LYUBERTSY, RUSSIA — Olga, a fresh-faced 13-year-old tomboy with a slightly husky voice, worked last year as a prostitute.
It started shortly after she quit school and began to hang out with older girls in this gang-ridden industrial suburb of Moscow, where she was systematically recruited by a local business, of sorts.
First, a pretty young woman befriended her and brought her earrings and other small presents, winning her trust. Eventually, she lured Olga into an apartment for a shot of vodka and sex with a couple of young men. The presents continued, but now the group told her she owed them money. Soon they were delivering her to customers, and she performed what sexual services were expected of her.
Olga's story is one child's variation on an increasingly common theme in formerly communist Europe.
In the upheaval of societies suddenly thrust into a money culture that demands new skills, new initiative, and whole new attitudes from people, many families are lost, confused, and impoverished. A frequent response, especially in Russia, is to turn to vodka. Alcoholism has soared in the past five years, frequently turning despair into family disintegration and homelessness.
One outcome is a visible growth in the prostitution of children.
Olga was not without a home and family, although she was sometimes hungry and embarrassed by her clothes. Even now, she has a legal right to a room in the apartment of her father and stepmother. But she hopes never to live there again.
She says that her father is a nice enough fellow except when he drinks. But when he drinks he gets so violent that a few years ago he killed her grandfather in a brawl. Her stepmother has the same problem with alcohol. So sometimes Olga runs away to her real mother, who had a recent bright phase, Olga says, and bought new furniture for her apartment. But the bright phase is over, she lost her job, and she has already sold the furniture to buy vodka.
In many families, the apartments themselves are sold for drinking money to the so-called "apartment mafias," who try to take over and then resell apartments for profit. The families often end up sleeping in parks or train stations. The children of these families frequently end up foraging for themselves. Russian social workers call them "children of privatization."
No statistics have been collected in Russia on how many children and juveniles have turned to prostitution. But people who work with troubled children in Russia say they can see the problem worsening. Such children are easy to find at Moscow's train stations, as well as those of Bucharest, Romania, and many other Eastern European cities.
A prostitution boom in East Europe
In Estonia, officials estimate that 1,000 children now work as prostitutes and the number is growing. Finnish activists against pedophilia say that after Thailand, Estonia is becoming a popular destination for international "sex tourists."
Young Romanian boys now dominate the boy-prostitute market in cities such as Berlin and Amsterdam, according to a report for the World Congress Against the Commercial Exploitation of Children, held last month in Stockholm. And in centers of prostitution, such as along the highway between Berlin and Warsaw, increasingly young girls are drawn in, according to the report.
In general, prostitution is booming in Eastern Europe.
Former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once glibly joked that there were no prostitutes in the Soviet Union, only "talented amateurs." Even if the truth was hidden in the communist years, the post-communist years have seen an anything-goes boom in prostitution. Eastern European women, mainly from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, now dominate the Western European sex trade, which International Organization for Migration experts estimate to currently have at least 500,000 women involved.
The vast majority of these women, however, are 18 or older. Many of these are students who travel West for a few weeks each summer to finance their studies the rest of the year. Unlike the younger Asian women they have displaced in the European market, Eastern European women can usually travel to Western Europe on their real passports, so it is easier for the criminal groups that run the trafficking to use adults.
The market for child prostitutes is less organized and developed in most of Eastern Europe than it is in other places. But having escaped from the general dishevelment of their families, many children without adult protection are quickly recruited in train stations for prostitution. Often, they are abused by homeless adults, soldiers on leave, or recently released prisoners who might prefer adult prostitutes but can't afford them.
Yulia, a 12-year-old friend of Olga's, learned from local teenagers how to earn money for better food and clothes by offering sex to men at the remote Vykhino metro station. Both her parents and her grandmother are alcoholics. Until the police picked her up for petty thefts, she would crawl down manholes and sleep in sewers.
The grandmother of another local eight-year-old, Svetlana, would regularly hand her over to two young men for $20 and two bottles of vodka. They would drive to an apartment in Moscow, where she was often joined by two seven-year-olds brought by their mother.
Svetlana spoke so frankly about the sexual acts there that neighbors called the police, the young men were arrested, and the grandmother has lost her rights as guardian.
Olga, Yulia, and Svetlana all landed at Children's Refuge. The recently opened shelter in Moscow is a place for abandoned children who are either on their own or are unwanted by their families and orphanages. It is part of a still-small but growing group of shelters in Russia to keep such children out of harm's way.
The first shelters were started in St. Petersburg only three or four years ago. Russian officialdom was slow to accept the need for such places. There are still only four in Moscow, and 32 in the surrounding province. The federal government is mandating their creation, but directing the costs to the already cash-strapped local governments.
One eight-month-old shelter, The Path Home, seeks to work with abusive families with the goal of returning the children to the home as soon as possible. Such a goal is often difficult when a child has been terribly hurt by a parent, says director Sapar Kulyanov. The shelter is trying to reach families at an earlier stage of trouble. Volunteers from another shelter, Island of Hope, make regular rounds to the city's major train stations seeking to find unprotected young girls before they are ensnared by criminals.
Russia, says Dina Dominey, a British expert helping a Moscow shelter in dealing with abused children, "is teetering on the brink of a major change" - away from the Soviet bias toward orphanages and large institutions toward individual care and true fostering.
The children of Russia's troubled families can often be spotted by their grimy clothes, and the children know it. "Clothes play an important role in Russia, especially for young girls," explains Irina Abramova, director of one such shelter in a Moscow suburb. Decent clothes make a girl feel more assured and independent, she says, while poorly dressed girls are often approached by men who see them as more vulnerable.
Olga now wears the long shorts and T-shirt typical of a young teenager in summer. Someday she would like to be a teacher in a preschool or a shelter like Children's Refuge, she says. In fact, she often takes charge of the youngest children in the shelter and leads their activities. "It's easier to learn from them," she says. "They're kinder. Not like some adults."