News Articles

Millions of women & children mired in global sex trafficking

OXFORD, England (BP)–Coerced, kidnapped or coaxed with false promises, millions of women and children are sold into prostitution and sexual slavery around the world every year. Their numbers are growing, fueled by the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union and rampant poverty throughout the developing world, the Internet news source Newsroom-online reported in mid-April, citing various international agencies and governments.

Last year the U.S. Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, which President Bill Clinton signed on Oct. 28. Among other provisions, the act criminalizes trafficking with respect to slavery, involuntary servitude, peonage or forced labor; increases prison terms for all slavery violations; and requires courts to order restitution and forfeiture of assets upon conviction.

U.S. attorneys in March successfully prosecuted a Berkeley, Calif., man for trafficking women and girls into the United States to place them in sexual servitude. Justice Department officials said that he and others had been carrying out a widespread conspiracy since 1986 to bring at least 25 Indian laborers into the United States through false pretenses. He also arranged for teenaged girls to be brought to the United States for the purpose of sexual relations, including a 13-year-old from India.

Sex trafficking is a global human rights problem, experts say. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 1 million children are forced into prostitution in Southeast Asia alone, and another 1 million worldwide. An estimated 250,000 women and children from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are trafficked into Western Europe, the Middle East, Japan, Canada and the United States each year. Tens of thousands of Latin American women are tricked or sold into prostitution every year. Estimates by the U.S. government put the number of women trafficked into the country at 50,000 to 100,000 annually. Another 40,000 to 50,000 work as prostitutes in Japan, according to the United Nations report “Global Report on Crime and Justice,” published in 1999.

“The numbers may soon be on par with the African slave trade of the 1700s,” Laura J. Lederer, director of the Protection Project at Johns Hopkins University, told the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights in the fall of 1999. The Protection Project is building an international database of laws on the commercial sexual exploitation of women and children.

Economic and sexual slavery “is a highly lucrative global industry controlled by powerful criminal organizations, such as the Yakuza, the Triads, and the Mafia,” the U.N. report said. “These groups … amass an estimated $7 billion a year while making use of electronic technology to expand their networks in developed and developing nations.”

Illicit trafficking is expanding through the use of child pornography on the Internet and low-cost Internet advertising of the commercial sex trade that attracts sex tourists and pedophiles, Carol Bellamy, UNICEF executive director, told representatives of governments and civil society gathered in Tokyo last year to consider strategies for combating the problem.

It is a worldwide, multi-billion-dollar industry, Bellamy told the officials. “Boys and girls are favored targets for sexual exploitation, and groups with low social standing are often the most vulnerable, such as minorities and refugees.”

Sex trafficking, in Nigeria President Olusegun Obasanjo’s view, is another form of slavery. “Child labor and women trafficking are very much akin to the slave trade era of the 18th and 19th centuries, and we must take the battle with the same doggedness that we took against slave trade,” Obasanjo told civil society leaders attending the first Pan African Conference on Human Trafficking, which met in Abuja, the nation’s capital, in February.

Trafficking most often originates in countries with poverty, few opportunities for women, and few laws to prosecute traffickers, Lederer testified before the U.S. Congress subcommittee. “Women and children are trafficked to countries where prostitution is legal or tolerated, and where there are few protections for children or women who have been trafficked.”

“These girls are exploited because they are young and poorly educated,” lamented Mickel Edwerd, a program officer at the United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP) office in Nairobi. “Networks and people who have contacts to traffic drugs are also using them.”

Like many African women desperate for work, Latifa Mohammed left Kenya in 1998 at age 19 for a job in Germany that required no education or experience. “I jumped for the offer, because it sounded so good,” she recalled. But once she and four other women arrived in Germany, their identification papers were confiscated and she was forced to work as a prostitute.

“There are many Kenyan girls working as prostitutes in Europe,” Mohammed said. “The majority of them got here by being tricked. Some of them fall prey to marriage offers to white men. The marriage turns out as a trade for prostitution.”

Religious groups and aid agencies in much of the developing world are appalled at the extent of the problem, which they say is fueled by extreme poverty.

Ellen van der Hoeven, a volunteer at Jerusalem’s International Christian Zionist Center, described the plight of one woman from Ukraine who was lured to Israel with the promise of a job as a masseuse earning $1,000 a month, a fortune compared with the $30 a month she earned at home. The recruiter provided “Anna” with a forged Israeli visa, but once in Israel her passport was taken, and she was driven to a guarded apartment. There Anna learned that she had been sold into prostitution and that she would have to work off the $6,500 purchase price as well as have sexual relations with her owner and his friends.

