BUILDING GENDER EQUALITY IN URBAN LIFE
VICTIMS OF HUMAN TRAFFICKING
It's not often that
one takes the time to think about what is really going on behind a
typical high-street massage parlor, sauna or walk-up brothel in a
typical town in Britain. The chances are that behind the one-way
mirrors and smoked-glass partitions, at least one deeply traumatized and
profoundly terrified young woman from eastern Europe, south-east Asia or
west Africa is living a miserable life of sexual slavery.
Women such as "Stef",
a 19-year-old Nigerian woman tricked by a trafficker into coming to the
UK for an "education" after her parents died. Beaten and threatened,
and told that her grandmother and son in Nigeria would be killed if she
refused, Stef was forced to work as a prostitute to pay off a 40,000
British pounds (US$70,000) "debt" incurred in bringing her to London.
Other women are
regularly duped into believing that well-paid jobs in bars or hotels
await them in rich cities such as Rome, Paris, or London. Desperately
poor women and girls are typically stripped of their passports and other
documents by their new "employers", and taken to secure flats and beaten
and raped by their "owners" to "break them in". After that, it's a
soul-destroying treadmill of dehumanizing servitude, providing sex for
20 to 30 men a day, according to the Metropolitan police.
The level of
entrapment around these women and girls is profound. Scared and abused,
without a passport or other documents, many lacking a good command of
the language, and told by their traffickers that what they are doing is
illegal and could lead to imprisonment, they are truly caught in a web.
Even if they escape the imprisonment of their owners, the route home is
often barred anyway, as traffickers will threaten to expose them to
shame there or even threaten their lives or the lives of their families.
Three years ago,
I went to India to support and learn about Sanlaap, an organization
working in the red-light areas in and around Calcutta. Its work
includes preventing the trafficking of children for sexual exploitation.
At one of its shelter homes, called Sneha, I met 48 girls aged between
10 and 18 who had been rescued from enforced prostitution. An estimated
400,000 children are being trafficked and forced into prostitution for
sexual exploitation in India. Typically, they suffer unspeakable
levels of violence, cruelty and betrayal — they are beaten, burnt by
cigarettes, repeatedly raped, and forced to endure sex without condoms.
Many contract HIV/AIDS and die. A few are offered a lifeline.
affection, is exactly that lifeline. At the shelter, the girls receive
healthcare and counseling. They are taught skills to equip them for
work away from the violence and servitude of the city's brothels. I
firmly believe that the Sneha project has something to teach the west,
not least Britain, about dealing with the trafficking of women and
children into prostitution, slavery and even death.
Britain needs to
stop treating women forced into prostitution as criminals. They are
automatically criminalized. They are seen as "illegal immigrants" first
and victims of crime second, if at all. We need to start seeing them as
deeply vulnerable victims of a global "trade" that is reckoned to earn
the criminal underworld more revenue than any except drugs or arms. It
is a vast money-spinner and the commodities are female bodies.
On one level, the
UK government recognizes the problem. A few years ago, Home Office
research estimated that 1,420 women were trafficked into the UK in 1998
in order to be forcibly prostituted. The expert consensus is that the
scale has significantly increased since then. There are now certainly
thousands of women and girls trapped in a horror-filled existence that
the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, has said is the "worst kind of
degradation". He calls it a "pernicious trade", and he is right. The
cost is measured in human misery.
Bleak as the
situation is, efforts are being made to fight the traffickers. As
Calcutta has its Sneha program, London has the Poppy Project, a safe
house for trafficked women. It was here that Stef was helped. Funded
by the Home Office and with assistance from the Met, women are given
specialist support to help them put their lives back together. But here
is the catch. The project is the country's only dedicated safe house
for trafficked women, but it has places for only 25 and is always full.
And, shockingly, the UK has no dedicated shelter for girls rescued from
So what happens
to the vast majority of the women or girls who risk their lives to
escape their captors or are found by the authorities? They are
criminalized by a system that is almost as hostile to their needs as it
is to the traffickers themselves. Currently, protection from reprisal
or forced return to danger is conditional on women "cooperating" with
the authorities against their traffickers. There is a strong chance
that a woman will be pressured into criminal proceedings or treated as a
criminal herself — branded an illegal immigrant and sent back to her
country of origin.
Let's be clear on
the facts: it is a criminal offence to traffic women and girls into the
UK for prostitution. Earlier this year, for example, a court in
Yorkshire convicted three men for trafficking and selling a teenage girl
from Lithuania. The men, jailed for a total of 40 years, stole the
girl's passport on her arrival at Heathrow and trapped her in the sordid
underworld of Britain's sex industry. She was raped, bought and sold
repeatedly, forced to work as a prostitute in Birmingham and Sheffield
and, in the words of the trial judge, generally treated like a
modern-day slave. And an Albanian group of men went on trial at
Southwark crown court this week for trafficking women for sexual
But the problem
is not just one of punishing the traffickers; it is a matter of
protecting the victims. In May, a new European treaty established fresh
guidelines for this. The European Convention Against Trafficking, the
world's first international law specifically for protecting trafficked
people's rights, puts victims first. It guarantees that trafficked
people should receive a breathing period ("reflection period") of at
least 30 days, during which they can receive support to aid their
recovery, including safe housing and emergency medical support. And it
specifies that women such as Stef should get temporary residence permits
if they would be in danger on return to their homes, or if it is
necessary to assist criminal proceedings, or both.
such as Amnesty International are backing the convention and calling on
the UK to sign up to it, but the government is stalling. Why, when Home
Office minister Paul Goggins has said that the government "fully
supports" the aims of the convention? Could it be that the government
is afraid of criticism from anti-immigration lobbyists that the
convention extends rights to women and girls who could fabricate a story
of sexual slavery to gain access to the country? You could be forgiven
for thinking that protecting some of the world's most terrorized and
vulnerable people ought to cancel out these peripheral concerns.
And it is
actually in the interests of the authorities as well. A reflection
period would help the authorities to secure prosecutions against
traffickers. This is the case in Italy, where reflection periods have
helped to secure 3,000 prosecutions involving 8,000 traffickers in a
four-year period. And rather than the UK's single shelter, Italy has
attitude is unforgivable when you remember where the demand for
trafficked women and girls is coming from. Prostitute-user sites reveal
that there is a strong appetite for foreign women from men who pay for
sex in Britain. The sites tell a story the government apparently
doesn't want to hear: home-grown demand for foreign women and girls, no
questions asked. Plenty of information on prices and customer
satisfaction, nothing on whether "Natasha ... about 18 years, from
Russia" may have been brutally inducted into her "willing" posture.
It is time for
the government to sign up to the new convention, commission new research
into the scale of trafficking into the UK and ensure once and for all
that local authorities stop turning a blind eye to what goes on behind
the doors of the "saunas" they license.
is an independent journalist and international human rights advocate
based in London, UK,
and a member of the Board of Directors of Global Urban Development. She is a member of
the Leadership Council of Amnesty International, the Board of Directors
of the People For the American Way Foundation, and the Human Rights
Watch Americas Advisory Committee.
She has received the United
Nations Earth Day International Award, the Green Globe Award, the Right
Livelihood Award, and many other honors. Her article originally
Guardian, and is reprinted by permission of the author.
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