Baltic and Nordic governments agreed to join forces by plugging ministries, municipalities, social workers and police forces into a joint information network aimed at fighting the trafficking of human beings.
Speaking at a conference in Riga Nov. 27 dedicated to stomping out trafficking of women, Swedish Deputy Prime Minister for Gender Equality Margaret Winberg said the move to cooperate represented "a practical commitment to eliminate prostitution" and protect girls who fall victim to traffickers.
"It touches upon the issue of human rights and it harms both prostituted individuals, women, children and the society in general," Winberg said.
The European Union estimates that some 12,000 Eastern European women and children are trafficked each year into wealthy West European countries.
The Baltic states are particularly vulnerable, experts say, because of the low salaries and limited opportunities for women. In Lithuania, for instance, women make on average 1.4 times less than men.
Latvian Welfare Minister Dagnija Stake said the problem was intricately intertwined with other socio-economic problems, chiefly unemployment.
In Latvia, 2001 unemployment stood at 7.7 percent, and some 57 percent of the country's jobless were women. Of those, 14.6 percent were women aged 15-24, the group with the highest risk of being trafficked.
Usually, women are lured by promises of well-paid jobs as waitresses, au pairs, nurses or agricultural workers in Western countries. But upon arrival, they end up forced into prostitution.
"Many people are not aware of the essence of this problem", said Latvian Welfare Minister Dagnija Stake. "It is a kind of violence that preys on a person's naiveté and poverty."
The cooperation agreement is also aimed at educating women, especially from rural towns and villages in the Baltics, who are the most likely to be taken in by the promises of work.
"We have a lot of information about drugs, and now we have to educate people on the problem of slavery in a modern society," said Norwegian Justice Minister Odd Einar Dorum.
The nearby Nordic countries have emerged as the main market for trafficked women. According to delegates at the conference, a disproportionate percentage of prostitutes in Finland come from the Baltic states and Russia.
Finnish Health Minister Eva Biaudet said closer cooperation among the Baltic and Nordic countries was the first step and added that the European Union should include the problem in its employment program.
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are all hoping to wrap up membership negotiations with the EU by the end of this year and to join in 2004.
"One of the solutions is improvement of the social and economic situation of women in the countries of departure," Biaudet said.
Norway's Dorum added that Noric countries must re-examine their commitment to fighting the problem, suggesting they bear some of the responsibility for its spread.
"Trafficking is a special kind of market, and no market can exist without a customer," Dorum said.
Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark agreed to forge closer ties among their ministries of Welfare, Justice, Interior and Education and to study ways to build stronger cases against traffickers who are arrested.
NIKK magazine, published by the Nordic Institute of Women's Studies and Gender Research, reported that over the last three years, just one trafficker from 27 different cases to reach Lithuanian courts was convicted.