RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – For Marta, it was an opportunity she couldn’t refuse.
The 17-year-old had met a group who recruited women from the city of Goiânia to work in Spain.
She was poor and thought it would change her life. Marta thought it was such a great deal she told her then-19-year-old sister Poliana to join her, which she did six months after Marta arrived in Spain.
But their dreams of living better lives in the city of La Coruña were turned into harsh realities.
They were forced into prostitution.
Marta eventually fled from her captors, but Poliana wasn’t as fortunate. She was forced to sell her body on the street – having sex with between 10 and 15 partners daily – and had nowhere to run since the human traffickers who promised her a better life took her passport.
“All of the money was for [my captors],” said Poliana, who along with Marta spoke on the condition of anonymity. “There were many other girls from Goiás with me. Sometimes we’d be sleeping and they’d wake us up to take care of the customers. There was no time to eat. They threatened us, and sometimes I was physically attacked by the clients. They forced us to drink so as to lure the clients to spend money on alcohol.”
After a few months, Poliana bought her freedom from the traffickers, but she continued to work as a prostitute in Europe for four more years because she had no other means to survive. She was impregnated by a Swiss man who physically abused her, and she ended up being rescued in Switzerland in 2007 by Projekt Resgate, a non-governmental organization based in Zurich that also has offices in Brazil.
Projekt Resgate was established to fight sexual trafficking and to repatriate Brazilian women who have been sexually exploited in Europe. Between 2007 and 2010, the NGO helped 55 victims. Out of these, 38 returned to Brazil – most to their native Goiás.
One reason why Poliana may have been targeted was her lack of education, according to Projekt Resgate. Poliana, who is now 26 and has been residing in Brazil for the past three years with her 4-year-old son, has just four years of formal education. She collects recyclables for a living.
“We’ve had cases of women who had just learned to write their names to sign their passports,” says Marco Aurélio Sousa, who heads Projekt Resgate’s office in Goiânia.
UNODC estimates 70,000 victims
Marta and Poliana are among the 70,000 women who were victims of sexual trafficking in Western Europe, according to the 2010 report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The report, “Traffic of Persons to Europe for the Purpose of Sexual Exploitation,” gives an estimate that some 140,000 women are currently being forced to work in the continent’s €2.5 billion (US$3.2 billion) industry.
Most of these women come from the Balkans region (32%) and former Soviet Union countries (19%). South Americans represent 13% of the total.
Spain is one of the biggest destinations, followed by Italy, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, according to the report.
Since 2003, the number of Brazilian and Paraguayan victims forced to work in Spain has surpassed that of Colombians, formerly a majority in that country, according to the UNODC.
In Portugal, Brazilians account for more than 50% of the women who are trafficked in that country, according to the Portuguese Observatory for Human Trafficking.
With the Blue Heart campaign, launched in January, the UNODC wants to call the world’s attention to the ills of human trafficking and its consequences and to encourage governmental and individual action to fight this crime.
UNODC’s initiative is the biggest such campaign on the social network Facebook, as it already has more than 13,000 followers worldwide.
Human trafficking has claimed 2.4 million victims worldwide – 80% of whom are women and young girls – according to the UNODC.
Latin America shows progress and challenges
Trafficking of women like Marta and Poliana is defined by the United Nations Palermo Protocol as “the recruitment, transportation, harboring, or obtaining of a person, by resorting to threats or use of force or other types of coercion, abduction, fraud, lying, or abuse of power or vulnerability, situation or the provision or acceptance of payments or benefits to obtain the consent of a person who has authority over another one for the purposes of exploitation.”
The U.S. State Department’s “Trafficking in Persons Report 2010,” published in June, classifies Brazil in its category 2 regarding efforts to combat and prevent this type of crime.
The country is listed with the group of nations that do not fully comply with the minimum requirements to eliminate human trafficking, though Brazil is undertaking significant efforts to eradicate it.
The report states that prison sentences for those convicted of human trafficking fell from 22 issued in 2008 to only five in 2009. In Brazil, only human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is subject to the type of sentencing being advocated.
