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Bulgaria Traffic in Women
Violence against women a western problem?
Nobody knows exactly how many women in Eastern Europe have been trafficked against their will into prostitution, but the estimates for Bulgaria range in the thousands. When Maria Minkova began volunteering in 1998 for Animus, the first womens crisis center to open in Bulgaria, reactions from friends ranged from sarcastic to critical to surprise. Oh really, they would ask, is that a problem? Seven years later, every person you meet in Bulgaria knows about trafficking. Maria Tchomarova, co-founder of Animus, says that the problem is pervasive. Everyone knows of someone [affected by trafficking in women].
Trafficking in women, however, remains just one issue tackled by the staff and volunteers of Animus. Tchomarova says the former communist government of Bulgaria did not acknowledge violence against women, including rape and domestic violence. Instead, she says the government viewed violence against women as strictly a western problem. Under communism, you had a perfect person, she said. Family violence was not [thought to be] a feature of communist society. Maria Minkova, now working as Animuss hot-line director, agrees. During socialism the government wanted to pretend there was no violence against women, says Minkova.
As a result, awareness and discussion of these issues is relatively new. Regina Indshewa, director of the Womens Alliance for Development in Bulgaria, says that the state feminism of Eastern Europe differed from the grassroots feminist movement in the West since it was top down and focused on getting women into the workforce. The economy was based on a cheap labor force, says Indshewa, and women have always been a cheap labor force. Indshewa acknowledges, however, that the government did provide support for working mothers in the form of childcare and prepared meals. It also helped change attitudes toward women in the work place. One of the biggest achievements of 50 years of state feminism, she says, is the general attitude that it doesnt matter if the worker is a woman or a man, there is an equal salary for a certain type of work.
But what state feminism didnt do was create an active force for womens empowerment. Women dont produce trouble in the public space, Indshewa said. They are well-mannered and behaved. Perhaps the most ironic example of this occurred recently with the defeat of the Special Equality Act in the National Assembly due to opposition by women legislators. They said we cannot admit there is discrimination against women in our country, said Indshewa, or else what will the international community say?
Bulgaria experienced a relatively peaceful end to communist rule. In 1989, the Communist Party transformed itself into the Socialist Party and retired Todor Zhizkov, a Breznev-era dictator, to house arrest. Since then, they have been privatizing state-owned businesses and utilities and rushing headlong into loan agreements with the IMF and the World Bank.
Under communism, everyone who wanted a job had one, whether or not it was useful or productive. With the transition to a free-market economy, the state no longer guarantees a job for everyone. Indshewa has been tracking the impact this economic transition has had on women. The Bulgarian economy has undergone a difficult development in terms of womens participation in the labor market, says Indshewa. We had a system which promoted women in employment before the changes, she says. All women of working age participated in paid labor. More than 10 percent of women have disappeared from this economically active population. Indshewa also points to a slight but growing wage gap between men and women and a higher unemployment rate for young women. Among young women just graduated, unemployment is three times higher than men with degrees.
Bulgaria lies between the Black Sea in the east and the former Yugoslavia in the west. Romania borders on the north, Greece and Turkey border to the south. This position makes Bulgaria not only a source for traffickers, but also a country where women are transferred from other former eastern block countries. Many of the women end up in Western European countries, but others are moved constantly throughout Eastern Europe. The U.S. State Department reports that women from Romania, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are trafficked through Bulgaria for sexual exploitation to Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Kosovo, Bosnia, Poland, and Western Europe. The 2001 Human Rights Watch report says that trafficking in women in the former eastern bloc shows no sign of abating.
Indshewa, who also helped establish the first shelter for battered women in Bulgaria in the early 1990s, says there is an increasing awareness of all forms of violence against women. We have managed to put the issue of domestic violence and trafficking of women on the agenda, she says. As a result, Indshewa says the penal code has been strengthened in terms of traffickers and pimps. But prosecuting traffickers has not yet occurred since most victims are too scared to testify and no witness protection programs exist. Like the trafficking in guns and drugs, organized crime controls trafficking in women. Although the changes of the early 1990s promised an elimination of Soviet-style gangsterism, Mafia enterprises continue to thrive in Bulgaria. Often, the traffickers will threaten not only the women but also their families back home. It comes down to corruption, says Indshewa.
Pick up any paper in Sofia and the employment section is full of ads soliciting young women to work abroad as secretaries and nannies. These ads serve as the first introduction for women who end up as sex slaves in brothels throughout Eastern and Western Europe. Many have offices in downtown Sofia, posing as legitimate employment agencies. Min- kova says that women who are trafficked come from all backgrounds, education levels, and ages ranging from 14 to 40. But most of the women Animus sees have been between the ages of 15 to 21 and feel they have few choices.
For young women from small towns and smaller options, Minkova says they are often lured by offers they find hard to resist. They tell them, you look great, youre very nice, I think youd make a great baby-sitter, says Minkova. Minkova says that although some women go voluntarily, knowing they will be prostitutes, none are prepared for the cruel working conditions. Few women successfully escape from forced prostitution. But those who do, tell a grim story. Both Human Rights Watch and Animus report of repeated rapes and beatings by their captors. They are put through a process of psychological torture designed to make them compliant towards, and dependent on, the pimp. Traffickers confiscate their passports and papers. Often moved and sold, the trafficked women become unaware of even the country in which they are working. Former victims report being forced to work up to 20 hours a day. They receive little, if any, payment and are told they are in debt to their pimps. If they get pregnant, say the Animus volunteers, they are often left by the side of a road. Of all the money that exchanges hands, the sex workers themselves see little of it.
