Women tackle trafficking and prostitution

  • 2001-06-21
  • Virgilijus Savickas
VILNIUS - The international conference "Women and Democracy, Reykjavik-Vilnius 2001" was held in Vilnius June 15 to 17. It ran under the slogan "Equality Beats Superiority!" and is a continuation of a meeting in Reykjavik in 1999 that discussed women's rights in a modern society.

Over 600 delegates from 12 countries gathered in Vilnius National Drama Theater to tackle issues such as gender equality, women in business, trafficking in women and prostitution.

The event was planned by the European Commission, the Nordic Council of Ministers, the Nordic and Baltic countries, Germany, Poland, Russia and the United States.

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus addressed the opening session. A keynote speech was delivered by Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga. She spoke about women's right to vote and said it was a shame that the number of independently elected women heads of state or government remains exceedingly small.

U.S. President George W. Bush and Senator Hillary Clinton sent messages of greeting to the conference.

Violence and oppression against women over the centuries has left a deep impact on social attitudes. Yet it remains easier to change the law than the human mind.

There is still a lot of room for improvement in the struggle for equality, even in the European Union itself, especially in the work place. Labor markets are divided along gender lines, and there are inferior career prospects for women, plus lower wages. Women are underrepresented in democratic institutions, business and leadership.

Meanwhile, young women from poor countries are fooled into sexual slavery abroad. The relationship between trafficking and prostitution is a growing issue in Europe.

"I commend the efforts of the conference to combat trafficking in people, one of the greatest scourges of our time. The United States is committed to eradicating this terrible practice and supporting our friends and allies in their quests to do the same," read Bush's welcoming address.

Big business

Trafficking in women across borders and luring them into forced prostitution has become a huge international criminal business with a yearly turnover of billions of dollars. According to statistics, about 500,000 women are brought into the European Union illegally every year. Many of these come from the poverty-stricken countries of the former Soviet Union. Deprived of all their rights they are forced to become sex slaves.

Human trafficking is a serious cross-border problem. As all trade is based on customers, the demand for sexual favors in richer countries fuels this criminal business. On the other hand poverty is a good medium for supply.

According to field research in the Nordic and Baltic countries performed by the International Organization for Migration, young women are taken from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine to become prostitutes in the Baltic countries, while young women from the Baltic states are taken to Scandinavia and Western Europe.

"The main reason for trafficking is money, big money. Compared with other countries in Central Europe, Lithuanian women are cheaper and do not know their rights so well. They cannot defend themselves. So they are in great demand. Trading in women exists for another reason as well, that practically nobody is punished for it. The number of cases against traffickers in court is insignificant," reads the International Organization for Migration's report.

"There are still so many myths about 'happy hookers' and that kind of thing," said Margareta Winberg, the Swedish minister of gender equality. "When people discuss prostitution you often hear the phrase, 'the oldest profession in the world.' This gives the impression that it will never disappear. But many professions that used to exist are no longer with us."

The situation will change only with the joint efforts of state bodies, non-government organizations and good will. Personal contacts between the representatives of these organizations established at the Vilnius conference may serve as a model.

The Nordic and Baltic countries' ministers of social security and labor gathered unofficially to discuss what should be done to curb the sex trade.

Other measures discussed for implementation included poverty and poor social conditions, which breed inequality and keep women enslaved to a life of childbearing and being housewives.

"Women have needed courage to get involved in politics. A man who dares to abandon his career to take care of a child or an elderly person is no less courageous," Sirkka-Liisa Anttila, first deputy speaker of the Finnish Parliament, pointed out.

New sex trade

"Our common task is to ensure that women and men are informed and aware of this cynical trade," Anna Diamantopoulou, European commissioner for employment and social affairs, told The Baltic Times.

"We have to fight both male attitudes in richer destination countries and poverty in origin countries simultaneously. Now new forms of trade are being created, for example forced prostitution based on male attitudes of domination against women, small girls and boys."

The European Union is currently running programs called DAFNI and STOP with 5 million euros ($4.38 million) and 4 million euros allocated to them respectively, to eradicate violence against women and trafficking.

In September a 100 million euro program engineered by the Nordic and Baltic countries against trafficking in women is due to begin. Much of the effort will be put into an information campaign.

Also financial and know-how support for the police and customs forces of the applicant countries is being provided by the European Union as part of the Phare program.

Recommendations drawn up by the Vilnius conference's working groups will be conveyed to European governments as expert conclusions. The next gender equality forum is planned to be held in Russia in two years.