Alonya was 25 years old, divorced, and penniless. Without a university degree or practical skills like computing, the only job she could find was in a body-building club. There, another young woman told her about an opportunity to go to the Arab Emirates as a nanny for a Russian speaking family.
The rest is all too familiar. The man who met Alonya at the airport said the family was no longer interested in employing her but he would find her something else; all she needed to do was give him her passport so that he could register her. Soon she found herself locked in a flat where an Arab man told her that she was in debt to him for $10,000 because he had paid for her flight, accommodation, visa, clothes and food. He said that if she didn't obey him she would be killed.
So began her days as a prostitute. Then a sympathetic Hungarian man took pity on her, informed the police, and her captors were arrested. Although still traumatized and in counselling, she is now back in Russia where she shares her experience with other women in the hope of averting the same experience for them. She has also entered university, where she hopes to study law.
Katya, whose mother died when she was very young, sold fruit and vegetables in the market until friends helped her enter university. One day while out with friends she met a woman who said she was a tourism manager. She offered the students a chance to work in Greece and they readily accepted. But they didn't go to Greece. Instead, they were taken to Turkey by way of Romania where they were separated from each other and taken to brothels. Katya was raped, beaten and burned. When police finally rescued her, she could not speak. Only with the assistance of a local women's organization was she able to return home where she received medical treatment and continues to recover.
Natasha was 19 when she went to Germany to work as a waitress. She didn't worry too much about the $3,000 agency fee; they said she could pay it off later. Arriving at the border by car, Natasha and another young woman were told to surrender their passports temporarily; then they were put into another car destined for their place of work. The flat they reached was already full of women from Russia, Belarus and Poland, who told them about their new "job." The flat was locked and guarded.
The next day one of the men who had taken her to the flat arrived, laughing at Natasha's frightened pleas to go home. He beat and raped her while the other women watched in terror. Forced into prostitution at a local club, it was a long time before the police saved her and took her to a women's organization for help. Still frightened to speak in court, Natasha has told her story in a film about trafficking. She studied computers and now has a job in Russia.
These three women were among the lucky ones who survived the brutal experience of being trafficked. Their testimonials appear in a document recently released by the Crisis Centre for Women in St Petersburg. But many others are not so fortunate. And the problem is growing.
"A lot of young women are naive," says Dr Natalia Khodyreva, director of the crisis centre. "They think (working abroad) is romantic." There is another problem as well. Although the centre has reached an estimated 4,500 young women through its lectures on trafficking, the problem is not treated as seriously as it should be by either the government or non-governmental organizations.
According to Dr Khodyreva, laws against trafficking have only recently been drafted in Russia and they are likely to languish for some time before moving up the list of political priorities. "There is a lot of rhetoric but little action," says Khodyreva. Other sectors aren't much help. "Schools resist educating on women's issues and the Orthodox Church resists anything relating to sex education." In general, "most people are conservative about gender issues and young women are not very progressive," Khodyreva says.
In the face of changing political, social, and economic environments, the centre is challenged to raise funds while it tries to continue and expand its programs and services. At present it has a staff of fifteen, six of whom are full-time. It offers training, crisis support, and St Petersburg's only hotline which operates between 11 pm and 7 am. It is primarily supported by foreign funders such as the Ford Foundation, some German donors, and several socially active churches.
The centre in St Petersburg began in 1991 as a rape crisis centre which soon expanded to provide services around domestic violence and sexual abuse. Organized by professional women - each of whom had personal experience with the issues the centre wanted to address - it first opened its doors to both women and men. But a year later it began serving women only when research revealed that 93 percent of victims of abuse were women. Over the past seven years the centre has served over 17,000 women; an estimated twenty women a day seek help from the centre. Since 1998, about ten per cent of women seeking help are victims of trafficking, both into and out of Russia.
Psychologists, lawyers, and social advocates working with the centre have raised public awareness throughout Russia through a variety of activities. In 1995 they organized an All-Russia Action dubbed "The Day of Calls". Women from 21 cities across the country began calling for help. A year later, they began organizing an Association of Russian Crisis Centers with the primary goal of urging the president and the Russian parliament to take action against the pervasive domestic violence in the country.
In addition to their domestic activities, the crisis centre personnel participated in the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, and subsequently participated in seminars for law enforcement bodies in conjunction with the European Union of Policewomen and others. They have also produced several videos, including 'Ensnared' and 'Rape, War, Russia'.
Today, their focus is on trafficking and fostering international cooperation to end the practice. This work has taken them abroad and in 2000 they prepared a report for the European Parliament on trafficking in Russia. This was followed by testimony presented to the US Senate on anti-trafficking legislation. Their current projects include research on migration-related attitudes, seminars for social workers, teachers, and psychologists, and mass media educational campaigns.
With support from the US General Consulate in St Petersburg, "Project Returning Home" is being designed to foster interaction between governmental and public organizations to aid trafficking victims regionally. Norway is lending its support for a project called "Different Women - Similar Problems," which seeks to provide lectures and training sessions to students, unemployed women, and prostitutes.