Bulgaria Traffic in Women


Susan Phillips 

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 women’s 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 Animus’s 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 Women’s 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
doesn’t 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 didn’t do was create an active force for
women’s empowerment. “Women don’t 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 women’s 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, you’re very nice, I think you’d
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 King’s
party), says that stopping traffickers is virtually impossible without
control of their borders. “The problem is that you’re
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, Againe’s
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 women’s 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 organization’s
shelter in Sofia. “The sad fact is,” says Minkova, “many
of them go back to prostitution, feeling they don’t 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. Tchomarova’s 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. “It’s very confused here,”
says Belcheva. “Women mostly work but our society is very patriarchal,
that’s a very big paradox.”                            Z 


Susan
Phillips is in the prisoner rights movement and has worked with
the Independent Media Center.