Modern-day slave trade
Chico State professor researches human trafficking
When Kate Transchel heard a Russian woman’s story about nearly being sold into slavery, she was shocked. She had never heard of the sexual slave trade before.
“I thought [the woman] was kidding,” she said, standing before a room full of college students on Thursday (May 6) on the Chico State campus.
Transchel, a professor in the History Department who focuses on Russian culture, heard that story in Moscow in 1997 and has since been researching the history of human trafficking in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.
She spent the fall semester of 2008 in Russia, the Ukraine and Moldova, interviewing women who had been promised jobs in other countries and then given the means to get there—including visas, passports and travel expenses—only to find out they had been tricked into working as sexual slaves to pay off their debts. This “debt-bondage” scenario is common throughout the world, and in Eastern Europe, thousands of women and children are held in captivity and are forced to have sex with up to 50 men a day.
“I’m not talking about prostitution,” Transchel said. “I’m talking about women who are tricked and coerced into sexual slavery.”
Throughout her hour-and-a-half presentation, “The Journey Into Hell: Victims and Rescue Workers Talk About Their Lives,” which was sponsored by Chico State’s anti-trafficking organization, S.T.O.P. (Stop Trafficking of Persons), Transchel kept her main point clear: The slave trade is alive and booming.
The Chico State professor gave listeners a crash course in human trafficking, describing its different forms: sexual slavery, labor exploitation, begging, body parts, fetal tissue and babies for adoption. However, sexual slavery constitutes about 80 percent of the slave trade worldwide.
Surprisingly, this crime hits close to home.
It’s estimated that 17,000 slaves—who are put to work in any way that turns a profit for their owners, such as working in fields, brothels, homes, mines or restaurants—are brought into the United States through California alone each year.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it was happening in Butte County,” she said, listing off recent incidences of trafficking and brothel busts in cities such as Sacramento, Fresno and Tahoe.
Transchel described the trade as a “supply-and-demand” scenario that pimps view as nothing more than a business venture. She highlighted factors that make this model in Eastern Europe possible, such as domestic violence, economic chaos, a lack of social-welfare programs and unemployment.
“A mother will literally do anything if her child is crying for food every day,” she said.
So, the women are tricked into traveling to other countries where they are promised work. About 60 percent of the time, the job is legitimate, Transchel said. But she focuses on the 30 percent to 40 percent who find themselves held captive.
Transchel displayed maps with lines depicting how women and children are transported out-of-country. The women are “recruited” from places such as Moldova, Latvia, Russia and the Ukraine, where Transchel focuses her research. The women are then taken to “transit” countries such as the Czech Republic, Germany and Cyprus, where they are “softened up”—a term that describes the brutal beating and gang-raping of victims in an effort to break their spirit and force them into submission.
They end up in wealthier countries such as Israel, the United Arab Emirates, the European Union, Russia, the Ukraine, Canada and the United States, where they are held in captivity until they are murdered, kill themselves or escape.
Transchel told stories about people who are working to protect victims of the trade. She described non-governmental organizations in Eastern Europe that are sometimes staffed by as few as three people and one phone. Some employees take turns staying up all night with cell phones waiting for panicked women to call. Many of the women who reach out for help have no idea where they are being held.
“[The slaves] are usually dead or cannot recover after one to two months, so [the organizations] know that time is of essence,” she said.
Transchel also showed photos of activist friends she made in Moldova—some of whom likely are dead today due to the mere nature of their work. She ended her speech with a call to action that includes targeting johns, changing societal attitudes, educating boys, enforcing laws and helping eliminate sweat shops by buying fair trade products. She pointed out the efforts S.T.O.P. has made throughout its short time at Chico State, such as recently declaring Chico a “slavery-free zone,” and said the activist club’s project for next year is making sure all clothing and items sold at the Associated Students Bookstore are sweatshop-free.
She is also working on the beginning stages of a book about victims of sex trafficking in Eastern Europe, and said that through all her experiences talking to women overseas, her relationship with “Lilia”—a woman who was tricked into going to Istanbul and later threw herself out of a window to avoid sexual slavery—has really stuck with her. She described a conversation the two had in which she asked Lilia what she wanted people in America to know about women’s experiences in the trade.
“Tell them that we’re human, because there’s something that happens inside your soul when you find out your entire life is worth $90,” Transchel recalled Lilia telling her.