The Romanian woman saving victims of sex trafficking

Psychologist Iana Matei rescues girls forced into prostitution and gives them shelter, counselling and an education.

Iana Matei - Please do not use
'If you want to do something about human trafficking, you have to talk about education and family education,' Iana Matei says [Stefan Matei/Al Jazeera]

Pitesti, Romania – A new girl has just arrived. The 14-year-old is pale with long black hair pulled back in a ponytail. She is a victim of forced prostitution. 

“I see you had good grades for maths when you were still in school. That’s great because we’ll need to get you back to class,” Iana Matei tells her. The girl smiles shyly.

For 18 years now, the Romanian psychologist has been running a shelter for victims of sexual exploitation in a village near the city of Pitesti, about an hour’s drive from Bucharest.

During this time, she has helped hundreds of women and young girls who were trafficked into prostitution.Sometimes, she goes out and rescues them from their traffickers herself. It takes courage to do so because the perpetrators are often ruthless.

“I don’t know if I am courageous, but I do know that I am angry,” she says, sitting in her small, pink-walled office. There are photographs of girls who have been in her care on the shelves. Outside, in the garden, laundry is hanging to dry.

The 57-year-old has a resolute air and lively blue eyes.

“Outrage – that’s what drives me,” she says. “I’m angry at the people who do this, who beat up a young girl, rape her and force her into prostitution so she’ll be traumatised for life. And I’m angry at society for turning a blind eye. It’s so unjust.”

Shelter for sex trafficking victims

Romania is the European Union country with the highest number of reported victims of human trafficking. The majority are women and girls trafficked into the sex industry.

Destination countries include Italy, Spain and Germany, but also Romania itself. In recent years, the country has been attracting a growing number of sex tourists. And the victims are getting younger and younger, according to Iana.

“I am now setting up a shelter in the city of Cluj in the north. That area is terrible,” she says. “You’ll find nine-year-old girls working the streets.

“The traffickers put make-up on their faces and dress them up provocatively. But you can still see that they are very, very young. It’s heartbreaking and nobody does anything about it.”

Iana opened the country’s first specialised shelter for victims of sex trafficking in 1998, before the problem was widely known. 

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At that time, she was in her home country for what she thought would be just a temporary visit. She had been living for years in Australia after fleeing Romania during the revolution against the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

“I had been demonstrating against Ceausescu on the University Square in Bucharest. When the police arrived, I ran for my life, and I lost my handbag with my ID,” she explains. “So Romania was no longer a safe place for me. I fled to Serbia and eventually made it to Australia.”

In Australia, she studied psychology and set up an NGO to help street children. When, years later, she went back to Romania for a holiday, she asked about street children in Bucharest.

“Somebody said to me: ‘Yes, we have street children here. They live in the sewerage under the city. The best thing to do would be to seal off the manhole covers and set the sewers on fire.’ I was deeply shocked when I heard that.”

Returning to Romania

Back in Australia, Iana couldn’t shake that memory, so she decided to return to Romania for a year to work in orphanages and help the street children living in sewers. She was in one of those orphanages when, one day, the police called.

“They said: ‘We have three prostitutes here. They’ve been working in Macedonia and are now back in Romania. Could you bring some clothes and a sandwich for them?'”

When Iana arrived at the police station, she saw three terrified young girls, dressed in skimpy clothes and covered in bruises. One had cigarette burns on her thighs.

“The girls were 14, 15 and 16 years old. I said to the police: ‘These are children, and they are obviously abused.’ They [the police] just laughed in my face; to them, they were just bad girls who liked sex.”

One of the girls told Iana that she had run away from her trafficker. She begged not to be put out on the street again, afraid that her trafficker would find and kill her.
“She had run away for the second time. The first time she went to the police in the town where she was exploited and was immediately brought her back to her trafficker. She got beaten up badly, but she had the guts to run away again.

“She begged me to help her. I realised I really needed to find these girls a safe place to stay. But the problem was, there were no shelters.”

So she called child protection. “One of their people came to the police station and, in the presence of the girls, he said: ‘I am sorry, but I cannot put these whores in an orphanage because they will set a bad example for the other children.'”

