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Women and Children for Sale

International sex in Asia rose to new levels thanks to the Internet, with the online merger of prostitution and pornography. Video conferencing presents live sex shows and the women advertised can be ordered live on line. It is very easy, today, to transfer funds electronically around the world and to make mobile phone calls that cannot be traced. Trafficked child pornography, with children shown in painful, degrading, and sadistic situations, can be safely encrypted or sent by “anonymous remailers” so that its origins can be concealed. A site calling itself PunterNet, set up in the UK just over seven years ago, has 40,000 “field reports” written by men who have sampled the goods—they provide comments on everything from skin color to firmness of flesh. Eastern European girls are sometimes referred to as “pleasers” and are listed as making few demands.

In Southeast Europe, the transition from centrally planned to market economies, as well as the conflicts in Kosovo and Bosnia, enabled traffickers to recruit victims among the newly poor and the newly vulnerable: unemployed young people, members of Roma communities, women expelled from jobs and sent home in what Tatyana Mamonova has called “domostroika,” enforced domestication.1 As conflict in the Balkans subsided, traffickers were seen driving down the highways from Serbia to Kosovo and Bosnia, arranging auctions of women who could be bought and distributed to brothels where many of the early clients were members of the peacekeeping forces, protected by UN diplomatic immunity. After the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, an international police task force was set up, but it soon became clear that some of the monitors themselves had become customers of trafficked women, choosing them from a catalog of women held in Belgrade. As Louisa Waugh, the author of the book Selling Olga, sees it, the civil war that ended in Bosnia was simply replaced by another war, one against women, “trafficked from one place to the next like cargo, and traded like stock.”

During the next few years, as the UN adopted a policy of “zero tolerance” of trafficking, including among peacekeepers, and developed special training for UN employees worldwide, the number of international clients has dropped—or gone underground—to be replaced by the local new rich. Since late 2006, it has become a chargeable offense for members of NATO forces to pay women for sex. Even so, as Sarah Mendelson, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told a congressional hearing on human trafficking in 2004, regulations against trafficking continue to be treated by much of the military with denial and indifference. Purchasing sex—wherever it comes from—remains a soldier’s right.


Nigeria, though rich in oil, has one of the poorest populations per capita in the world. For some years now, young Nigerian women, particularly from the state of Edo, have been arriving in Italy, ostensibly “sponsored” by relations or trusted friends, to take up jobs in nursing or the hotel business, only to find themselves duped into prostitution rings run by “madams.” They become locked into debt bondage by voodoo rites and oaths. Reaching Italy after journeys across Africa that can last several months, handed from man to man—couriers known as “trolleys”—they find themselves on the streets of a northern Italian city in miniskirts and leather boots, isolated, confused, and terrorized by punishments meted out by “hitters” or by threats of reprisals against their families in Nigeria. “Yes, you can escape,” a young girl told Franco Prina, a researcher working with prostitutes and former prostitutes in Turin in 2003. “But where do you go? You want to talk. With whom? You are destroyed.”2 In practice very few do escape, if only because they have nowhere to go, and because, having been told that they are in the country illegally, they believe that they will be arrested and deported.

Mary, trafficked to London from Kampala, is one of a growing number of young African women to fall victim to a single trafficker, working on his own. The daughter of a Tutsi Rwandan father and a Ugandan mother, Mary was away from her home in Kigali the day the génocidaires came for her family. She returned to see the mutilated bodies of her father, brother, and two sisters. Her mother, separated from her father, was living in Kampala and Mary managed to escape the Hutu killers and join her. She was in her early twenties, a tall, very pretty, well-educated young woman. She had no trouble finding a job in a computer company. But because she did not have proper identification papers she was vulnerable to the attention of the Ugandan security services. She was arrested twice on suspicion of being a spy and put in prison, where she was repeatedly raped by guards.

Convinced that she had to get away, she was introduced by a family friend to a “businessman” who was recruiting young women to work in hotels and airports in the UK. She imagined herself behind a desk, possibly as a receptionist. With the businessman, Mary flew to London in the company of six other women, all of them dressed rather formally, as if on their way to attend a conference. It was her first ride on an airplane. At Heathrow, the party was split up. Mary was told that her job was not ready, and taken to a room in Mitcham, on the outskirts of London; she was dismayed to discover that the businessman was to share it with her. On the fourth night he raped her. Soon he started bringing back “friends”; she saw him collecting cash from them. Some nights there were “parties” and she would be gang-raped. When she tried to escape, he beat her up; he also told her that if the police ever found her they would take her to prison and lock her up forever. She had no way of knowing whether or not this was true. For her, police were also men who raped.

