Russia has become a prime source, transit point and destination for trafficking in women — what the U.N. defines as abuse of women involving force, fraud, coercion and deception.
While numbers are impossible to pinpoint, a new survey suggests at least 90,000 women currently living in Russia have been the victims of trafficking. But the Russian government has done little to deal with the issue.
The Russian city of Chelyabinsk is just the kind of place traffickers look for women — on the edge of Siberia. It's remote, relatively poor, and the women have white skin, which is prized in Asia and the Middle East. So far, given the lack of government action, traffickers have been able to operate there with impunity.
When mothers of victims began telling her their stories eight years ago, Larisa Vasilieva took up the cause. She got some funding from the U.S. and Europe, but there has been stony silence from the Russian government.
She describes one of the most recent victims she has tried to help — a young mother anxious to improve the life of her little girl.
"Her family had to share a tiny apartment with her parents, who drank," Vasilieva says. "The conditions were intolerable. She answered an ad to work abroad. She ended up in Syria, where she was imprisoned and forced into prostitution. She refused. They beat her, burned her and raped her. She became crazy and finally escaped."
Reaching Out To Women
Vasilieva and her husband led the search for the woman after suspecting all was not well. The local police did nothing, and when they finally managed to get her home, Vasilieva says the woman was a skeleton, traumatized and pregnant.
By then, Vasilieva's foreign funding had dried up, and she had been forced to close her shelter. All she could offer were volunteer psychologists and legal help. The woman refused to give any information about the company in Chelyabinsk who had set her up, fearing she would be killed. There is no witness protection program.
"We have tried to work with the police, but little has come of it," Vasilieva says. "Given problems with the legal system, we have to try to prevent this before it happens."
Vasilieva has launched an information campaign to warn young women against job offers abroad that look too good to be true — and she has worked with orphanages, where the girls are particularly vulnerable.
"These kids are lost," she says. "They have never been anywhere. We are trying to teach them about the world, trying to boost their self esteem, trying to warn them about the dangers outside.
Sara Mendelson, director of the Human Rights and Security Initiative with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, says a survey she helped conduct last spring shows that Russian women think this is a serious problem. Thanks to women like Vasilieva, many now are aware of the risk, but Mendelson says effective laws must be put into place.
"The problem is, who's doing anything about it?" Mendelson says. "The police need to be educated on this. There is corruption in the police. There is prosecution that needs to be done."
No Government Support
There is no government assistance for the victims — the very young women the Russian government needs if its goal to improve the birth rate can be achieved. This reflects a bigger problem — there is a lack of help for all abused Russian women. According to government estimates, one Russian woman dies at the hands of her husband or partner every hour, but police don't respond.
Under pressure from women activists in Chelyabinsk, the local government has finally set up a crisis center to deal with domestic abuse. It wasn't easy, and the center is understaffed. It can't offer 24-hour service, there's no shelter, and psychologist Inna Martynov says police are more often a hindrance than a help.
"Police blame the women," Martynov says. "I just had a case where the police made it worse, and I had to deal with secondary trauma as a result. We have not been able to build good links with the police."
She fears that with the growing economic crisis in Russia, women will be increasingly at risk, more may be tempted to take potentially dangerous jobs abroad and more may be victims at home. She also worries the fledgling crisis center, already overwhelmed, will be cut back.