A platform for voices supporting women's rights
By: Don Hinrichsen for UNFPA
It all started when a neighbor told 19-year-old Silvia that she could get a good job as a sales girl in Moscow. Unemployed, broke, with a baby daughter and no job prospects in her hometown of Ungheni, Silvia (not her real name) decided to travel to the Moldovan capital of Chisinau where she was to meet two men who would arrange her travel to Moscow. Upon arrival in the capital, her daughter was put in the care of the sister of one of the traffickers. “I still didn’t know what was happening to me until the day we left for Moscow and all my papers, including my passport, were confiscated,” recalls Silvia. “They told me that if I didn’t cooperate, I would never see my baby daughter again.”
In poverty stricken Moldova, sex trafficking is big business, controlled mostly by Russian organized crime networks. According to some estimates as many as 140,000 young Moldovan women have fallen prey to the flesh trade, lured by phony newspaper ads or introduced to traffickers through neighbors or school classmates. Like Silvia, most of the girls come from impoverished rural areas where more than half the population is unemployed.
Now 21 and reunited with her daughter, Silvia is hiding in Chisinau, like a fugitive. She is staying in an undisclosed location, while her neighbor and others in the smuggling ring are being charged with trafficking. “I still fear for my life and that of my daughter,” explains Silvia in an unsteady voice. “I don’t know if I will ever again feel safe. Certainly not until the people who trafficked me are in prison.”
Sitting on a couch in her “safe house”, a haven for trafficked women provided by the International Office of Migration (IOM), Silvia doesn’t look like a victim, except for the deep sadness in her large brown eyes. Unfortunately, her story is not atypical.
Silvia’s “journey into hell”, as she calls it, started two years ago. “I was smuggled into Moscow along with 11 other young women, all from Moldova,” says Silvia in a quiet monotone voice. “None of the girls were doing this voluntarily. We refused to work at first, so they starved and beat us. One of the overseers took an instant dislike to me. He raped me, then beat me senseless. The threats against my daughter never ceased.”
Her “home” in Moscow was a grimy hotel in a seedy section of the city. Actually, the entire hotel was a brothel, filled with girls from Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus and other former Soviet republics. “At first we were forced to walk the streets in search of clients,” recalls Silvia. “If I didn’t return with clients, I was beaten. We had to work in thin dresses even in the middle of the Russian winter.”
Silvia became numb in both body and spirit. “The cold and the brutal conditions under which we had to live, wore most of us down,” she says with a sigh. “A number of girls tried to commit suicide. I stayed alive because of my daughter.”
When one girl from Ukraine threw herself out of the top floor window, her body was removed from the street like a piece of garbage. “The police did nothing to close the brothel or take action against the operators,” explains Silvia. “The police were in the back-pocket of the criminals. We had to service lots of cops for free.”
Once the clientele was built up, Silvia and the other girls were hardly let out of the hotel. “One night I had to service 30 drunken guys,” recalls Silvia with disgust. “The overseers arranged these orgies, where several of us would have to work the entire night. Afterwards we were so exhausted we could hardly move.”
Her “captivity” in Moscow lasted a full year. “I was allowed to send back $100 a month to Chisinau to support my daughter, but I was not allowed any direct contact with her,” says Silvia. “Other than this, I never saw one dollar of the money I brought in. And it was a lot, as we charged $150 for sex, and sometimes I had to service more than 35 clients in one day.”
When Silvia got sick and had to be hospitalized for exhaustion and a venereal disease, the overseers sent her back to Moldova to visit her daughter. “I was still weak and afraid all the time,” she says. “I didn’t even know what disease I had.” Later she guessed that it was syphilis.
After recovering her health, Silvia was confronted again by the same two guys that had smuggled her into Russia. “They threatened to harm my daughter if I didn’t continue to work for them,” she recalls. “I didn’t know where to turn for help and I was afraid of what they would do to me, so I was sent to Turkey next, through the port of Izmir.”
