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Female Sexual Exploitation Continues to Be Problem

The trafficking of women and girls for forced labor and sexual exploitation is a serious global problem.

Ethiopian Alem Teklu is 29 years old. When she was 19, a family friend helped her get a job as a maid in Bahrain. She was promised a salary of $300 a month, but says she received less than half of that. She also owed money to the trafficker who got her the job in Bahrain.

"When I go from here I borrow 10,000 birr, Ethiopian money, and I work there for 15 months," she said. "When I work 15 months I paid my 10,000 birr. And then I have to take for dress, shoes, like this. I don't have anything. And for six months she didn't pay me, and I was sick. I had nothing when I arrived back in Ethiopia."

Alem says she worked under difficult conditions for three years. When she told her employer she wanted to return home the employer did not want to let her. So Alem ran away and sought help from a friend who worked in a restaurant. She was eventually able to return to Ethiopia, but she says some of her family members were disappointed that she did not come back with any money.

"Some of them, they are angry," she said. "But my mother, only, she is okay. My brothers, all, they told me to go back again [to Bahrain]."

Unfortunately, Alem's story is not uncommon. The United Nations says between two and four million people are trafficked each year. The U.S. State Department estimates the number is lower, at between 600,000 and 800,000 people. That figure includes women, girls, men and boys who are trafficked for forced labor, sexual exploitation and child exploitation.

Among its activities, the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) directly assists women and girls who have been trafficked. Many of them have been forced to work as prostitutes, others as laborers.

Jemini Pandya is a spokeswoman for the IOM. She says the trafficking of women is a global problem.

"In Europe, for example, Turkey is a major hotspot for human trafficking, particularly of women for sexual exploitation from Eastern Europe and countries like Moldova and Ukraine," she said. "In Africa, South Africa is a hub for women who are trafficked from countries in the region and for women who are trafficked from other parts of the world."

Pandya says the problem is also prevalent in Latin America, where women and girls are trafficked to other countries in the region for sexual exploitation and forced labor, as well as exported to Europe and Asia. Women from Asia, meanwhile, are often trafficked into the Middle East, Europe and certain parts of Africa.

She says many of the women being trafficked are single mothers who are looking for a legitimate way to support their children and are especially vulnerable to traffickers.

"Women who are single parents, who feel the stigma of being poor, of being single parents or even being divorced, who are unable to provide for their children, are under enormous pressure from society at large and face enormous amounts of stigma," she added. "So they are willing to take huge risks to find any means to put some bread on the table for their children, and if that means going abroad to work, fine."

She says many of these women think they have good jobs waiting for them as domestic workers or in restaurants, only to arrive in a foreign country and be locked up by traffickers and pimps and be forced to work as prostitutes.

Pandya says women who are lucky enough to return home often do not seek help, because of the stigma attached to having worked in the sex trade. They often refuse medical help or counseling because they do not want to be identified as victims of trafficking or having worked as prostitutes.

"Because they fear the stigma it means they are then unable to be screened for any sexually transmitted diseases," she explained. "Which means they are of course, not able to get medical help that they might need."

The United States is active in the fight against human trafficking, and has recently initiated a program to designate a certain number of visas for trafficking victims in the United States to remain here and bring over members of their immediate family.

"It's both a way of giving the victims time and space to kind of recover and not be in a situation where they would become ostracized from family and from communities," she said.

Today, Alem Teklu is married and has a baby boy. With the help of government grants, she went to school to study art. She now earns a good living as a sculptress and the owner of a small art school. Her story has a happy ending, but so many others do not.