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Reaching out, a shelter for trafficked girls

The non-governmental organization Reaching Out offers a safe haven for trafficked girls who managed to escape their captors and return home to Romania. At the shelter run by the organization the girls find a safe place to stay, heal and recover as they prepare to rejoin the real world. They receive advice, regain their self-esteem and confidence, learn to sew, paint and build a new life.

“It is not easy,” the shelter manager says. “We have to learn how to cope with the expenditures: maintenance, food, medication, school, travel and clothes. Everything has to be paid for.” The UNICEF Office in Romania considers this to be the country’s only shelter with optimum standards and is providing technical assistance to help ensure its sustainability.

‘My story is a simple one,” says Milena,* one of the young women living in the shelter. “I got pregnant and had a child on my own. Shortly after giving birth, a friend took care of the baby and I got a job. I found a place to live but soon started to have financial problems. I could not cope and some friends suggested that I try working abroad. I thought it might be a good solution for a while until I got back on my feet; I never thought that I would be working as a prostitute.”

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Milena worked as a prostitute in Austria. Since prostitution is illegal in that country, she spent her days locked in a dark room. She was so depressed that the other girls who worked with her managed to collect 200 euros so that she could pay her way back home.

“I am so mad at myself that I let myself be fooled by all kinds of empty promises,” says Milena, who now lives in a shelter that houses other women in the same situation. “I believed all kinds of lies. Now I try to calm down and say to myself that I did what I did because I was desperate. I’m looking around me here in the shelter and I realize that I am the oldest – the other girls are under 20; I could have been more mature. On the other hand, people do not see beyond facts. They hear that you were trafficked and forced to become a prostitute and start treating you as a rotten apple without bothering to find out the real story.”

These days she is trying to focus on the future. “I’m very fearful of how I’ll fare out in the real world but I want to do what’s right for my baby,” she says.

Anna is another young woman living in the shelter. She is only 15 years old, with a tattoo of a butterfly on her back and an innocent smile. In her room at the shelter there are toys, stuffed animals, dolls, fairy- tale books – all the objects of a lost childhood. Anna left home at age 12 and slept on the stairs of an apartment building. Looking for a job, she stumbled upon a woman who promised her a brighter future. In reality, the woman was part of a trafficking network and Anna was soon forced to become a prostitute.

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“Initially I drank and did drugs,” she says. “It helped me avoid thinking about what was happening to me.”

At age 14, Anna was given a passport and sent to Turkey, where she was caught by the police and sent back home. But back in Romania, the same woman was waiting for her and sent her to Spain. There, she was locked up in a house during the day and forced to go out with clients at night. Finally, a kind man helped her escape back to Romania.

A widespread problem

The stories of Anna and Milena are hardly atypical in Romania, a major source of trafficked women and children. As in most Easter European countries, the collapse of the economy in the 1990s meant drastic reductions in income and social security, soaring inflation rates and high unemployment. Women were especially hard hit by the rising poverty and found themselves with little opportunities in the labour market. According to a recent study on trafficking in south eastern Europe by UNICEF, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the difficult economic situation, coupled with dysfunctional family backgrounds and low levels of education are behind many of the trafficking cases. Women and girls are either lured by promises of well-paying jobs in other countries, or are kidnapped and forced to go abroad.

Depending on the source, the number of assisted victims ranged between 500 [1] and almost 900 [1] between 2000 and 2004. The Romanian Government has identified trafficking as one of the priorities in its efforts to fight organized crime. It is in the process of developing a national plan of action and is organizing an inter-ministerial group that will focus on the trafficking of children.

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Both Milena and Anna are hoping to get back on their feet soon and reintegrate themselves in society. Their stay at the Reaching Out shelter will hopefully provide them with the necessary tools to succeed in doing so and avoid stigmatization.

* The names of all women who have been trafficked have been changed.

[1] Source: Ministry of interior | Source: IOM Romania
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