Two years ago, a well-dressed woman came to see Elena Zyablikova, a school administrator in Borisov, Belarus. The woman said she worked for an advertising agency representing a foreign study program.
“She asked me to talk to the best-looking girls in my 11th- and 12th-grade classes, and suggest that they continue their studies in Moscow,” Zyablikova recalls. “The agency would give them a nice apartment, modeling jobs and a free six-month English course. And I’d get $100 for each girl.”
Zyablikova was stunned, realizing that the woman wanted her to refer girls to a foreign trafficking ring. Perhaps the agency had targeted her school, she thought, because a former student had been named Miss Belarus.
Zyablikova threatened to report the woman, who countered that she would simply deny making the offer.
“After this visit, I realized that our students and their parents needed to be on guard,” says Zyablikova, the Belarus regional representative for Project Kesher, an international Jewish women’s group that advocates for social justice and women’s rights in the former Soviet Union.
Zyablikova wasn’t being alarmist sex trafficking is a huge problem in the former Soviet Union. In the past decade and a half, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia and Belarus have replaced Asia and Latin America as the world’s main source for sexually trafficked women.
The problem is recent, tied to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the opening of borders, so there are few laws to prevent or prosecute trafficking, and fewer resources to help victims who return home. That work has fallen largely to non-governmental women’s and human rights organizations, including Project Kesher.
“We do a lot of educational work, but outside the largest cities no one talks about it,” says Kesher activist Tatyana Voytalyuk of Rovno, a city in western Ukraine.
The United Nations-funded International Organization for Migration estimates that 50,000 to 100,000 Moldovans, more than 100,000 Ukrainians and up to half a million Russians have been victimized. By 2000, more than one-third of the trafficked women working as prostitutes in Europe were from the former Soviet Union.
In response to this trend, Voytalyuk and other activists in Rovno persuaded city authorities to institute a policy requiring any group of young people traveling abroad on an organized trip to attend, with their teachers, a Project Kesher lecture on the dangers of trafficking. Only after they attended such a program would their passports be issued. Voytalyuk hopes the program will be copied elsewhere.
Activist Vlada Bystrova of Krivoy Rog, Ukraine, works with a group of Hillel students in the Crimean resort town of Simferopol. They visit the public schools to teach students about the dangers of being lured by traffickers.
“This is a port city near the border, and the newspapers are full of ads from men looking for ‘pretty girls’ offering them money,” Bystrova says. “There’s no mention of sex. The girl calls, she gets a ‘job offer’ and …” Bystrova shakes her head, not finishing her sentence.
It’s not just young women at risk. Bystrova knows a woman in her mid-40s who went to Italy with her 18-year-old daughter to keep house for a wealthy couple. Soon the wife began forcing them to have sex with her husband. The older woman said she would comply, as long as they let her daughter go.
“It took a year for us to get that mother freed,” Bystrova says. “The neighbors didn’t believe that such an upstanding couple would be doing this.”
Today the mother works for a Hesed Jewish welfare center in Ukraine and her daughter attends a Kiev university.
“We work a lot with the police,” says Svetlana Yakimenko, Kesher’s Moscow-based director. They are very open to us. They, too, don’t know how to handle the problem.”
Activists say few Jewish women and girls have been among those trafficked abroad for sex work.
“Maybe that’s because we talk to them about it,” says Zyablikova, whose organization maintains a databank of the names of children in Belarus who have been trafficked. “Children who are abandoned or neglected by their parents are much more at risk.”
Still, that doesn’t mean Jewish girls are not in danger.
Five years ago a young man called Irina Savitskaya, director of a performance troupe of young Jewish women in Chernigov. He said he was organizing a multi-city tour for young dancers and would pay all their expenses.
“It didn’t seem legitimate, so I refused,” Savitskaya says. “Then he asked if I knew any other groups that might be interested.”
The man called repeatedly before finally showing up in person, with an accomplice. He explained that the girls “would only do striptease,” and promised Savitskaya money for each girl she persuaded to go.
Savitskaya ejected the visitors but was badly shaken.
“These people are scary,” she says.
For trafficked women who are rescued and return home, picking up the pieces of their shattered lives is rarely easy. Kesher activists work with other women’s groups to help resettle them, train them for jobs and offer psychological support.
Governments in the region are finally taking the problem seriously.
In January 2006, Ukraine strengthened the article to its criminal code that criminalizes human trafficking. The amendments adopted to Article 149 punish domestic trafficking and mandate harsher penalties when the victims are younger than 18.
Also, Yakimenko says, there is now an anti-trafficking division in most police departments.
In Belarus, which only opened its borders in 1998, anti-trafficking measures were added to the criminal code in 2005, imposing prison terms for offenders. Zyablikkova says 12 people have been prosecuted successfully.
Up to then, when people turned to the police, the abusers weren’t punished,” says Olga Krasko, a Kesher activist in Polotsk, Belarus. “The police didn’t even investigate. People blamed the victims if they hadn’t gone abroad, this wouldn’t have happened.”
That attitude is deeply ingrained. When Krasko and other activists tried to give travel agencies material on trafficking to hand out to their clients, many refused to take it.
“They said, ‘we’re not the ones sending them,’ ” Krasko relates.
Minsk, she says, is the only city in Belarus that has a women’s shelter. Few resources for aiding the victims of sex trafficking are available.
Last year, Project Kesher organized anti-trafficking seminars throughout Belarus and invited representatives from many women’s groups. Many did not want to discuss the issue, Krasko says.
“They said it only happens to those who are looking for it,” she recalls.
“We are focusing on making people acknowledge that it could happen to anyone. You don’t have to be young and pretty.”