Arriving in Turkey, Silvia found herself once again in a brothel hotel with 12 other girls, all from Moldova. After just three months, the Turkish police raided the hotel and she was arrested. “I spent two months in jail, then was sent to Istanbul, where I was finally turned over to staff of the IOM and returned to Moldova,” she explains.
Silvia was a physical and emotional wreck upon her return to Moldova. “I was sick, tired, afraid and filthy,” she recalls, looking down at the floor and grasping her hands together tightly. “I was really in bad shape when I arrived here. I was shaking constantly, had horrible headaches and continuing nightmares. If not for the UN system here and help from IOM and this shelter, I would either be dead or in a mental hospital.”
Silvia’s daughter has been put in a maternal child care center, run by the Government, while she recovers in the shelter. “This shelter has provided me with medical treatment, and psycho-social counseling, which has helped a lot,” says Silvia, smiling for the first time.
UNFPA and IOM have been collaborating closely since 1999. The IOM shelter for victims of trafficking is not far from a health center supported by UNFPA. This center offers a complete array of reproductive health services, including testing and treatment of STIs, distribution of contraceptives free of charge and pre- and post-natal care.
In addition to helping Silvia recover from her ordeal, IOM, in collaboration with UN agencies, is also providing her with a skill. “I am taking beauty courses, which will allow me to make money doing manicures and pedicures, once I have completed my training,” she points out. “All I want now is to have a normal life again.”
Returning to normalcy is a huge challenge for girls trafficked for the sex industry. Most are unable to have trusting relationships with men. “Many girls are so destroyed by the experience that even after being rescued and returned home, they try to kill themselves,” points out Olga Kolomeyets, Counter-Trafficking Coordinator for IOM in Moldova.
The facility where Silvia is recovering is the only one in the entire country. “Over 1500 girls have been rescued and rehabilitated in this shelter,” says Kolomeyets proudly. “We need to do more, but the Government doesn’t have funds to expand the operation.”
Nearly 90 per cent of returnees that pass through Chisinau have an STI that needs treatment and 1.2 per cent are HIV positive. “Before we set up this rehab facility and shelter, victims of trafficking had no help at all in this country,” says Kolomeyets. “Recently Moldova passed an anti-trafficking law, and IOM is lobbying the Russian Government to do the same.”
Silvia was lucky in that she has tested negative for the virus that causes AIDS. But she went through six months of intensive medical and psychological treatment. “Virtually all the girls that pass through here are mentally affected by the experience, some will never recover,” notes Kolomeyets sadly. “The other thing that comes out during rehabilitation is that some 85 per cent of the girls trafficked have suffered from domestic violence. There is a history of violence in their families,” she continues. “So they see their sex slavery as another form of domestic abuse, which they’ve been subjected to all their lives.”
As for Silvia, all she wants is to get back together with the father of her daughter. “At 18 I was living with this guy in Moscow,” she says smiling. “My Russian boyfriend is the father of my daughter. We didn’t marry because I needed to get papers here in Moldova. When I returned, the Russian Embassy wouldn’t issue the proper documents allowing me to return to Moscow legally. So I was stuck. And that’s when the traffickers got hold of me.”
Unlike so many other girls who are trafficked, Silvia actually wants her story told. Why? “At first I thought all the stories about trafficked girls were phony, scare tactics,” she confesses. “But now I know better and I want to help others understand that it is real and can happen to anyone.”
Silvia pauses to dry her eyes and collect her thoughts. “When I came back from Turkey and collected my daughter, it was the lowest point in my life,” she says, staring at the floor. “I had no hope for the future. Here I found myself and have learned a lot. The UNFPA-supported clinic provided treatment and counseling for me.” She pauses, then looks up. “I will have a new life,” she says defiantly. “No one should have to endure what I went through. No one.”
From Female Report! contributor, Don Hinrichsen for UNFPA
For more of UNFPA research: http://www.unfpa.org/public/global/pid/196