The Myth of "Pretty Woman"

Russian women are victims of illegal trafficking

by Mikhailina Karina

In a 1997 survey of tenth-grade girls in Russia, 70 percent responded their career goal was to become "foreign currency prostitutes"; just 10 years before, respondents to a similar survey said they wanted to become teachers, doctors, cosmonauts, and actresses. Lyubov Vertinskaya, an expert on women's issues in Murmansk, a northern Russian city near the Finnish and Swedish borders, gave this disturbing statistic during a recent forum on the illegal trafficking and exploitation of Russian women.

The trafficking of women across borders is a global problem, said Sally Stoecker, project coordinator in AU's Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC). She moderated the March 11 forum that included 11 representatives from the media, women's crisis centers, government, and law enforcement in Russia.

The movement of labor between borders is facilitated by technological advances, such as the Internet, and the uncontrollable proliferation of organized crime groups, Stoecker said. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which took away guaranteed employment, subsidized housing, and free medical care, half of the adult population is without work and nearly 70 percent of the unemployed are women. With the Russian economy in shambles, what are women to do?

Trafficking in women, as well as children, is a multimillion dollar business in Russia and several former Soviet republics, the panelists said. Women are often conned into signing contracts to go abroad as exotic dancers, waitresses, or domestics. Once they are illegally transported across the border by organized crime groups, they are deprived of their passports, taken to brothels-where they are beaten, raped, threatened-and are forced to service up to 15 clients a day.

Aleksandr Troyanov, a law enforcement official from Khabarovsk, a city on the border with China, said women from his city are routinely taken to China, Japan, and Korea for prostitution. Prosecuting organized crime groups that control this trade is difficult because Russia lacks an adequate witness protection program, and women are reluctant to testify for fear of reprisals.

The panelists said that prostitution is just one symptom of the destroyed social fabric-moral and spiritual degradation-in the former Soviet Union.

Just a few years ago, the word prostitute was considered a swear word, said Vertinskaya. But today, with the average doctor's or teacher's salary between $20 and $30 a month, women feel they have no choice but to take a chance at questionable employment abroad. These are educated women, in many cases; many have university degrees and speak a foreign language. They suspect their work may turn into prostitution, but panelists said they risk it out of economic desperation.

And they go everywhere: the United States, Germany, Israel, Turkey, Egypt, and the Netherlands are some of the common destinations.

In Murmansk, Vertinskaya said, this problem began almost innocently, due to the easy access to Norway. A number of Russian women began taking the bus to a small Norwegian town, where they spent the weekend selling alcohol and souvenirs. Soon they were selling their bodies as well, and bringing home large sums of money. The news of this new enterprise spread among friends and as many as 70 women began boarding the bus each weekend.

Interestingly, it was Norwegian women who alerted the Russian authorities about Murmansk women seducing their husbands. The story was made into a documentary that was broadcast all over Russia-which resulted in women from other Russian cities going to Murmansk to catch the Norway-bound bus. Most women go to Norway to earn the money to feed their families; but many travel in hopes of finding a man who will offer them a better life.

Prostitution with foreigners who pay in foreign currency was glamorized in the early 1990s with a film Interdevochka, a Russian version of Pretty Woman, which was extremely popular across Russia and won international prizes. Ironically, this movie gave the prostitution industry a huge boost.

The reality of Russian prostitution, however, lacks any cinematic glamor. Women's magazines and newspapers have been publishing harrowing, first-person accounts of women who were forced into prostitution abroad. In addition, crisis centers offer psychological and legal counseling services to women who have returned from a foreign brothel.

The panelists agreed that the situation is grim and that Russian society is just learning to address this problem. Many educational programs, some of them funded by American organizations, target at-risk groups and provide them with small-business training and self-esteem workshops. Solving this problem will take a long time, they predicted, but ignoring it is not an alternative.

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