International Women's Issues

International Women’s Issues: Sex Trafficking in Russia

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

9 replies on “International Women’s Issues: Sex Trafficking in Russia”

All off the record, but I have a friend who works in law enforcement. Friend was working on a case involving the Russian mob and a group of girls who thought they were coming over to study and found themselves working in a strip joint. According to my friend the ICE guys in on the case said that they would rather spend the bulk of their resources on trafficking cases, but that they get pressured into spending more time on illegal immigration (of the chiefly Mexican kind) because it is the more politicized issue. Which is so very, very sad.

Great rundown.  I just finished teaching a course on human trafficking in the former Soviet Union, so I was excited (um, excited?  Maybe that’s the wrong word.  Anticipating) today’s article.  Especially because out of my thirty students, not one knew a THING about human trafficking before we started.  Not one.  The problem cannot be dealt with until it is at least known about, and the fact is that America is a big source country.  And if any of them ever purchase sex, before the class they would have had no idea that they need to do some investigation beforehand.  So thank you for bringing it up.

A GREAT documentary on the subject is PBS Frontline “Sex Slaves”.  (  Really, really, really good.  It’s hard to watch.  But the whole topic is hard.

The other thing that I think we need to look at is the visa situation.  Travel became possible after the fall of the Soviet Union, but getting a visa from one country to the next is nearly impossible for many people.  One of the main components in trafficking is that the victim is desperate – desperate to make money, desperate to find a way out of her situation, desperate for some sort of luck – which is part of the reason why they are so vulnerable to fraud and deception.  And desperation increases when immigration is nearly impossible.  In many places, a marriage visa is seen as the only way out, and so people are willing to marry a complete stranger and trust that it will be okay.  And the other side of the coin is that when the women are in the source countries, escape may not even be an option because they are illegal immigrants and thus criminals.

Gah, I guess I can go on and on and on about this.  And on and on and on.  Thank you for the article.

Oh, no problem – there are just so many aspects of it that it’s impossible to cover everything in one article.  The visa thing is important to me because of my own experience (as somebody with a visa-needing husband, as well as a can’t-get-a-visa set of inlaws, and having lived in a city with a very influential international marriage industry), so I’m really sensitive to it.

When people talk about getting rid of illegal immigration, hardly anybody thinks about those people who have been kidnapped and enslaved here, and “getting rid of them” criminalizes them for being victims.

Seriously, I can go on and on and on.

I know a woman in her late forties who is a registered nurse and had been working in Africa for the last 20 years to develop HIV/AIDS curriculum and to spread awareness. She is heading to Moscow soon to do the same there because of the large instances of prostitution (voluntary and involuntary) and drug use.

Thank you for posting on this topic.

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