By Junno Arocho Esteves, Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) — Religious and lay women on the front lines against human trafficking said that greater awareness and education are needed about the reality of modern slavery in the world, especially among young people.

During a panel discussion in Rome hosted by the U.S. and Irish embassies to the Holy See Oct. 14, Loreto Sister Patricia Murray, executive secretary of the International Union of Superiors General, stressed the need to “invite more and more people to join this effort to combat trafficking; especially we need to invite the youth of the world.”

“They can raise their voices and advocate on behalf of the exploited and warn their own generations of the dangers that exist,” Sister Murray said. “They can help to realize Pope Francis’ dream that ‘every enslaved person can return to being a free agent of his or her own life, a person who can take an active part in the construction of the common good.'”

Sister Murray told participants that religious women continue to answer the call from Pope Francis for “all men and women of goodwill to take a firm stance on human trafficking.”

“He asked us then and I ask us to place trafficked persons, their families and their communities at the center of our concern,” she said.

Among the panelists present at the event, titled “Empowering a New Generation to Fight Modern Slavery,” were Loreto Sister Imelda Poole, president of the Religious in Europe Networking Against Trafficking and Exploitation; Comboni Sister Gabriella Bottani, international coordinator of Talitha Kum; Mercy Sister Monica Chikwe, vice president of Slaves No More; and Blessing Okoedion, a survivor of human trafficking and president of Weavers of Hope.

Welcoming attendees, Patrick Connell, chargĂ© d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, called human trafficking “an affront to human dignity and rights,” and said it was “a global crisis and a source of untold suffering” for millions, especially the poor and vulnerable.

Connell said that an estimated “25 million people are affected by human trafficking around the world,” with 70% of trafficked persons being woman and girls and “nearly a third are children.”

He also reiterated the U.S. government’s commitment to fighting human trafficking, and said the embassy was “honored to support the world of Catholic sisters.”

“I believe we have a moral duty to work together to fight human trafficking,” he said.