Women trafficked for sex are another casualty of war

War is a magnet for sexual exploitation, says Colette Sheridan
Women trafficked for sex are another casualty of war

Refugees from Ukraine at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland. Some women fleeing the war are being targeted by traffickers.

AS if life wasn’t hellish enough for Ukrainians, it’s sickening to consider that women and girls from the war-torn country are at risk from sex traffickers and sex buyers.

War is a magnet for sexual exploitation and seems to bring out humanity’s most base instincts, victimising females.

Ireland’s largest escort website, Escorts Ireland, is offering men the opportunity to live out their ‘war-inspired fantasies’ with Ukrainian women. 

The website reported a 250% increase in interest for Ukrainian women in recent times.

In Sweden, recently, out of 38 buyers of sex who were arrested in an operation, 30 were attempting to access Ukrainian women specifically.

These and other disturbing facts emerged at a webinar last week, entitled Beyond Exploitation: Trafficking, Prostitution, Sexual Exploitation & the War in Ukraine.

One of the speakers at the webinar, Valiant Richey, a former prosecutor in Seattle and an OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe) special representative and co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, Vienna, said the situation in Ukraine “is merely an example”.

The demand for exploitative sex is a long term challenge on a huge scale “that is far beyond the time frame of this conflict”.

Targeting demand, said Richey, is a crucial tool to address the under-lying root cause of the crime. Trafficking is a financially-motivated crime and the demand for sexual services motivates it.

Traffickers respond to the money paid by men for sexual services, by trafficking victims. Buyers cause harm to trafficking victims in all sorts of ways. They motivate traffickers in the first place, incentivising them to cause harm to victims.

By definition, the victims do not enter the transaction voluntarily. Rather, they become caught up in the exchange through force, coercion and deceit.

If the sex is non-consensual, it’s tantamount to rape.

Richey went on to say that 95% of trafficking victims experience some form of violence, the majority of which is caused by buyers.

Sex trafficking is “a highly gendered crime. It disproportionately affects women and girls who account for 90% of identified victims.” (And it predominantly targets women and girls of colour.)

How can sex trafficking be wiped out?

Too often, said Richey, efforts are focused only on victim identification or prosecution of traffickers. But in order to prosecute a trafficker or a protect a victim, the crime has to already have happened.

“We need to find ways to prevent this from happening in the first place and that means targeting its root cause. 

"If we don’t address demand, the problem will never stop.”

Ireland, Richey acknowledged, has adopted laws to punish sex-buying. It’s “a strong first step but the focus needs to be on implementing that measure”.

He favours a targeted public awareness campaign, aimed at the educational sector, business, technology companies and healthcare providers.

Social media sites such as Tik Tok and Instagram are increasingly being used to advertise sexual services to young people, so to discourage them, it’s necessary to communicate with them on these same platforms.

Research shows that the majority of sex buyers first buy sex under the age of 25. 

To counter developing a sex-buying habit, it’s vital to educate young men and boys about the harmful aspects of masculinity, particularly in schools and on college campuses.

In trying to combat the sexual exploitation of Ukrainian women and girls, there’s a need to take into consideration certain cultural differences.

There is, said lawyer, Olena Zaitseva, from the Centre for Democracy in Kviy, Ukraine, a low level of trust among Ukrainians in law enforcers. So, when a person gets trafficked or finds themselves in a dangerous situation, there’s a good chance the person won’t go to the police.

Also, there is “a very high level of victim blaming, not only in the population but also in state agencies.”

If a sex crime is committed against a woman, she will be asked what she was wearing. And witnesses will rarely help the victim or address the police themselves.

Information materials about the law and support organisations in the countries refugees find themselves in are needed.

Diane Martin CBE, vice chair of the International Survivors of Trafficking Advisory Council, also spoke at the Webinar.

Depressingly, she said the fact that traffickers and sex buyers are targeting Ukrainian women fleeing war “is not shocking to me. Before this war, Ukrainian women had been targeted and exploited by traffickers”.

Just trying to navigate a dangerous journey from Ukraine to a new country is traumatising enough without women having to be on the alert for traffickers.

“We must try and put ourselves in the shoes of those for whom these horrors are a reality,” said Martin.

We have eyes and ears to witness what is happening. Let’s not ignore Ukrainian refugees’ plight.

“We must meet evil intentions head on,” said Diane Martin.

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