As the months passed, Mary’s health began to fail. She was exhausted, prone to infections; she pleaded with the man in charge of her to see a doctor. She went to a local hospital, where she learned that her blood count was dangerously low. While she waited for the results of more tests, her trafficker told her that he was HIV-positive.

Something, however, had changed in their relationship. Perhaps he was now too ill himself to care. He agreed to release her, to send her to a friend who would provide her with a false passport and help her find a job in Manchester. By now she knew from the tests that she was not just HIV-positive but that she had AIDS, which is suspected of having become endemic among trafficked women, although no figures have been compiled. In Manchester, she was able to get antiretroviral medicine from the National Health Service and to work at a job she enjoyed. She began to feel safe, but then she made a mistake. Told by her employers that she needed to register with the National Insurance Office, she sent them her false passport. It was instantly recognized as a fake and Mary was arrested and sentenced to eight months in jail. What followed, she told me, was not so bad; it was something like boarding school. She worked hard, studied computing and information technology, and felt secure.

When she was released, in August 2005, she applied to the UK Home Office for asylum and was turned down. No one was much interested in her story of trafficking or in the fact that her name was on a list of people sought by Uganda’s secret services as an alleged spy. Nor did it matter to the British authorities that she would have no more medicine for AIDS if she was returned to Kampala. She had no choice: she went underground, dropped out of sight. Today she has a job, for which she is paid in cash, no questions asked. Desperately anxious to draw no attention to herself, she makes no friends, talks to no one, lives alone. If stopped by the police, she knows that she will be deported. “I live,” she told me when I met her in July in London, “from day to day. What I really feel now is that I should have died with my family in the genocide. I don’t know any longer what to hope for. But if they come to get me I will cut my throat.”

Early-nineteenth-century reformers, deploring the white slave trade and concerned with both the spread of venereal disease and the plight of “fallen” women, wanted to abolish prostitution by law. In 1949, the UN Convention for the Suppression of the Trafficking in Persons and Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others linked trafficking and the business of prostitution in the same treaty. Since then a remarkable number of international agreements and conventions have been enacted to deal, directly or indirectly, with the traffic of women and children, as well as forced marriage and forced labor.

Campaigns against traffickers have been dominated by feminists and activists from two different camps: those who regard prostitution itself as a fundamental violation of human rights, and those who see a difference between forced and voluntary prostitution and see “sex work” as a legitimate choice for women, one that should not be penalized, either morally or legally. The key difference in their two approaches lies in their view of what constitutes coercion: whether women can, in fact, really consent to sex work, or whether practically all who do it are forced into it by violence, poverty, or trickery.

In 2000, all but a few countries signed a UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime; one of its two protocols, the Palermo Protocol, quoted at the beginning of this article, laid down the first comprehensive international definition of trafficking. By making coercion and deception central to the definition of the crime, the protocol essentially gives governments a choice: they can say that their laws and policies prohibit prostitution, or they can say that they emancipate prostitutes. The Netherlands is sometimes cited as a model country for having legalized prostitution and passed strong laws against traffickers, though it is too soon to tell just how effective the laws have been in stopping them. But the Dutch are also criticized for bringing a new, respectable language to prostitution, dignifying the sex industry by turning pimps into “business agents” and clients into “legitimate customers.”

The protocol obliges countries to draft new laws, criminalize trafficking, investigate and prosecute traffickers, and protect the identity of trafficked people. But it is extremely weak when it comes to protection of prostitutes, for it does not require the protocol’s signers to extend either assistance or protection to trafficked people. The result is that in many countries—the UK among them—protection tends to be offered only when victims agree to assist in prosecuting their traffickers, something that many women, fearing reprisals and repercussions, are afraid to do. The overriding aim of the law in the UK is to prevent prostitution through repressive programs that crack down on migration, prostitution, and organized crime (but not on the male patrons of the prostitutes).

