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Russia: Solving The Problem Of Trafficking In Women

Washington, 11 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Organizers of a U.S.-Russian conference taking place this week in Washington say they hope the meeting will result in solutions to a problem facing both countries -- the trafficking of Russian women into the United States.

The conference, entitled, "Criminal Justice Issues in the International Exploitation of Women and Children" is being sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

An official at the State Department says the agency chose the topic since it was already working closely with the Russian government on a number of transnational issues such as the mafia and narcotics smuggling. The official says that adding the issues of trafficking in Russian women and child pornography was simply a natural evolution of U.S. programs.

Approximately 25 Russian judges, prosecutors, law enforcement officers and representatives of non-governmental agencies were invited by the U.S. government to take part in the conference.

The conference was arranged by the State Department in response to a request from the U.S. Congress that the issue of violence against women be examined as part of the U.S. assistance package to Russia.

Both U.S. President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have said they intend to make women's issues a central priority of American foreign policy.

The conference itself is closed to the press, but the State Department official attending the conference agreed to speak to REF/RL during a break in the proceedings on the condition of anonymity.

"I think we should make it clear that we are not having this conference because Russia has a great problem with child pornography or that Russian women are being trafficked in greater numbers than say, Thai women," the official says.

The official says the organizers of the conference are hoping to coordinate efforts to stop violence and abuse of women and children.

The trafficking of Russian women and girls has recently gained international notoriety. According to an article last month in the "The Washington Post," Russian women are being tricked into prostitution and slavery by organized crime figures who tell them they have been selected to be part of folk music groups.

Albright also directly addressed the issue at a special program in honor of International Women's Day last month.

"We will take part in a global effort to crack down on illegal trafficking in women and girls," Albright said. "And let me say that if those who traffic in drugs should be punished severely -- and they should -- so should those who traffic in human beings."

The conference is covering a wide variety of topics including sexual assault, child abuse, pornography on the Interent, and creating an investigative network and outreach program to stop trafficking in women.

The group is also scheduled to have a working lunch at the White House with Kathleen Hendricks, a special assistant on the President's Interagency Council on Women.

One of the speakers at the conference, Judge William Young of the U.S. District Court in the northeastern state of Massachusetts, told RFE/RL that he felt honored to be a participant.

"I think that next to discharging my judicial duties and trying the cases that are called in our session of the court, at this time in the world's history, the ability to interact with the judiciary and policymakers in other countries is about the most important thing a judge can do. I feel that very strongly," he said.

Young spoke to participants about pornography and the Internet from an American judicial and legal perspective. He also discussed American methods of balancing free speech and public order in the context of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

A Russian participant, Tatyana Lipovskaya, told RFE/RL that she was enjoying the conference and learning a lot. Lipovskaya is a volunteer for the newly opened "Syostri," a Moscow sexual assault recovery center.

"It's not really a center," Lipovskaya explains. "It is just a telephone number, a hot line. Moscow is an expensive city and we don't have the money to rent a space. But at least we have some ability to help victims, if only by telephone."

Lipovskaya says Russia is just becoming aware of the acute need to form support groups and organizations to help women. According to Lipovskaya, there are only a handful of women's shelters open across Russia.

The State Department official says bringing these issues to light and helping people network with each other is an important aspect to the conference.

The official adds that overall, the State Department hopes to lay the groundwork for improving U.S.-Russian cooperation against international traffickers; to provide ideas for legislative changes on the issue in Russia; and to personally introduce people to one another who could effectively work together on such cases.