On Feb. 25 the small, impoverished country of Moldova, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, became the first former Soviet republic to vote the Communist Party back into power since the collapse of the USSR ten years ago.
The outcome of the general election in Moldova signaled a resounding rejection of economic reforms demanded by the World Bank, which insisted that Moldovan officials privatize farms, telecommunications, and the energy sector and slash agricultural subsidies and social services.
In an effort to abide by the terms of its structural adjustment loan, the government closed 63 village hospitals and imposed other austerity measures. The consequences have been devastating for Moldova's 4.3 million people, most of whom live off the land. Agriculture that once supplied wine and tobacco throughout Russia is at a standstill. Currency values have plummeted. Corruption is rampant. Foreign investment is nil. With a per capita income averaging $370 in 1999, much of the population of Moldova currently scrapes by on less than one U.S. dollar a day.
Higher-priced essentials, greater hardship, shorter lives this is the price that poor people must pay to please the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which are able to starve a nation of resources (not only loans but private capital) by letting out the word that it is not a good adjuster. "Initially a number of countries resist," says Doug Hellinger of the Development Group on Alternative Policies, "and then, along the way, governments are put under so much pressure they give in."
Widespread deprivation in Moldova and other parts of post-Soviet Eastern European has created golden opportunities for organized criminal gangs involved in the illegal sexual trafficking of women and children. "Traffickers turn up in a rural community during a drought or before a harvest, when food is scarce, and persuade poor couples [to] sell their daughters for small amounts of money," explains a recent study ("Lives Together, Worlds Apart") released by the United Nations Population Fund. Other girls are kidnapped from their homes and orphanages, while many destitute women are lured to foreign lands by assurances of work, income, and visas, only to find themselves forced into prostitution and slave labor.
The U.S. State Department estimates that 700,000 to 2 million women and girls (some as young as five) are smuggled across borders each year and bought and sold for sexual purposes. Shocking in scope, this modern-day slave trade is not only one of the most horrific human rights issues of our time; it is also a significant health issue, for the global sex market is hastening the spread of AIDS and other diseases.
Eastern Europe has emerged as a major point of origin for the burgeoning international black market that auctions women and children as if they are chattel. Human traffickers have little trouble maneuvering in places like Moldova, where it is easy to bribe underpaid customs officers and police. "Even the highest ranking officials in Moldova condone the trade in women and children because the economic crisis means the state cannot take care of the population," says Mariana Peterdel, director of the Romanian-based aid organization Salvati Copii.
Desperate for a chance to improve their lot, young women have been leaving Moldova in droves. But instead of securing promised jobs as nannies or waitresses in a prosperous country, many are beaten, raped, held under lock and key, and resold from one brothel owner to the next. Trapped in abusive situations from which escape is difficult and risky, these enslaved sex workers are told they will not receive any wages until they pay off the purchase price incurred when their employers bought them. According to Human Rights Watch, the practice of "debt bondage" among sexual traffickers is routine, and women often find that their so-called debts only increase and can never be fully repaid.
Katje, a nineteen-year-old Moldovan woman, is one of the lucky ones. She was recently rescued from a seedy brothel in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, where Albanian gangsters dominate the lucrative sex trade. (One Albanian crime gang branded its women with tattoos to prevent them from being poached by other traffickers.) When Katje (not her real name) wasn't with up to ten men a night, she was kept against her will in a dark cellar with several other women sex slaves, sleeping on the floor or on tables. For an entire month, they never saw daylight. "I never thought this was possible. These people are animals," she said of her former captors.
Kosovo, with its war-battered infrastructure, is fertile turf for overlapping mafia networks that earn huge profits from trafficking in weapons, drugs, and girls. The illicit trade in women and children is the fastest growing branch of organized crime, according to the International Organization for Migration, which estimates that the annual worldwide turnover from sex industry trafficking ranges from $6 billion to $12 billion.
The influx of international peacekeepers, NATO officers, and development officials provides a steady supply of customers in "liberated" Kosovo, where a pimp who keeps 15 girls and works them six nights a week can easily bring in more than a quarter million tax-free U.S. dollars a month. Peddling narcotics pales in comparison to the money made on women because once a drug is sold, it's gone, a brothel owner told the Canadian magazine Macleans, but a girl "can be sold over and over before she collapses, goes mad, commits suicide, or dies of disease."
The Balkans in particular Bosnia and Kosovo serve as a kind of training ground for women from Eastern Europe, many of whom are subsequently transported to bordellos in Western Europe, Israel, Hong Kong, North America, and points beyond.
The State Department believes that each year 50,000 to 100,000 women and children are smuggled into the United States and forced to practice prostitution or bonded sweatshop labor. Trafficked women are reluctant to seek help from the police because they know they're in the country illegally. Their rights are violated with impunity, as law enforcement authorities have failed to respond adequately to the problem of sexual slavery.
U.S. officials often treat trafficked women as criminals rather than victims of abuse, thereby compounding the trauma they suffered while in captivity. When trafficking rings in the United States have been broken up, key female witnesses are usually deported before they can testify against those who had enslaved them. (Women are sent back to Moldova on a weekly basis.) The Immigration and Naturalization Service is legally required to deal with such women in the same way as other undocumented workers who have broken the law.
Prosecuting sexual traffickers in the United States is therefore highly problematic. Few of these cases result in convictions, and the punishment rarely matches the severity of the crime. A man who had forced Russian and Ukrainian women to work as prostitutes at his massage parlor in Bethesda, Maryland, to cite but one example, was merely fined after a plea bargain stipulated that he could not run a future business in Montgomery County. If he had sold heroin, rather than women, he would almost certainly have received a much tougher sentence.
To improve its own human rights performance, the U.S. government should expand the definition of sexual trafficking to include businesses that promote mail-order "marriages," which are often fronts for prostitution. In addition, Human Rights Watch urges that trafficking victims be given access to legal assistance, translation services, shelters, and health services, and that they be allowed to remain in the United States for the duration of any criminal or civil proceedings against their abusers. Strong precautionary measures should also be implemented to ensure the physical safety of trafficked persons, including witness protection programs and asylum opportunities for those who cooperate with law enforcement.
Trafficking in women and children is fueled by the misery of the world's poorest people. This is something to keep in mind as we observe International Women's Day on March 8. Human rights activists are calling for a coordinated international effort to punish traffickers and the corrupt officials who facilitate their crimes. A full-fledged campaign to eradicate this scourge must also address the persistent social and economic inequalities that diminish the status of women.
Martin A. Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Acid Dreams and The Beast Reawakens. His column, Reality Bites, appears here every Monday.