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East/West: Economic Conditions Prompt Increase In Women Trafficking

By Lisa Kammerud

Prague, 1 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Trafficking in women for prostitution from eastern countries to the West has more than doubled in the last two or three years, creating a major human rights problem in the region.

Representatives from over 100 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from around the world gathered in Budapest last week to discuss what could be done about the growth of trafficking in women.

The Co-director of the Global Survival Network (GSN), Gillian Caldwell, told RFE/RL that the Trans-national Training Seminar on Trafficking in Women emphasized economic problems as the main cause of the rise in trafficking from the East.

"The increase in trafficking from Eurasia, Central and Eastern Europe, is a direct result of the transition to a market economy which began in 1989. It's resulted in a rapid feminization of poverty throughout the region. In some countries, like Russia for example, women represent 70 to 90 percent of the officially unemployed... Women have no viable economic alternatives, and are also facing dramatic cutbacks in terms of government support, so they simply can't support themselves and their extended families without considering labor migration."

According to a report issued by GSN in 1997 on trafficking, most women who end up as victims are lured by promises of work or study abroad, with fees or travel expenses to be paid back after they begin working. The report says traffickers may then force the women into prostitution or even trap them in the country by seizing their passports and asking for thousands of dollars to return them.

Caldwell said much of the seminar focused on the complexities of trafficking issues. She said the conference hammered out a consensus definition of trafficking as "consisting of all acts involved in the recruitment or transportation of persons within or across borders, involving deception, coercion, or force... for the purpose of placing persons in situations of abuse or exploitation." The seminar also listed recommendations for governments on how best to combat it.

Caldwell said some states, such as Ukraine, have legislation against trafficking, but that these and similar rules are not productive because they often crack down on legal labor migration as well.

Caldwell said that according to GSN research between 50-70 percent of women who are lured abroad by promises of employment or study may be unaware that they may be forced to work in prostitution -- but the other 30-50 percent are willing to become prostitutes in countries where prostitution is legal because they want to improve their economic situation. "The essential point is if you knew or you didn't know that you were going to work in prostitution, it's illegal to force someone to work against their will. It's illegal to force them to work without pay. So everybody has rights and I think that's another important point that this conference got across was that we need to be careful to talk about this in terms of human rights and labor rights, and to be sure that we don't oversimplify the problem because then you have a situation where you have good victims and you have bad victims." The Program Manager of the Network women's program at the Open Society Institute, Eva Foldvari, said the conference recommended that governments work with NGOs in developing legislation to combat trafficking and offer witness protection programs for victims.

Foldvari said participants' varied experiences had an impact on the atmosphere of conference.

"It made the whole seminar very lively because it was not an academic talking about the issue, but people were sitting there who were coming from the field, whose everyday life is about helping either stop trafficking or helping those women who are already victims of trafficking."