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My Female Faith Hero: Catholic Sisters

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Each year the Tony Blair Faith Foundation runs a blog series, "My Female Faith Hero," to highlight inspirational women of faith around UN International Women's Day. Tony Blair's reflection is part of this series. Read more faith hero stories at www.tonyblairfaithfoundation.org/myfemalefaithhero

One of the striking features of innovative interfaith work is the very high proportion of women and girls who are involved, despite the received image of mostly male religious leaders in dialogue.
Of the 687 young people who applied to be one of our 34 Faiths Act Fellows, there were 487 women and 200 men. Of those selected, 25 are women, and 9 young men. Of the multi-faith volunteer groups that our last group of Faith Fellows set up to continue their community work after their work ended, around 60% in the UK were teenage girls and young women - a high proportion of them Muslim.

This is, of course, typical of the willingness of women of faith to make new commitments, innovate, and take risks. The women who have inspired me most recently have shared these attributes: they are the Catholic Sisters who are dealing with sexual trafficking.

It would be hard to pick out any particular one. That would be the last thing they would want. They work together, across continents, in networks. They call sexual trafficking the new slavery. Some work at the UN, the equivalents of the William Wilberforces of old. But the work of most is much more at grassroots, demanding and sometimes dangerous.

Nuns work with the police, get girls out of brothels, brave local mafias. They seem a long way from the old Hollywood movie nuns with their wimples and distinctive habits, bobbing out of cloisters to smile at Bing Crosby in a clerical collar. It is hard to remember that, not too long ago, they had to seek permission from bishops to study gynaecology, and some were even advised by their Mother Superior on how to vote.

Their celibacy is chosen. They give themselves entirely to caring for trafficked women, protecting them in safe houses, educating about the dangers of "attractive" job offers overseas, helping them escape from vicious pimps, making safe their return to their families in the midst of threats. This does not make celibacy easy or less of a sacrifice. Their spirituality is not incidental either. Dealing with young traumatised women at the very beginning of their recovery from rape and sexual slavery - if they ever fully achieve it - requires that amalgam of compassion and street toughness that does not come from reading "how-to-be successful" books.

I think what I admire most is their ability to champion human dignity when human dignity is the very last thing that the people they are working with have experienced. It means swopping a cosy convent parlour for the rigours of the street and the pain of empathy with people who have experienced some of the worst that human beings can do to each other by way of degradation and enslavement.

And the second thing to inspire me is the way the Victorian community life of the celibate women's vocation dedicated to the poor has been able to reboot in response to a major modern problem, drawing on the riches of a traditional spiritual discipline and community structures. The net income from people trafficking is $34 billion going into the pockets of criminal gangs per annum. Trafficking is the dark underside of today's phase of globalisation. They are faith's response to it, networked, using the latest communications technology, willing to brave the disapproval of those who would like nuns back in the cloister, or in "safe" forms of religious life.

Above all, I see them as the exemplar of how religion can be a force for good in the world, champions of a networked Church coming to terms with the problems of the contemporary world. They are, in the words of Blessed Pope John applying "this sure and immutable teaching...elaborated and presented in a way which corresponds to the needs of our time". They are quite simply leaders.

Tony Blair is Founder and Patron of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

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