It’s Europe/Eurasia week here again at International Women’s Issues, so before I get into this week’s post, I’d like to direct you all to go and read Susan’s posts about Oksana Makar, a Ukranian rape victim fighting for her life. The posts are here, here, and here, and while they’re very heavy stuff, this is a tragic story that needs more attention, and Susan’s done a phenomenal job explaining the complexities of the situation.
Are you back? Excellent. This week, we shall be looking at Russia. (This might be partially due to the fact that I keep track of where I’ve written about via a big blank map. I color in a country once I’ve written about it, in an attempt to ensure I’m not leaving out any chunks of the world. Filling in all of Russia is exciting!)
And as we are in Russia, this week’s topic is sex trafficking. (It was very nearly the arrest of the members of a feminist punk rock group called “Pussy Riot” for anti-Putin music and “hooliganism,” but I decided that wasn’t depressing enough.) So. Sex trafficking. The UN definition of trafficking is:
The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.
But that’s a lot of words, so essentially, those guilty of trafficking facilitate the travel of another person, without the latter’s informed consent, for the purpose of exploitation. The U.S. State Department definition of sex trafficking specifies that this travel is for the purpose of being “coerced, forced, or deceived into prostitution.” The coercive and exploitative elements are key here. Sex trafficking affects pretty much every country in the world, from countries where the victims are taken from, transported through, and then forced to serve as sex workers.
How does this happen? Usually through lies and deception, though there is sometimes outright kidnapping. More commonly, victims of sex trafficking are usually extremely impoverished, and take up a friend, family member, or stranger’s offer to help them find work in another country, or simply a bigger city. As they want to get to their destination, believing a legitimate job is waiting for them, they go with their captors willingly. Upon arrival, however, they are sold into sexual slavery, or told that they must work as a prostitute to pay back the people that got them to their new location. Sometimes, when this debt is repaid, they are set free, but certainly not always.
I hope I don’t need to make clear that women who enter into forced prostitution due to sex trafficking are a very different thing that women who willingly work as sex workers. While the culture of shame and discrimination affects willing and unwilling sex workers alike, this post has next to nothing to do with women who voluntarily enter and willingly stay in the sex industry. I say next to nothing, of course, because the invisibility of this industry facilitates the enslavement of trafficked women, and some of the concerns for trafficked women – exposure to disease, the heightened possibility of violence, mistreatment at the hands of the police and other authorities – are all risks for voluntary sex workers as well. And voluntary sex work can become involuntary. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What’s the situation in Russia? Because of the history of communism, Russia is in fact more progressive towards women’s rights than many other nations with a similar level of development. In terms of literacy and employment levels, Russian women are on an even level with men. That said, women are paid less for the same work, under-represented in the political sphere, suffer domestic violence and gender-based violence, are more likely to be impoverished, and there is, essentially, latent gender discrimination throughout the population. (All of this should unfortunately sound all too familiar to American readers.)
In addition to all of this, the end of the Cold War, and the ability to travel more freely, both throughout the country and internationally, lead to a huge increase in sex trafficking. While initially the majority of the trafficking involved young women and girls being smuggled out of the country, as the Russian economy has improved over the past two decades, Russia is now a destination for victims trafficked from other countries, as well as a source of victims. (I keep saying “victims” rather than “women” or “girls” because there are men and boys who are victims of sex trafficking as well, though they are in the extreme minority.) According to a 2008 estimate, there are over a million people in Russia suffering under exploitative labor practices indicative of trafficking, though this number includes non-sexual trafficking as well. Literally, this is slavery. About eighty percent of this population is women and children, and seventy percent of the total trafficked population is trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation.
A 2005 UN report on human trafficking in Russia identifies people most likely to be trafficked – girls and women under 30, from small towns, who haven’t completed secondary school, are unemployed or temporarily employed, and “affiliated with socially vulnerable or marginalized groups.” What’s that last bit? Vulnerable people are identified as orphans, immigrants or people from minority ethnic groups, women and girls from low-income families, families in which alcoholism is present, single mothers. In other words, the people who society tends to make invisible and undervalue.
I don’t particularly want to go into excruciating detail of the life of a forced sex worker. (If you’d like to read dozens of accounts, viewed through a thick Western lens, see Nicolas Kristof’s Half the World, which concerns itself mainly with Southeast Asia, the other global hotbed of sex trafficking.) Suffice to say, victims endure violence, both sexual and non-sexual; do not always have access to contraception, and have even less control as to whether it is used; are exposed to diseases; are sometimes subjected to forced abortions, forced drug and alcohol use; and can be denied everything from food and water to medical care and contact with the outside world.
In December of 2010, President Medvedev took action to combat sex trafficking, promising to create targeted government ministries and fund NGOs (whether a government-funded NGO is still an NGO is up for debate, but at another time). It will be interesting to see how these promises hold up over a year later, with Putin once again officially in charge.
There is one NGO that stands out above and beyond all others, so let’s talk about them. This is the Angel Coalition, an association of dozens of grassroots NGOs throughout Russia and surrounding areas. Founded in 1999, the Angel Coalition is the largest and oldest NGO in Russia devoted solely to combating human trafficking. They operate nine safe houses throughout the country, as well as the Trafficking Victim Assistance Center in Moscow, which carries out a number of projects in the name of combating trafficking. The Director of TVAC, Gulchehra M. Mirzoev, founded an anti-trafficking NGO in Tajikistan before taking over the Center. TVAC pretty much does it all – they have a widely-publicized hotline for victims of trafficking, used by both victims and their families; they work with law enforcement, training them to treat victims properly, especially child victims; they work directly with at-risk children and teenagers, educating them as to the potential of being trafficked; and they facilitate reunions between survivors of trafficking and their families. Over sixty smaller NGOs carry out similar work throughout the country, with oversight from Angel Coalition leadership. This work is huge, impacting every aspect of trafficking.
There are other international organizations working in Russia as well, but as always, I am going to stick with locally-created organizations. They tend to be the best option!
Angel Coalition Trafficking Victim Assistance Center
Annual Trafficking in Persons Report
Gender and Human Trafficking
Gender Equality and the Extension of Women’s Rights in Russia in the Context of the UN the Millennium Development Goals
The Angel Coaliiton