Michelle Anderson and Kate Transchel. Photo by Beiron Andersson.
Two Chico State women join the fight against human trafficking
By Taran March
Last year, CSU, Chico communication studies major Michelle Anderson spent a semester teaching English to Bangkok prostitutes, women and children who, more honestly and precisely, are “sex slaves,” a term altogether darker in its global reach and complicity. While there, she met captives of all ages who were sold for sex.
“I thought I had an idea of what the girls might look or be like, but I was wrong,” says Anderson. “I saw girls from 11 years old to women of 50. Every shape and size, from many different backgrounds. I also thought I knew what kind of man would visit these places, but that notion was blown out of the water. I saw men of all ages, shapes, and sizes—all Westerners.”
The United Nations estimates that global trafficking of women and children is an operation worth $10 billion annually, and an estimated 800,000 to 900,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. CSU, Chico history professor Kate Transchel, who has traveled widely in former Soviet countries to research alcoholism and human trafficking there, says that 80 percent of the lucrative commodity in trafficking is sex, and the remaining 20 percent is indentured labor.
“There are more slaves today than at any other time in human history,” says Transchel. “The United Nations estimates that between 800,000 and 2 million women are sold into slavery every year.”
Some 50,000 slaves are brought onto U.S. shores, many to disappear permanently, their stories unknown, their used-up and anonymous bodies eventually dumped. Sometimes this news appears below the fold of city newspapers, but there’s less story when the victims can’t be identified. That seems to be the way we want it. In a July article about sex slavery in Ecuador, San Francisco Chronicle writer Mike Ceaser observed that “the United States does not include itself in its own annual trafficking report.”
In the belly of the beast
For Michelle Anderson, a 2004 survey of possible destinations for a study year abroad coincided with a documentary she saw about the flourishing sex trade in Thailand. What she learned so horrified her, she made plans to go to Bangkok.
She lived in the middle of one of the world’s largest human trafficking zones, Bangkok’s Nana Plaza in the red-light district. (Prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand but openly tolerated by authorities.) She studied at Rangsit University and worked with an underground organization that provides shelter to enslaved women and a chance to escape through education and other opportunities.
“Nothing prepares you for walking into a situation like I did, but nothing could have prepared me for coming home, either,” says Anderson. “Believe it or not, it was much easier to face the trafficking industry when I was over there than it has been since I’ve been home. When I was there, no matter how dark or disturbing some of the things I witnessed were, I was doing something about it—even if it was just providing a smile, a listening ear, or paying a bar fine for one of the girls who was too sick to work.” (A bar fine is a fee paid to a bar that allows a “hostess” or dancer to leave the bar floor with a customer.) One night, for 98 women, she bought the inconceivable: freedom, for a few hours, to be themselves.
Anderson’s restless discomfort after returning to Chico prompted her to join Stop Trafficking of Persons (STOP!), a CSU, Chico student organization founded this year to increase awareness of the problem. STOP! formed after a group of students in a class taught by sociology professor Janja Lalich became aware of the horrors of the slave trade. Through documentary films, tables at public events, and other means, the group works to inform people that slavery isn’t just a horrible historical footnote. It exists, right now. The concept remains too alien for most of us to truly grasp. How could a woman allow that to happen to herself, we wonder uneasily.
“How do you weigh the options of starvation or being enslaved?” said Anderson in COMM, the School of Communication’s newsletter, in a recent profile. “That idea is overwhelming.”
For Anderson, human trafficking can’t be ignored. However, for many in the United States, sex slavery remains largely an academic and governmental concern. “The creepiest part of human trafficking is that it’s even allowed to exist, and that we can go on with our everyday lives like it doesn’t,” she observes. “That’s my direction for now—helping to burst the often insulated and isolated bubble we tend to live in as Americans.”
Looking evil in the eye
While most of us shrink from repulsive terms like “sex slavery,” Kate Transchel has hunted the reality down in Eastern Europe—and been hounded in turn by some very cynical, and very scary, people. In 1999 while in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, she sat in a café with several Russian women and watched a group of child beggars, none more than 12 years old, strike a deal with Western businessmen at another table. The three girls in the group left with the men. It was Transchel’s first encounter with sex trafficking—hugely profitable, largely ignored, and among the worst humanrights abuses on the planet.
