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Protecting Young Women From Human Traffickers

By Laura Sheahen

You might think that after fleeing ethnic cleansing in the Balkans when she was a child, Armana had left the most dangerous time in her life behind her. Now 19, she remembers how her family was uprooted by war in the 1990s, when Yugoslavia fell apart.


Armana, whose family was displaced by war in the 1990s, took hairdressing classes funded by CRS. She now works as a stylist and hopes to run a salon someday. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

But what awaited her and many other Balkan refugees was potentially as devastating. Human traffickers, who prey on poor or vulnerable people, sometimes target refugee camps or neighborhoods where displaced people live. Like many others who fled, Armana's family had little money and little connection to their new community near the Bosnian town of Mostar. After finishing high school, Armana wasn't sure what was next in her life.

In Eastern Europe, a hub for human trafficking, young women like Armana can be persuaded by an acquaintance or relative to take a "good job" abroad. Traffickers then take their passports and money away and force them to work as prostitutes. Their "owners" may even lock them up in brothels. The sellers make $3,000 per girl; "the pretty ones cost more," says Maja Brenjo, who coordinates anti-trafficking programs for Catholic Relief Services Bosnia.

Buying and Selling People

Traffickers see an inexhaustible commodity in other human beings, one that they can exploit over and over again. Trafficking does not just involve women being forced into prostitution. It can also involve children being forced to beg and adults being forced to work long hours under appalling conditions without pay.

In Eastern Europe, CRS works to stop trafficking before it starts. We alert vulnerable groups to the trafficking dangers and provide opportunities for women who have few career options. CRS and our local partners hold sessions at schools to teach students to watch out for suspicious people and job offers. We put up posters at bus stops and well-traveled areas to raise awareness. In asylum centers and refugee areas, kids play a Parcheesi-style board game that teaches them not to give up their identification papers. In CRS' peer-to-peer programs, older teens make comic books and other materials to educate their classmates and friends.

Larissa Klepac

Larissa Klepac of CRS Bosnia-Herzegovina looks through a "catalog" of girls offered for sale. Sex traffickers create photo albums like this to show to potential buyers. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Traffickers sometimes place phony employment ads in newspapers; a typical one might read, "Girls between 18-25 years old needed for work abroad. We guarantee high income and fair relationship. Accommodation and food provided. Visa also secured." A CRS program placed warning ads in the same papers traffickers use, and ran public service announcements on radio stations.

Help for Women at Risk

Some young women in impoverished Balkan countries are aware of the danger, but feel pressured to find work no matter what. "They look at an employment ad and think, maybe this really is a glamorous dancing job in Italy, maybe it will all work out," says Larissa Klepac, senior program manager for counter-trafficking programs at CRS' office in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Girls in Bosnia's housing projects for war refugees, where many families lack breadwinners, are especially at risk.

To give them options, CRS' partners offer job skills training to 14-to-25 year old girls and to single mothers in fields like hairdressing, sewing, crocheting, knitting, cheesemaking, technology and literacy. CRS-funded programs include workshops in creating resumes, going on job interviews, and improving computer skills. They also provide internships.

A Safer Future

The training program set Armana on a safe career path. With funding from CRS, a local partner taught Armana hairdressing. Now she earns her own living at a hair salon. "I like inventing new hairstyles," she says. She's looking forward to running her own salon someday.

With help from CRS, thousands of young women like Armana may never have to suffer the horror of being sold for other people's use. "We're happy we're providing job skills and knowledge to these young women," says Klepac. "We hope that because they have other opportunities, they will not be trapped by traffickers."

Laura Sheahen is CRS' regional information officer for Europe and the Middle East. She is based in Cairo.

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