TOP STORY: MORALITY AND RELIGION: East European sex trade poses vexing moral problem

c. 1996 Religion News Service KRAKOW, Poland (RNS)-Krakow’s red-light district is divided into two parts: one for Polish prostitutes, another for women from countries of the former Soviet Union-Russia, Ukraine, the Baltics and Belarus. On one corner in the”Russian side”stand Tatjana, 24, and Nadja, 21, both from villages in eastern Ukraine. Tatjana, a handsome woman […]

c. 1996 Religion News Service

KRAKOW, Poland (RNS)-Krakow’s red-light district is divided into two parts: one for Polish prostitutes, another for women from countries of the former Soviet Union-Russia, Ukraine, the Baltics and Belarus.

On one corner in the”Russian side”stand Tatjana, 24, and Nadja, 21, both from villages in eastern Ukraine. Tatjana, a handsome woman with intelligent blue eyes, came to Poland two years ago after completing a university degree in engineering.”Engineers earn $10 a month in Ukraine,”she says.”Here I can make $100 a night and support my entire family back home.” Nadja, a Roman Catholic with a crucifix around her neck, at first had trouble getting used to the work.”I had moral problems,”she says,”but now it’s better.”This summer she plans to push on to Germany where the money is even bigger. Eventually, though, she wants to return home and raise a family.

These women are part of a booming east-to-west trade in sex workers that has sprung up since the fall of communism. The region’s economic upheaval has made countries like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic lucrative destinations for East European women, as well as prime recruiting grounds for West European mafia and sex traffickers.

Tatjana and Nadja say they came to Poland of their own volition. But an increasing number of East European women are lured to western countries with promises of respectable jobs as waitresses, au pairs, dancers or models, then forced into the sex business against their will.

A U.N. International Organization for Migration report says the trade in East European women has dramatically overtaken that of women from the Third World. Instead of getting the jobs promised them, women are literally sold by middlemen to bordellos or night clubs, where they are beaten, raped and work for minimal pay.

The U.N. report says most of the women come from the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine and Russia. A shocking number of the young women are between 15 and 18 years old.”Less than a quarter of the women who wind up as prostitutes knew what they were getting into,”says Teresa Oleszczuk, director of the Warsaw-based project La Strada, the first program in Central and Eastern Europe to address the traffic in women. The one-year program is supported by Poland’s Young Women’s Christian Association. It was initiated in cooperation with the Dutch Church and World Foundation and organizers of a similar project in the Netherlands. La Strada now has a sister office in Prague.”The traffic in women is invisible to most people,”says Oleszczuk, who in the past has worked on other women-related projects in Poland.”We want to make it visible to the authorities and the public.” In the murky underworld of the sex industry, professional criminal organizations in Eastern and Western Europe work closely together. Through bogus employment agencies, phony marriage services and personal contacts, native middlemen attract women with the promise of high wages in countries such as Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

But no sooner are the women across the border than their documents are taken away and they enter a vicious cycle of dependence, intimidation and violence.”At first many of these women are raped and beaten for days at a time,”says Oleszczuk, who works with former victims.”All the while they are photographed. The recruiters threaten to send the photos to their families should they go to the police or try to escape.” Since the women usually have entered the country illegally, they are afraid to go to the police, whom their pimps claim to have bribed anyway. The women are made financially dependent on the recruiters, forced into debt from the expenses they’ve incurred from the trip and their lodgings.

Even Eastern European women who knowingly enter the sex business are often treated savagely. According to a study by German federal authorities, the women endure”all thinkable kinds of physical maltreatment,”including torture. The report includes examples of scare tactics, such as hanging women out of windows and shoving loaded pistols into their mouths.


Both Tatjana and Nadja have heard the horror stories from acquaintances who have worked in Hamburg and Amsterdam. That, says Tatjana, is why she’s staying in Krakow. Nadja shrugs. She says her contacts are reliable.

Germany is the sex traffickers’ biggest market, where an estimated 15,000 East European women work in red-light businesses. In any one of Germany’s many tabloids under the heading of”contacts”or”personals,”there are dozens of thinly veiled ads for sex services, explicitly offering Eastern European women:”sexy Czech teenager makes housecalls”or”Polish supermodel”or”Russian beauty gives erotic massage.” Women’s groups have strongly criticized the German legal system, which, unlike those in the Netherlands or Belgium, doesn’t have witness-protection programs for women testifying against traffickers. Since the women are usually the only witnesses, the recruiters are rarely brought to justice.


At police stations women can’t count on much sympathy.”The police see these women as criminals rather than victims,”says Slawomira Walczewska of Krakow’s Women’s Center, a group that runs a hotline for battered women and prostitutes. In Germany, the women are taken into custody and, after the trial at the latest, deported.

The Women’s Center and La Strada try to alert potential victims through media and education campaigns. But in overwhelmingly Catholic Poland, the projects have met a lukewarm response.”Most people, and particularly those in the church, don’t want to admit this problem exists,”says Walczewska. Despite the cooperation of isolated Catholic women’s groups, she says there’s a conspicuous silence from the church leadership, as well as the political authorities and most of the media.

Adam Szostkiewicz, editor at the Catholic weekly,”Tygodnik Powszechny,”admits that his publication has not addressed the issue.”We are not used to discussing such things in public,”he says.”This so strongly contradicts the traditional image of the Catholic woman as the mother, as the wife and the housewife that we hardly know where to begin. Should we help these women? Should we try to contact them or should we condemn them?” In Germany, a spokesman for the Protestant Church says it is concerned about the problem, but it is powerless against the organized criminal rings that keep tight control over the business.”Even the police rarely break through their structures,”says Rheinhardt Stavinski of Berlin-Brandenburg’s Evangelical Church.”Naturally, this is a serious moral problem for us. In practical terms, though, it’s hard to say what we can do about it.”(STORY CAN END HERE. BEGIN SECOND OPTIONAL TRIM TO END)

Some Polish women’s groups say the issue is not a moral one concerning the ethics of prostitution but first and foremost a human-rights question.”Women have the right to choose this profession if they want to,”says Alina Ploszaj, a Krakow feminist and social worker. For her, it becomes an issue only when women are forced or abused.

As long as the sex industry and trade in women remain taboo issues, say the women’s groups, they will continue to boom.


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