She was shocked and shaken. Her Russian companions, trying to comfort her, offered philosophy. “Russians have this sort of tragic sense of life,” Transchel told the Chico Enterprise-Record in a 2003 interview. “Basically, they were saying to me, ‘What can you do? Live! You just have to keep living.’ They were quite distressed by the scene as well, but it was part of their daily life.”
For the last five years, Transchel has made it part of her daily life, too. This fall, as a David W. and Helen E. F. Lantis University Professor, she returned to Eastern Europe for four months to document human trafficking. She visited Moscow, Kiev, and Chisanau in Moldova, where she worked with members of La Strada, an international organization that combats human trafficking and sex slavery.
The 2006 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report “Trafficking in Persons: Global Patterns” puts Moldova among the top countries in the world for human trafficking. According to the report, trafficking victims are held through physical and/or psychological force; they are not free to walk away. Even if they had the ability to escape, typically they have nowhere to go.
What Transchel calls a “Wild West, mafia economy” throughout much of Eastern Europe has allowed the Russian mafia to establish a worldwide network of sex slavery and forced labor. Setting up ad agencies in regions of economic collapse, sex traders lure desperately poor women, many the sole head of their household, to grasp at specious job opportunities in the West—as nannies, tutors, translators, or dancers. For all intents and purposes, those who answer the ads sign their own death warrants, according to Transchel.
“They’re transported to the West legally, and their papers are taken when they arrive,” reports Transchel. “They’re beaten and raped. They’re made to stand naked on blocks and literally auctioned off to the highest bidder.”
Buyers, allowed to poke and prod the women at will, look for those who will be able to service up to 40 men a day. Assuming an optimistic six hours of sleep in every 24, that works out to sex nearly every half hour, day in, day out.
“If they try to escape,” says Transchel, “their families are threatened. Often, the law enforcement agency of the country they’re in will return them to the brothels.” A young woman or child may cost $10,000 but will earn 10 times that for her or his owner in a year, notes Transchel. “Slaves may be resold to a new owner, then another,” she adds. “Eventually, they end up on the streets or killed.”
This bleak assessment is no exaggeration. Transchel has added a stop in Riga, the capital of Latvia, where human rights workers have pressed her to document the gruesome practice of dumping women’s body parts in the forests outside of town.
Such evil beggars belief, but as Transchel points out, big money, made illegally, can be more powerful than human consciences. She recalls a Frontline documentary last year about the Russian mafia: “Many of them are university educated. They know how to stay ahead of law enforcement. They know how to strategize.”
And they pay attention to detail. After the Chico Enterprise-Record article about Transchel was published, she received threatening calls and e-mails.
Such proximity to danger has forced Transchel to shift her focus from exposé research—following the money and naming names—to documenting events. She intends to write a history of sex slavery in Eastern Europe. Transchel and sociology professor Janja Lalich, in conjunction with CSU, Chico’s Regional and Continuing Education, are planning a spring 2010 international conference on human trafficking on campus. The conference, hosted by the Colleges of Humanities and Fine Arts and Behavioral and Social Sciences, will provide information and training with the purpose of developing a working plan to raise awareness and help victims in Northern California.
Transchel says the agonizingly slow, incremental changes to the dynamics of human trafficking are frustrating but a sign of more awareness.
“Some improvements have been made,” she notes. “Over the last 10 years, some NGOs [non-governmental organizations] in Eastern Europe have begun to educate women to the dangers. The UN now maintains a human trafficking watch. Just in the last year, more people are talking about how to control the demand side of things and provide economic solutions, such as cottage industries, for the women at risk.”
As for any personal trauma from the work she’s taken on, Transchel not surprisingly says she becomes emotionally invested. “My heart breaks to hear these women’s stories,” she admits. “But as a practicing Buddhist, I believe that suffering exists. So rather than try to change what is, I try to be present with those women and their suffering. I try not to depersonalize their suffering. I don’t avert my gaze.”
About the author
Taran March (BA, English, ’89) is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Cherokee, California.