up and down Avenue Avenue in Grand Rapids, jumping into the cars of men offering money for sex. Every time I got into one of those cars, there was a 50-50 chance of me coming back, King said.

A woman often showed up at the Division and talked to the travelers, King said, though she was clearly not one of them. Her name was Sister Francetta and she was joined by other Catholic sisters.

Leslie King received a card from Sister Francetta that transformed her life.Jake Whitman / NBC News

Sister Francetta would come and go down the Division trying to pray with women and talk to women and help women, but I would never talk to her, King said.

King said she managed to take steps to give up her life after attempting suicide on July 4, 2000. She checked herself into a 30-day drug rehab program. At first, King said she was told to empty her bag. To her surprise, at the bottom of the bag was an unknown card.

From Sister Francetta, it was said. King had no idea how she got into her bag.

The card contained a telephone number, which King called. At the end of her rehab program, she moved to a place called Rose Haven, run by nuns who worked with Sister Francetta.

The experience transformed her life. After graduating from the one-year program at Rose Haven, King joined the staff. She eventually started working for Grand Rapids Police as a street worker.

I went back to the streets with the same women I made taller with some of us having the same pimp counseling and advocacy for them, King said.

King went on to start her own band, Holy Beginnings, modeled after the program at Rose Haven. She attributes the life-saving sister Francetta and her fellow nuns.

They were a very brave herd, King said, now 57. The pimps got to the point with the nuns where they just left them alone. Because nothing you say or do will turn them away.

Sister Francetta is now ill and was not available for comment.

The US has seen a significant decline in women becoming nuns and sisters, leading to a subtle collection of women making the form of the dangerous stretch once made by Sister Francetta.

But in places like India, a small army of sisters continues to work.

How can I be scared?

Sister Lourenca Marquesis walking along a dirt trail in the coastal state of Goa, a popular tourist destination in western India.

A few years ago, the area was home to a lively sex trade. The warriors of the concrete huts overlooking the beach were used as brothels, and the men and women who ran them acted with impunity.

Marques said she often visited the area looking to rescue young girls, a risky endeavor.

We were attacked by a man there, she said, pointing in the direction of a mud-colored house.

Sister Lourenca Marques in Goa, India.Jake Whitman / NBC News

The man wrapped his arms around Marquess’s neck, she said and threw her to the ground.

We were enemies of what was happening here, she said.

And yet Marques said the attack did not deter him or the other sisters.

How can I be scared? she said. We come here for a specific purpose, to work for these people.

Marques then climbed into one of the small huts where the very man she said attacked her was standing by a sink, washing her hands.

They greeted each other warmly. Marques asked how he was going and if he would see him at church on Sunday. The man smiled and shook his head.

I love you as if you were my brother, he told Marques.

Government bulldozed area in the mid-2000s. But women and girls remain trapped in sex work elsewhere in Goa and beyond.

Motra Lisa Pires.Jake Whitman / NBC News

Sister Lisa Pires is located in Calangute, a city in Goa that she described as one of the most trafficked areas in all of Asia.

She may be a woman of clothes, but Pires acts as a stern-nosed private investigator. She spends her days walking the streets of difficult neighborhoods and questioning local shop owners and others to help her identify places where trafficking can occur. She uses the information to build detailed maps that she shares with the police.

Works a very hidden job, Pires said.

Before leaving the Guwahati train station that day last year, Sister Rose Paite stopped talking to a group of young people who appeared to be of college age.

They told her they were part of a government training program, which sounded legitimate to Paite. But she did hand out her card anyway because of how easy it is to fall into the hands of a trafficker.

They simply follow someone who invites them with a promise of a job, Paite said. And in the process, they can be sold to someone else.

The sisters operate with limited outside support, but groups like the one based in London Arise Foundation help fund their work and also arranged for NBC News to meet with many sisters.

They also have the support of the pope himself.

Pope Francis met with more than 100 members of Talitha Kum at the Vatican last year in part to draw attention to a new fundraising program called Super Nuns. Problems are best solved by taking to the streets, Francis said.

Paite, who is 57 years old and a breast cancer survivor, has been doing this kind of work for almost a decade. But it downplayed the role it plays in protecting children.

I am a simple nun. A little one, she said with a laugh.

I can do very little. Not even a drop in the ocean.

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