Fearing both the authorities and her pimps, Anna worked for a year in various brothels, apartments and hotels. She was sold several times, with each new owner requiring her to work off the purchase price. When she got pregnant, she was referred to the Christian Zionist Center. “Now she lives in the houses of our supporters — actually she is hiding from the pimps — and we are trying to arrange the proper travel documents and raise some money so that she could get home,” van der Hoeven said.

“The moment these people are through with these girls, they dump them in the middle of nowhere without any travel documents or any other form of identification,” observed Lorna Rupia, executive director of the chapter of Solidarity with Women in Distress, an international Catholic organization that rescues, counsels and rehabilitates commercial sex workers. The Kenya chapter is based in Mombasa, Kenya’s most popular tourist destination.

As many as 500,000 African women may be involved in sex trafficking every year, some African authorities estimate. Some go willingly to earn money in European brothels to send back to their impoverished families; many others are deceived by the promise of work, only to wind up as prostitutes. Most who seek work outside their countries do so with encouragement from their families, said Emma Kagethe, a gender program officer with the National Christian Council of Kenya. “A woman, in the African context, is responsible for feeding the family,” she said. “Many young girls are drawn out of school to go work in households to bring income to the family.”

“Where is the government machinery as this is happening?” asked Anthony Njue, head of the Catholic Justice Peace Commission in Kenya. “Slavery ended many years ago, and the church was in the forefront in the fight against it.”

Governments must address unemployment, which especially hurts women, and be more vigilant in assessing the legitimacy of work offers in foreign countries, said Gregory Kivanguli, director of education at the Nairobi Pentecostal Church Academy. “Deceiving these young girls is wrong before the eyes of God,” he said.

Kenya does not require its citizens to register if they plan to work outside the country, said Fredrick Omondi, external relations officer for the Kenya office of the International Organization for Migration. IOM is a non-governmental organization that works to help states and individuals solve migration problems. “IOM cannot intervene because the government has not requested them to do so,” he said. “Our findings indicate that there is a major problem, but the government is silent.”

While thousands of Nigerian women work voluntarily as prostitutes in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and Ukraine, the majority live in Italy, where Nigerian ambassador Jack Okpoyo estimates their number at about 10,000. Italian media report that Nigerian prostitutes account for half of all foreign nationals living in Italy. Nigerian authorities assert that Edo state produces about 90 percent of Nigerian prostitutes living abroad.

In a report by the Advocacy Project, a U.S.-based NGO, Italy’s deputy ambassador in Nigeria, Maurizio Bungaro, said the problem began in the late 1980s when his country was importing migrant workers. “Nigerian women went to the central Italian region of Campania to pick tomatoes, but gradually the girls were attracted to the large cities of Rome, Naples and Florence, where they found a high demand for their charms. So high, in fact, that on one occasion, Italian prostitutes publicly protested against encroachment in their turf by Nigeria.”

Hajiya Aisha Ismail, Nigeria’s minister of women affairs and youth development, notes that many women who leave the country in search of employment resort to prostitution to survive. “I am not trying to make excuses for these girls, but the fact is that some of these women were tricked with offers of jobs abroad by some unscrupulous elements only to be sold into prostitution,” Aisha said at a recent celebration of International Women’s Day in Abuja.

Many Nigerian women, however, work as prostitutes voluntarily. “No thanks to the low value of our currency, the money made from prostitution has been used to build houses and cars which can be seen all over Benin (the capital of Edo),” said Jude Arijaje, a journalist from Delta state, which ranks next to Edo in the number of foreign prostitutes. Said Kingsley Oboegbulem, a public relations practitioner who grew up in Benin, “Suddenly young ladies you normally see, especially from poor homes, … disappear only to resurface after a few years with a lot of money. Parents and husbands even encourage their daughters and wives to go into it because of the enormous amount made from the prostitution.”

That is not the case in Israel, where the recent deaths of four prostitutes who were burned alive in a Tel Aviv brothel prompted other women brought into the country as sex slaves to seek help from authorities. Israeli officials estimate the number of women smuggled into the country as illicit sex workers at about 3,000 a year.

The influx of 1 million immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States during the past decade has made it easier for crime syndicates to traffic women with forged documents, said Alexander Shubov, liaison officer of the Russian Interior Ministry at the Russian Embassy in Tel-Aviv. “Some prostitutes come in under the forged identities of Jewish women in Russia and the Ukraine. They even receive the rights and benefits accorded to immigrants by the Law of Return. The price for a woman sold into prostitution ranges from $5,000 to $30,000, depending on her age, appearance and the demands of the client.”

Experts in Israel estimate that 10,000 women have been trafficked into the country in the last decade, although the number last year alone was about 3,000. Most of the women come from the former Soviet Union, with some from Brazil, Turkey and South Africa. Not all of them remain in Israel; some are transported to the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Israeli journalist Arkan Kariv, who recently did his Army reserve duty at the Israeli-Egyptian border, told Newsroom-online that he helped detain a camel caravan that was smuggling Russian women from Egypt through the Sinai Desert into Israel.

