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Russian Pop Star Battles Human Trafficking

  • Lisa Schlein

Russian Pop diva Valeriya is using her star appeal and personal experience as an abused woman to help migrant workers in her homeland break free of the bonds of sexual exploitation and forced labor. The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration has named Valeriya as its goodwill envoy for the Russian Federation. She says she will use this position to try to prevent migrants from becoming victims of human trafficking. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from IOM headquarters in Geneva.

Russian pop star Valeriya is wildly popular at home and in neighboring countries. She has sold 100 million CDs. She hopes to break into the British music market, where she has been dubbed the Russian Madonna, with an English version of her album Out of Control.

But, all is not as wonderful as this dazzling success would imply. Valeriya is the first one to acknowledge that appearances can be deceptive.

"I consider myself as an ex-victim of slavery," she said. "I have suffered a lot from domestic violence for 10 years. I was forced to work for a man, who was my husband, and treated me - he treated me like his own slave."

Her words are at odds with the poised, pretty woman saying them. She does not look like a victim. Tall, thin and elegant, Valeriya looks much younger than her 40 years. Her publicity photos exploit her sexy blonde good looks. In person, however, she appears simpler and more fragile. Her boyish haircut, loose bangs and big blue eyes belie the suffering she says she had to endure during 10 years of marriage.

"My husband was a real monster," she said. "I did not know it before, but he beat me up. He cut me with knives and sexual exploitations - well, all kind of these bad things. So, I know how it is. It is not easy to talk about it."

Valeriya's husband was also her manager. She says he forced her to sign many contracts so she could not work without his permission. She says he took all her money. Finally, she says she got fed up with this abuse, took her three children and ran away to a small town where her parents lived.

"Six of us lived in their small one-bedroom flat for two years, and I was a very famous singer at that moment," she said. "But, for me it did not matter, anything. I just wanted to be free."

Valeriya believes she can draw upon her own experience as goodwill envoy for the International Organization for Migration to help people in danger of becoming victims of human trafficking.

Human trafficking frequently involves the trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation. It also often involves exploitation of agricultural and sweatshop workers, as well as individuals working as domestic servants.

Since 1992, IOM reports about one-half million women left Russia in search of work in neighboring countries. It says many of them ended up being trafficked.

IOM's chief of mission in the Russian Federation, Enrico Ponziani, says, when people arrive in the country of destination, their passports and travel documents are taken away. They are confined in places where they have no freedom of movement.

"And, then, at that point, they have become basically slaves," he said. "They are fed when the trafficker wants to feed them, and then they have to do everything that they are told to do."

Ponziani says this form of modern day slavery does not just apply to sexual exploitation. It also takes the form of forced labor, where people do not get paid for the work they do.

"They are forced to do what they are told," he said. "And, if not, they are threatened, beaten; in the case of women, [they are] raped, etc., etc ...Trafficking is both. It touches men, women, children, everybody."

Some 260 victims of trafficking have been helped at an IOM rehabilitation center, which opened in Moscow in 2006. Many are Russians, followed by migrants from Uzbekistan, Moldova and Ukraine.

IOM's head of counter-trafficking activities worldwide, Richard Danziger, says it is impossible to get exact numbers of victims who have been trafficked, but he is sure that the 260 known victims in Moscow are just the tip of the iceberg.

He says there has been a major change in trafficking trends. Russia is no longer a major source country.

"Russia has become a major destination country," Danziger said. "Because of the boom in the Russian economy, it is attracting migrants from all the neighboring countries. Certainly women, but also men."

Valeriya says she will always retain some wounds from her abusive life with her husband. But, she says she is using her experience to tell other women who have suffered badly not to feel sorry for themselves, but to act to rebuild their lives, as she has done.

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