Eastern Europe is one of the biggest suppliers of women for a flourishing international sex-slave trade. The women are often trapped in debt bondage, forced to work as unpaid prostitutes in Western Europe and the United States. In Part One of a two-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos examines the problem and the efforts to support victims.
Prague, 19 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The fight against the trafficking of women has only begun around the world. But it is already clear that the countries of Eastern Europe have their hands full.
The United Nations estimates that 4 million people throughout the world are trafficked each year. To address the problem, the UN recently launched a global program to design country-specific initiatives that will provide support to victims, train police, and create stricter laws to punish traffickers.
According to the International Organization for Migration, about half a million women from Central and Eastern Europe are trafficked annually into the 15 nations of the European Union. A UN official at the Center for International Crime Prevention -- Michael Platzer -- says that criminal gangs earn more money from the trade in women from Eastern Europe than from the trade in illegal drugs.
Iveta Bartunkova works at the Prague offices of La Strada, the leading East European anti-trafficking organization. La Strada provides support for victims of prostitution and seeks stricter international laws against the trade.
Bartunkova says that the distressed economies in Eastern transition countries, together with a low level of consciousness about women's rights, have made it easy for many women in the area to fall into the trap of forced prostitution. She says East European women see themselves as -- and in fact often are -- lower on the economic ladder then men. Without the same range of options as men in the area, she adds, women feel dependent on someone else for their livelihood:
"When the women are not informed about their human rights about their possibilities to decide [how] to rule their life, usually they think they need somebody who will take care of them, who will coordinate their activities, and usually these people can be traffickers as well."
The Czech Republic faces a particularly acute problem of women working in the sex-slave trade. Not only do many Czech women get trafficked out of the country to the EU and the U.S., but many other women are trafficked into the country from areas further east.
Bartunkova says that some 60 percent of the women she helps are Czech. The remaining 40 percent are from Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Bulgaria, Romania, and Albania. Contrary to popular belief, many of these women know the men who trafficked them. She says that often they are boyfriends, husbands, family members, or friends acting as the home-country supplier of women who are eventually trafficked elsewhere.
In a typical case, a boyfriend will tell his girlfriend about the possibility of working outside her country. Sometimes, the woman knows she will be working as a prostitute. Other times, she might believe she will be a waitress or an "au pair." The woman is sent off to meet her boyfriend's contact across the border. The contact then becomes, in effect, the woman's owner.
Typically, the woman's passport is taken and she is physically forced to work as a prostitute. Her pimp frequently uses violence, rape, threats, and intimidation to keep her at work. Confused in a new country and with no identification documents, the woman may believe she will be jailed if she goes to the police:
"There is a quite a lot of women who can decide they can work in a foreign country as a prostitute. But they definitely do not know about the conditions and they definitely didn't decide to work as a slave. Of course, there are also a lot of women who wanted to work as a waitress or au pair or something like that. And these women really didn't know that something like forced prostitution will be their real job."
The efficient, brutal routine seldom varies: Women are held in apartments, bars, and makeshift brothels. There, they have sex with as many as 15 men per day. They are not paid for their work. Instead, their handlers take the money, saying it will go towards paying off their travel costs and living arrangements.
"The traffickers use a lot of procedures to break down the women. There is really a very high level of violence -- I mean, physical violence -- that has a very strong effect on the mental health of the woman."
Bartunkova says that the physical abuse, coupled with threats against the woman's family, keeps her from going to police. She points out that -- even though there are now more public efforts to fight international trafficking -- local police often still treat victimized women as criminals. Many women who do summon up the courage to go the police, she says, are arrested for working in an illegal profession.
Making clear that trafficked women are victims of international crime is one of La Strada's goals in its efforts to persuade governments to do more to support trafficked women. Bartunkova says that the Netherlands has a particularly good anti-trafficking law, which gives victims at least three months of social and medical support. If -- by the end of that time -- the woman decides to appear as a witness against her handlers, she can stay longer in the country.
Trafficked women also have the option of applying for residency in the Netherlands if they feel they will be threatened or hurt in their home countries. Bartunkova says that many traffickers are at large in the women's countries of origin and can threaten violence against the women and their families.
La Strada helped 80 women in the Czech Republic last year. The average age of the women was 20, but Bartunkova says that the desire of clients to meet younger partners has led to the trafficking of ever younger girls.
International organizations are trying to combat trafficking with victim support, prevention campaigns and tougher laws against traffickers. But overcoming the social and economic roots of the problem, activists say, could still take decades.