The Palermo Protocol has become the target of heavy feminist lobbying. In the US, feminists and Christian evangelicals have joined forces, both claiming inspiration from the fight against the slave trade and both seeing the world full of evil inflicted by men on women, with sex as a primary means of abuse. Getting a sympathetic hearing from the Bush administration, they have strongly backed the FBI program called Operation Innocence Lost, which aims to protect minors; it is funded by a Justice Department grant of $7 million to uncover and stop trafficking inside the US, which, as everywhere in the world, is growing rapidly.

In 2002, President Bush set up a new State Department office to “monitor and combat traffic in persons” worldwide, which classifies countries according to their willingness to stop trafficking, with the threat of imposing sanctions on those who fail to do so. In 2007, the worst offenders included sixteen countries, among them Algeria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar; but critics point out that the countries most useful to US foreign relations are seldom penalized.

There is indeed no lack of legal instruments that might be used. During the last few years the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has developed its own plan to combat trafficking. On April 17, 2007, Bulgaria became the seventh state to ratify the Council of Europe’s Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings, with its comprehensive guidelines on many actions that should be taken. London’s Anti-Slavery International has said that adequate laws against trafficking are now in place. But they need to be implemented.

The Council of Europe’s initiative has been greeted with enthusiasm by campaigners, because it is not exclusively an instrument for combating organized crime but also the only legally binding instrument with provisions for granting protection to trafficked women and children, giving them some rights to residence permits in exchange for evidence against traffickers—something that hitherto has been neglected in most countries except for Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy. There remains a vast gulf between the rhetoric of the anti-traffickers and the willingness either to protect and assist the trafficked or to catch and prosecute the traffickers, who, even if caught, are seldom successfully prosecuted. In the UK, figures released in July 2007 showed that there have been just sixty-two successful prosecutions for trafficking, with fifty more pending. But many more are on the way, according to Parosha Chandran, a barrister specializing in trafficking cases. Last year, she was involved in the successful prosecution of a man who had trafficked two sisters into the UK from Romania, and who received a sentence of twenty-two years for trafficking, assault, and controlling prostitution. When the Council of Europe’s convention is ratified by enough countries—ten, including eight member states—to come into force, she believes, the first serious steps in combatting trafficking will be taken.

Until now the many international agreements have proved extremely easy to draft and pass; but if the threads of trafficking are not traced back to their very source among gullible young women coerced by poverty and duped by strangers, the agreements will remain just words. The result is that when women escape from their traffickers, they are almost immediately deported. Once home, all but a few find themselves facing rejection by their families, discrimination, hostility, and a return to the poverty which, coerced or consenting, they had hoped to escape.

La Strada International, a network of nine human rights organizations working across Central and Southeast Europe, has been running a series of projects to educate young women and to break through the barrier of ignorance that persists about the dangers of trafficking. One of the most intractable aspects of the business is the unwillingness of many young women to believe that the jobs promised them are fake. Together with effective protection for victims, what is particularly needed is serious prosecution of traffickers as well as education and widespread publicity. It is a measure of the recent, staggering growth in trafficking that so many apparently elemental steps are only now being addressed.

Nita is now twenty-nine. Her father, sister, and baby daughter, last seen on the terrible winter morning on which she was taken away and raped, are almost certainly dead. If she is sent home, the few people who might remember her in Pristina would know what had happened to her. “I do not think,” she says, “that anyone would want me back.” The Albanian and Italian traffickers would certainly remember her. With little education, no family, and no money, she assumes that, in order to provide for her new baby, she would have little choice but to go on the streets. She hopes for a boy. “If it is a girl, I shall always be frightened that she might have the same life as I have had.”

In London, the Helen Bamber Foundation, which works with people who have been tortured, has recently been seeing increasing numbers of trafficked women traumatized by what they have been through, destroyed both mentally and physically by abuse, fear, and uncertainty. “In the eyes of the law,” Michael Korzinski, one of the foundation’s clinical directors, told me, “trafficking is all about criminality and complicity. There is a total lack of understanding of the sheer brutality it involves. For us, trafficking is another form of torture. It is as sophisticated as state-sponsored torture, except that it is happening not in a brutal repressive country, but in a block of flats in Turin or a leafy suburb of Vermont.”

September 12, 2007

  1. 1

    Tatyana Mamonova, Women’s Glasnost vs. Naglost: Stopping Russian Backlash (Bergin and Garvey, 1994).

  2. 2

    Franco Prina, Trade and Exploitation of Minors and Young Nigerian Women for Prostitution in Italy (Turin: UNICRI, July 2003).

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