A shame on our society
By Jacqueline Theodoulou

THE TRAFFICKING of women in Cyprus constitutes possibly the biggest social sickness of today, both in the south and north of the island.

Cyprus, located in the Mediterranean below Greece and Turkey, where the West meets the East, is a small island of geographical significance. Its wealth of employment opportunities has over the years attracted hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from post Soviet countries and Asia.

In their pursuit of employment, however, many fall victim to human traffickers. Foreign women are especially vulnerable. Cypriot nightclubs employ thousands of migrant women, many from Ukraine and Russia, to work as “entertainers” or “artistes”. It is common knowledge that many of these women are prostitutes and suspicions are rife that a few of them could be trafficking victims.

The Cypriot government has taken several initial steps to address the island’s growing human trafficking problem, including the establishment of an anti-trafficking police unit in 2004 and the May 2005 enactment of a National Action Plan.

But despite these advancements, Cyprus still has a long way to go, both in combating human trafficking and educating the public on the exact dimensions of the problem.

This week, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, UNFICYP hosted a panel discussion on the subject and invited a number of distinguished Cypriot women, both Greek and Turkish, to attend.

This year’s theme, adopted by the UN, is that of “Women in Decision Making”. So it seemed appropriate to centre on this group of women “who do not participate actively in the decisions affecting their immediate lives”, explained UNFICYP Civil Affairs Political Officer, Sally Anne Corcoran.

According to Corcoran, nearly every country in the world is involved in trafficking, either as a country of origin or destination or transit. And worryingly, the UNPF estimates that up to two million women are trafficked internationally.

“The constant demand for prostitution makes trafficking the third largest source of income for organised crime surpassed only by drugs and arms,” she said.

Among those asked to join the panel was Oya Talat, wife of Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat and president of the Patriotic Women’s Union. Due to her husband’s bypass operation she was unable to attend, but she did submit her views and suggestions in writing.

Describing women trafficking as “the contemporary version of slave trade,” Talat said migration was possibly the main reason behind the ever-expanding success of the human trafficking business.

“The desire of migration for economic reasons lies at the root of human trafficking, subjects of which are mostly women.

“Because of persistent and sharp inequality of opportunity for survival, migration still continues to be one of the biggest problems in our world.”

She challenged the thousand-year-old male-dominant tradition, specifically in Cyprus, and wondered how it could still find ground and exert its influence in modern social relations.

“We are observing with anxiety and hatred that Cyprus is on one of the main roots of women trafficking and that both sides are being negatively and indiscriminatingly affected by this.”

Oya stressed the need for all Cypriot women to come together and “struggle for the eradication of women trafficking” and destroy the mindset, “which perceives human beings and women bodies as commodities.”

Speaking of a young Moldavian girl, who arrived in Cyprus thinking she was coming to be a ballet-dancer but actually ended up being sold and successively raped by seven different men on her night of arrival, campaigner Olga Demetriades put forward a number of suggestions, one of them being the public exposition of the film LILYA 4ever, the haunting tale of a girl desperate to escape from squalor and abandonment. The film is famous for its shocking but real-to-life content.

“Cyprus has been on and off the blacklist of countries trafficking women – the so- called “artistes” imported by agents and sold to cabaret owners. This is the worst kind of slave trading and sexual abuse,” said Demetriades.

Susana Elisa Pavlou, a Project Administrator at the Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies (MIGS), pointed out that another contributing factor to this social problem was the existence of social norms, in the form of demand.

“Demand for both commercial sexual services and the labour of domestic workers, for example, although not necessarily the primary cause of the problem perpetuates and sustains trafficking in women.”

As Pavlou explained, demand is not a natural phenomenon in the sense that one is born with an innate desire to buy commercial sexual services or pay for someone to clean after them.

“Demand is socially construed in the sense that people are made to feel that they want or need a particular product or service. As social beings, they invariably need to feel that their behaviour is normal, natural, necessary and/or inevitable, and so justified.”

Social norms and society in general constitute the basis on which people behave, said Pavlou. “For this reason, one of the most important challenges in the fight against trafficking of women is raising awareness and changing attitudes and behaviour.”

To combat the problem, there needs to be awareness. And according to Pavlou, to raise awareness, there needs to be research; something Cyprus is sorely lacking in.

“MIGS would like to stress here that we do not consider market-type surveys, opinion polls and the likes as important research that can or should influence policies – more serious, scholarly and committed work ought to be conducted in order to overcome social problems and influence policy in positive manners. This is what we feel lacks in Cyprus and this is what is needed both shorter but also in the longer term.”

Meral Akinci, a psychologist by profession and President of the KAYAD Women’s NGO in north Nicosia, suggested the introduction of similar legislation to that of Sweden, whereby it is the client that is legally prosecuted and not the prostitute.

“The Swedish Law of 1999 is unique as it punishes the client – not the women in prostitution – and has already proven its effectiveness in reducing trafficking. There are countries that are currently planning a change in this direction, and we encourage our country in both sides to go in this direction as well.”

As a community counselling resource, KAYAD is currently in the process of finding ways to mobilise and launch actions to raise awareness on the necessity to stop the sexual exploitation of women, Akinci informed attendants. “But we cannot make a difference if there is no solidarity in this action,” she warned.

“These women are victims of human rights violation and are trafficked to our country specifically to be used as prostitutes. In standing by and recognising this but doing nothing, we are allowing these women to be physically and psychologically harmed. We abhor the disgrace that our society is allowing women to be treated as commodities to be bought and sold.”

OLGA Demetriades told the story of a young Moldavian girl who wanted to be a ballerina.

“My personal experience of a 17-year-old Moldavian girl, imported in the name of classical ballet, but in fact sold to clients at a certain cabaret, triggered my attention to the existing problem. The girl had been successively raped by seven clients on the first night. She was in deep shock and put in the Psychiatric Ward of the Nicosia General Hospital. She attempted suicide jumping from the window. With a Russian friend, we visited her and she asked for a teddy bear as in the film LILYA 4-EVER. After recovery she was sent with a nurse through Vienna to Moldavia at a cost of £800 paid by us.”

Copyright © Cyprus Mail 2007