Russia battles its sex trade

An unprecedented media and civic campaign to warn rural girls starts today.

Lena, a Russian woman in her 20s, still remembers the friendly middle-aged woman who spun a tale of her own daughter going abroad and sending cash home to her mother. Lena leapt at the chance to go to Greece as a maid.

But the day Lena arrived, her employers seized her passport, beat her, and forced her to work as a prostitute.

A year later, back in Russia, Lena says she is filled with anger and shame, but is going public with her ordeal for the sake of an estimated 50,000 Russian women who are lured into sexual slavery abroad each year by fake job offers.

This is not a new problem here, nor is it exclusive to Russia. But several factors have converged to make Russia one of the world's leading exporters of involuntary prostitutes.

In an effort to disrupt this sex trade, the first-ever large-scale public-awareness campaign on this sensitive issue will get off the ground in Moscow today, with 600 volunteers distributing leaflets, and a media blitz made possible by free air time on state-owned TV stations.

"We have brought together 43 regional organizations, and hope to make generally known the facts of the criminal flesh trade," says Valentina Gorchakova, executive director of the Angel Coalition, the umbrella group that is sponsoring the campaign. "Until now, the voices of the victims have not been heard, and very many women remain unaware of the dangers of slavery."

The campaign is being supported financially by several Western women's groups and charity organizations.

But Ms. Gorchakova says the main resources to keep it going will have to be raised in Russia. "We couldn't have gotten this off the ground without foreign help," she says. "But if we want to spread this message across the country, we need to organize our own people. This sort of campaign is a rather new and unfamiliar thing in Russia, so that isn't going to be easy."

The group has mobilized volunteers in Moscow to distribute leaflets and place informative posters at the private employment centers, newspapers that run fake job ads, and tour agencies that - sometimes unwittingly, say campaigners - act as fronts for the traffickers.

"I'm appalled at the numbers of Russian women who have fallen victim to this racket," says Julie Pedersen, an American charity worker who is helping with the campaign. "This is a problem in many countries, but in Russia it's a mass phenomenon. And it should be so simple to fight, just by making information widely available."

Desperate for work in rural Russia

The problem, say women's activists, is less severe in Moscow and other large Russian cities, where there are at least some real job opportunities for young women, and information about potential criminal dangers is more widespread.

"In many small provincial cities and towns, women have no chances to find a job," says Maria Mokhova, executive director of Sisters, a Moscow-based charity group that works with victims of sexual violence. "We see so many women who have been led into slavery through a combination of economic desperation, ignorance about the world, and psychological restlessness," she says. "There are no reliable statistics about this, but I'm sure the problem is much bigger than anyone thinks."

In a 1999 survey sponsored by the United Nations Development Fund for Women, 20 percent of Russian respondents reported knowing someone who had been pressed into sexual slavery.

The Angel Coalition estimates at least half a million Russian women have experienced this ordeal over the past decade, in some 50 foreign countries. That list includes the United States, but the main destinations for Russian sex slaves are Germany, Italy, Greece, Belgium, China, and the Persian Gulf States, says Gorchakova.

In some Middle Eastern countries, Russian women's names have become slang for prostitute.

Pattern of deceit

Typically, women are lured by advertisements or recruiters who promise well-paid jobs as maids, nannies, waitresses, or dishwashers in a foreign country. Tour agencies working with the criminal gangs provide visas, arrange transportation, and often keep up the fiction by reassuring the victims that all is normal and legitimate.

When the woman arrives in the designated country, she is met by local criminals, who seize her passport, warn her she is in the country "illegally," and tell her she must pay off the "debt" for her travel expenses. Many victims report brutal violence, sexual abuse, and long periods of confinement.

"This can happen because there is large-scale cooperation between criminal gangs, shady businesses, and corrupt officials within Russia. But there are also strong working links with international crime," says Viktor Pokhmelkin, a member of the legislation commission in the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. "Sex slavery is a vast and lucrative global criminal enterprise, like arms smuggling or narcotics trafficking."

Lena managed to escape from her captors and went to the police in Greece. She was deported back to Russia. But even when they return, women can find themselves subject to threats and extortion from the hometown gangs that recruited them in the first place.

"It is so hard to get victims to give evidence," says Ms. Mokhova. "We see this all the time. Women we work with are overcome with shame and living in terror of retribution against their families if they talk about what happened to them."

Getting Lena and four other women to agree to go public with their stories was difficult, say the organizers.

Russia's lack of reliable law enforcement is one major reason the flesh trade thrives on such a huge scale, but it does not explain how the trade continues to find thousands of new victims each month.

"You have to see this in the context of our post-Soviet moral malaise," says Galina Sillaste, president of the Women and Development Association, an academic group. "There has been a collapse of public morality, and most community controls have completely eroded. Nowadays the thing is to make money by any means possible. Our society has become utterly criminalized. Young women, who are unprotected, vulnerable, and naive, make easy targets."

It is those women that the Angel Coalition hopes to reach, with the aid of volunteers and supportive Russian media organizations. "We're not trying to do anything impossible here, like fighting crime or breaking the mafia," says Gorchakova. "We are just aiming to get one simple message across to every Russian woman, so that the next time she sees a job offer that looks like the answer to her prayers, she'll know for sure that it's an invitation to visit hell."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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