The numbers of trafficked women from and through Bulgaria has reached a point where even the highest-level government officials cannot ignore it. Ralitsa Againe, the youngest woman parliamentarian, recently elected as part of the National Movement Simeon II (the former Kings party), says that stopping traffickers is virtually impossible without control of their borders. The problem is that youre not able to stop them, says Againe. There are no visa requirements with border countries. Since the changes successive Bulgarian governments have had difficulties clearing the customs officials of widespread corruption. The new party associated with the former King promised to clean up the corruption left over from the communist era and reform the customs agency. The results of these overtures remain to be seen. In the meantime, Againes solution would involve greater public education and support for Non-Governmental Organizations such as Animus.
Minkova says that Animus persevered by refusing to keep silent. We just kept being there talking and publishing articles, she said. The society could not deny it. Minkova, however, says they were careful not to mention the F word. We tried not to speak about feminism and the feminist movement. We emphasized the suffering and the psychological trauma.
When Animus began serving women, their logo, which shows a longhaired woman flying on a broomstick, engendered a negative reaction. Tchom- arova was surprised. People thought, here are two crazy women, she recalls. The danger of marginalization was so great. Tchomarova invited more women into the organization and began traveling abroad for training. Without the history of womens anti-violence work in the country, they needed training only available in Western countries such as England and the United States.
Animus gained funding from the Dutch government and affiliated with La Strada, the Dutch-based international organization that works to end trafficking of women. Animus women developed a strategy to raise public awareness and began to appear on television shows and in newspapers. Their initial experiences with the press, however, were not positive. [The media] stressed the personal story for sensation, says Tchomarova, and the women feel used. Minkova takes it one step further, believing that journalists wanted to thwart their efforts. The victims perspective was undermined, she says. I would say they were trying to silence them.
The first public action Animus took was placing help-line stickers in all the public transportation vehicles in Sofia. This caused quite a stir in a culture that had just come out from under 50 years of totalitarian rule. It initiated a public discussion, says Minkova. People were calling up the hot-line just to find out who we are and what we were doing.
Only 23 percent of the calls received over the Animus hot-line are from victims of trafficking. Most are from victims of domestic violence and several are from parents suspecting their missing daughters may have been trafficked. Minkova says those who do escape either seize an opportunity or plan far in advance, often paying a john to help them. Many are picked up in a police raid and get sent to the embassy of their country. Animus receives calls from Bulgarian embassy officials abroad who help get the woman to the organizations shelter in Sofia. The sad fact is, says Minkova, many of them go back to prostitution, feeling they dont have a choice.
Maria Tchomarova is quick to point out that they are not abolitionists. A woman has a right to choose [her profession], says Tchomarova. But if she is treated as a slave, then this is trafficking.
Anti-trafficking laws require witnesses. But advocates such as Maria Tchomarova discourage women from taking their story to the police and keep the police at a distance. We have very strict boundaries between us and the police, she says. Tchomarova says that women who have recently escaped from forced prostitution often feel super-human despite their trauma and want to see their former captors come to justice. In a manic state they often want to go to the police, she says. But we discourage them. Tchomarova says the risk of the women becoming re-victimized by the police and the justice system is just too great. Tchomarovas fears have been confirmed by Human Rights Watch and the United Nations. A report by the United Nations in May 2000 cites that trafficking often exists in Eastern Europe with the complicity of local and international police. The report also acknowledges evidence that the Stabilization Forces in Bosnia contribute to the trafficking of women.
Although anti-trafficking laws in countries such as Bulgaria appear unenforceable, and therefore irrelevant, they have received criticism in countries like England, where critics accused the police of using them as an excuse to deport immigrant women. In February 2001, British police raided the homes of immigrant Eastern European sex workers in Soho on the basis of anti-trafficking laws. But according to statements from the International Prostitutes Collective, these raids were a ruse to deport immigrant women who were not working against their will. Prostitute women have always said that the biggest deterrent to reporting violence is fear of arrest, reads a statement from their website. And, for those of us who are immigrants, deportation.
Sex workers in England have demonstrated against similar raids and deportations of immigrant sex workers and helped mobilize legal support. But this type of activism has yet to reach Bulgaria, where most social change seems to be taking place in the service sector. Although women may not define themselves as feminists, these emerging professionals have a feminist analysis. I was raised by women, says Minkova. I learned to count on women. Minkova says even as a child she never agreed with the patriarchal notions of her society and this belief led her into this field. I am attracted to working with women who experience trauma, but also with women who are disadvantaged due to a [gender] power imbalance. Still, her focus is on recovery. Nobody is really concerned to take action against it, she says. We are more concerned about helping women recover.
Most of the volunteers hope the problem will end with strengthened grassroots feminism and economic prosperity. Because we are poor, says volunteer Lora Belcheva, women looking for work abroad sometimes ignore the risks. Although feminist psychotherapy can help break the silence, an end to trafficking requires more root cause strategies. Its very confused here, says Belcheva. Women mostly work but our society is very patriarchal, thats a very big paradox. Z
Susan Phillips is in the prisoner rights movement and has worked with the Independent Media Center.