Forced labor is dealt with only under the laws proscribing so-called slave labor. Fifteen were convicted in 2009, eight fewer than in 2008, according to the report.
Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay also are in category 2 in the U.S. State Department’s report.
Argentina’s vast borders are difficult to monitor, making that country a transit point for women and girls being trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation in Chile, Brazil, Mexico, and Western Europe, according to the report.
In Ecuador, despite governmental efforts against this kind of crime, the number of convictions is extremely low. In 2009, there were 78 cases of human trafficking and 154 of sexual exploitation involving children.
But just 32 made it to court – and just two ended in convictions, according to the report.
Out of the 137 cases of human trafficking investigated in 2009 by Peruvian authorities, 103 were linked to sexual exploitation, with 185 victims. Seventy-eight cases were tried and nine sexual exploitation traffickers were given sentences of three to 30 years in prison. In 2008, 54 cases resulted in five convictions.
Uruguay has directed its efforts toward public education campaigns about human trafficking and its consequences. In February, the government started distributing 30,000 pamphlets and 10,000 stickers condemning child prostitution. In partnership with a local NGO, it also circulated some 3,000 pamphlets among prostitutes. And the Education Ministry continues to include the topic in its sexual education curriculum, according to the report.
Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela are on the watch list (category 2WL) of nations that provide little evidence of efforts against human trafficking.
But what’s happening in the Dominican Republic is even worse. The nation is listed as category 3, meaning it doesn’t fully comply with the minimum standards and is not making significant efforts to do so. Since 2007, the Dominican Republic hasn’t sent a single human trafficker to prison.
In 2009, only one investigation was conducted, according to the report.
Colombia, on the other hand, is in the top category 1, made up of countries that fulfill all minimum requirements to eliminate human trafficking. The law was enforced in the Andean country during 2009, and it spurred 215 investigations, 200 trials and 14 convictions, with sentences ranging from seven to 27 years.
Traffic bears relation to domestic violence and ethnic discrimination
Ricardo Lins, who heads the Brazilian Justice Ministry’s office that combats human trafficking, says the crime is related to domestic violence and ethnic discrimination.
“The National Policy to Confront Human Trafficking, launched in 2006, looked upon the topic as being connected with violence directed at women, children and adolescents,” Lins says.
To fight the problem along a broad front, the Brazilian initiative has involved seven ministries, including that for Tourism.
“This makes it easier, above all, to prevent the exploiters from coming at all during certain times of the year, as well as to identify and take on those businesses that may provide incentives for sexual tourism,” Lins says.
The Ministry of Justice says 30,422 public officials and civilians already have been trained to help victims of human trafficking, and nine centers aiming to assist them have been established. Three offices to assist deportees are located at airports and borders, with two more expected to open by the end of the year.
Brazil’s northeast, the country’s poorest region, is a focal point for sexual tourism involving children.
“These girls are not even aware that they’re being exploited,” says Kelly Menezes, legal counsel for the Aquarela Network, which is run by the Justice department of Ceará state in the northeast and oversees groups that work to combat violence and the sexual abuse of children and adolescents.
Menezes recently met two adolescents, 11 and 12 years old, from the city of Manaus in the state of Amazonas. They were rescued by the police during a raid that occurred as the girls’ abductor was asking tourists if they wanted to pay to have sex with the girls. One of the girls told police she was in a sexual relationship with her captor.
“Even after spending three weeks here, with talks of orientation and awareness, they went back to Manaus upset,” Menezes says. “They believed that the policemen had spoiled their holiday trip.”
Adults and children in forced labor, bonded labor, and forced prostitution: 12.3 million
Successful trafficking prosecutions: 4,166
Successful prosecutions related to forced labor: 335
Victims identified: 49,105
Ratio of convicted offenders to victims identified: 8.5%
Ratio of victims identified to estimated victims: 0.4%
Countries that have yet to convict a trafficker under laws in compliance with the Palermo Protocol: 62
Countries without laws, policies or regulations to prevent victims’ deportation: 104
Prevalence of trafficking victims in the world: 1.8 per 1,000 inhabitants
Source: U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2010
– Fabiane Dal -Ri contributed to this report.