‘How much?’ These are the first English words learned by an Eastern European woman sold into prostitution.
This feature-length documentary by photojournalist Mimi Chakarova seeks to give a voice to women who are trafficked from Eastern Europe and forced into sex work in the Middle East and Western Europe. Through in depth interviews, brave live camera footage and photographs (sometimes taken whilst undercover), the film provides the viewer with an insight into the world of these trafficked women. Many become lost to brothels, locked inside flats and houses without a passport or the means to escape, with no protection from their families or the law.
Trafficked women are often promised work in the domestic or service industry by other women claiming to know of opportunities abroad, but on their arrival in their country of destination, are told the true nature of the work they will be expected to carry out. They are told they must repay their purchase price, travel fares and visa costs before they will be set free. These costs prove too often to be exponential, and in fact ultimately unachievable. Jenny, from Moldova – one of the interviewees, said sometimes she was forced to ‘serve’ 50 clients a day. The interview ends with her saying ‘I wish I’d never been born’.
According to the UN nearly one and a half million women and children are forced into sex slavery each year. This is likely to be an underestimate as statistics are difficult to calculate. In a protocol supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, trafficking has been defined as:
"…the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs."
Chakarova's skill as a director reveals a more complex story about human trafficking: the story of the decline of communism and the subsequent commoditisation of women. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, Eastern Europeans flocked to the West for new opportunities, for jobs, for freedom. Many of those left behind endured the collapse of industry and destitution. Poverty became a harsh reality. The offer of income presented to many young women by the recruiters of the trafficking network was hard to resist. And many women and girls left their homelands on the promise of wages and a new life. These women became objects to be bought and sold – the supply side in Turkey, in Greece, in Dubai is high.
Not only do we get an insight into some of the horrors these women endure;, Chakarova also explores how this system is able to perpetuate itself. Through interviews with the law enforcement body in Athens we learn the police themselves use these trafficked women and have little interest in protecting them. Through an interview with a pimp in Turkey we are told that clients range from ‘dishwashers to parliamentarians’. And in an interview with two clients who are only too keen to boast about the number of women they have bought, we get an insight into how the demand for prostitution is fuelled. Yet Chakarova is careful to avoid the trope that only men are to blame. In her final words to the camera she states that whilst men fuel demand, women are complicit: the women who recruit, the women who let their children go without question, the women who sell other women.
The economic analysis provided in this documentary is an interesting lens through which to view the problem of human trafficking. So often it is not about sex; it is about power. It is about money and exploitation. These facts are already known. What is so insightful about this documentary is hearing the stories of those who live these facts, understanding their experience, seeing the impact and devastation it wreaks on their lives. It is by making us angry that this documentary has power – the power to make us act.
Statistics regarding the number of women trafficked into the sex trade are sometimes reported in the media. Yet the individual stories in this film highlight the standpoint and hidden experiences of the faces behind the numbers. In this powerful and moving film, the politics of Eastern Europe’s pockets of socio-economic destitution converge with the human faces of those lost, forgotten, or simply ignored by the international community, in a dark and disturbing industry that perpetuates the suffering of thousands of women. This film shines light on the shadowy underbelly of globalisation—where humans become part of the commoditized and exploited resources of global trade: sold, coerced, and exploited. In the conspicuous silence surrounding those at the centre of this process—the women themselves—this film bravely seeks to take a small step in giving them a voice, and encourages us to magnify what they say by recognizing their experiences.
Kat Wall is an MSc Student in Global Governance and Ethics at UCL, and journal manager for Global Policy. For more information please visit the official website of The Price of Sex.