In addition to the rapid population growth, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and greater numbers of foreign workers — mostly single men — eroding social norms help fuel the illicit trade, contends retired Israeli historian Michael Heifetz. “Both married men, including ultra-Orthodox, and single men who don’t want to enter into a relationship prefer to purchase sex,” he said.

In New Zealand, Sou Chiam of the country’s Human Rights Commission told Newsroom that a campaign last year to help Thai women who were lured by the promise of jobs but sold into prostitution resulted in assistance to six young women, who returned home. None of the traffickers, however, were prosecuted. “Most of these women are poor farm workers whose families may have mortgaged their farms to pay for the ‘decent job’ in New Zealand,” she said.

The realization that large numbers of women from Nigeria’s Edo state were leaving the country in the last decade to work as prostitutes prompted action on several fronts. Titi Abubakar, wife of Nigeria Vice President Atiku Abubakar, launched the Women Trafficking and Child Labor Eradication Foundation last year, calling the campaign “a clarion call to invoke the spirit and stir the conscience of humanity against trafficking in all forms.”

In February 2000, the wife of the Edo governor, Eki Igbinedion, announced the Idia Renaissance to tackle prostitution and other social ills in the state. “The campaign is on one hand a moral crusade and on the other hand an economic crusade,” she explained. Seven months later, the state banned prostitution and made it illegal to provide any financial, physical or material assistance to those who travel out of Nigeria for the purpose of becoming a prostitute. The penalty is two years imprisonment or a $200 fine.

More than 150 countries have laws that at least minimally target traffickers by prohibiting the procuring of women and children for prostitution or forced labor, said Lederer of the Protection Project. “However, these laws are often poorly, if ever, enforced,” she testified before the congressional subcommittee. “In fact, we find that the prostitution laws, which are aimed at women and children, are enforced, while the procuration laws, aimed at the traffickers, are almost never invoked. In addition, few countries have the kinds of laws that protect victims of trafficking, or services that will help them recover and get on with their lives. As a result, women who have been forced into prostitution often end up in jail awaiting deportation and go back to their homeland sick, drug-addicted, unemployed and unemployable, and filled with shame and fear.”

Israeli attorney Victor Tsipris told Newsroom that charges against pimps do not include trafficking in women. “One reason for the lack of sustained attention by the Israeli government and media is that prostitution is not illegal in Israel,” he said. “What is criminal is procurement, which the law defines as taking some or all of the profits of a woman so engaged. Yet in the case of trafficked women, it is the prostitutes who have been consistently punished by Israel’s law enforcement agencies — as illegal aliens — by being arrested, detained for weeks and deported, while the owners of brothels have often gotten off scot-free.”

Until recently, Israeli police refused to take the statements of prostitutes, Tsipris said, noting, “They said it would be her word against that of her pimps, and they couldn’t build a case on that.”

Russian liaison officer Shubov told Newsroom that his government is trying to stop the trade. “We are doing our best to nab recruiters on the Russian side and work in close cooperation with Israeli police, but it’s a global multi-billion-dollar industry,” he said.

A Knesset committee comprised of members of the Justice, Interior, Internal Security, and Labor and Social Affairs ministries is considering the creation of a special unit to investigate and prosecute abusers; policies that treat women as victims rather than criminals; opening a hostel for trafficked women; and providing these women with legal aid, counseling and medical services.

“There is at least one positive change we have already,” said attorney Tsipris. “Officials are now clearly speaking of trafficked women as victims and of the need to prosecute the traffickers and pimps, rather than the women they victimize.”

In Nigeria, a bill has been submitted to the National Assembly that would make it illegal to benefit from human trafficking. The conference on human trafficking recommended that governments strengthen enforcement of laws and policies, address the causes of trafficking and cultures that oppress women, and promote gender equality.

There are numerous international agreements against trafficking in women and children for prostitution and forced labor. But without consistent, aggressive enforcement, experts say, those agreements are ineffective.

“Brothel keepers are impervious to the power of the international community’s resolutions, treaties, covenants and protocols, unless they impact the conduct of the police officers or constables in their streets,” Gary A. Haugen, president of the International Justice Mission, told the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights of the International Relations Committee 18 months ago. The Washington, D.C., agency is a Christian ministry that provides a hands-on, field response to cases of human rights abuse referred by faith-based ministries around the world.

“Every local law enforcement jurisdiction around the world makes a choice between being the friend of forced prostitution or the enemy of forced prostitution,” Haugen said. “Of course, choosing to do nothing is choosing to be its friend. Therefore there must be forces at work to move local law enforcement to change sides to become the enemy of forced prostitution.”
Used by permission of Newsroom-online.com.

    About the Author

  • Staff