During a medical examination, all three girls were found to have a venereal disease and had to spend a few days in hospital. That gave Iana a little more time to work out how she could best help them.

“I decided I would take care of them myself,” she says. “But to do this in a legal way, I had to have an NGO. So I set up the paperwork for that.

Because I didn’t have space at home, I rented a flat where I could shelter the girls. I decided to live with them, and that was a good thing because this way I learned a lot about the needs victims have.”

It was a tough decision and meant giving up her comfortable life in Australia.

“I also had a teenage son who had agreed to only come for a year with me to Romania so I could work with street children,” she says.

“But in the end, he understood that these girls didn’t have anyone to take care of them and he was willing to share me with them.”

‘Her ear was cut off with scissors’

While Iana is talking, the girl who just arrived has settled on the sofa and is already chatting with the other girls – all teenagers. One is cuddling her baby.

The shelter is a simple country house. Upstairs are bedrooms, downstairs a living room with a television and drawings of trees on the wall. Inside are also Iana’s office and a workshop with sewing machines and jewelry made by the girls that are displayed, hanging on a board.

“It’s important that they learn crafts,” Iana says. “It will keep them busy – keep them from thinking too much.

“These girls have been through hell, you know. They have been battered, forced to sleep with 20, 30 men per day. They’ve been deprived of food, they’ve been tortured. I’ve had a girl here whose ear was cut off with a pair of scissors.”

‘A girl, you can sell a thousand times’

When Iana set up her first, improvised shelter, human trafficking was exploding in Eastern Europe as a consequence of the wars in the Balkans. 

“Human traffickers had the networks of arms smugglers and drug traffickers. But selling humans proved to be much more profitable,” she says. “You can sell a gun only once, but a girl, you can sell her a thousand times. Depending on how long she lasts, of course.”

New victims kept coming to her. With money she obtained from a charity, she was able to hire social workers. “In a short time we ended up with 12 girls in a three-room flat so we had to rent another one,” she says.

Rescuing girls from their traffickers

Sometimes, victims would tell her about other girls who were in the same situation. Often they had their telephone numbers and Iana would manage to contact the girls. “And then we would work out a plan to rescue them,” she says.

“The girl in our care would call the victim first and tell her she’s in a safe place. Then I would talk to the girl and find out as many details about her situation as I could, to see when there would be a possibility for me to come and ‘kidnap’ her.

“We always plan these rescue operations carefully,” she says. “But I don’t want to give you too much information because I want to save more girls in the future.”

Asked about the danger of these operations, Iana smiles broadly: “It’s dangerous because anything can happen. But, on the other hand, the traffickers don’t expect you to challenge them. They know everyone is afraid of them, so they’re not vigilant.

“Whenever I kidnap one of their girls, they are in shock. And they always think I am a ‘madam’ who steals their girls to exploit them in her own business. Some of the girls even think I am a madam initially. They are so used to people exploiting them. They can’t believe someone would want to help them.”

All they have known is ‘violence and abuse’

Nowadays, Iana is considered an expert on human trafficking. Her organisation, called Reaching Out Romania, shelters up to 12 girls in the centre near Pitesti. In the same area, there is a ‘transit’ shelter for six girls who continue their education. Then there’s the centre in Cluj that she is setting up.

She and her staff see to it that the victims go back to school and are provided with psychological counselling. They also work with the girls on repairing their self-esteem and acquiring life skills.

“With each girl we set up an individual plan,” she explains. “It is important that they find out what it is they like doing. I push them to go to school because a lack of schooling is one of the main reasons why they end up on the street. These girls often have absolutely no life skills; they don’t know how to do anything.

“Their story is always the same: They come from extremely dysfunctional families where they have suffered all kinds of violence and emotional abuse.”

This makes them vulnerable to trafficking, she explains. “All they have heard during their childhood is: You are stupid, you are good for nothing, no one wants you. So when some guy comes around and tells them he loves them, they are swept off their feet. They will do anything for him. No matter if he beats them. They are used to being beaten. But the difference is that this man says he loves them.

“At one point, the man will say: ‘Let’s go to Spain. I will work in construction and you will work as a babysitter. We’ll save the money, and when we get back, we will buy a house.’ She believes him, but of course once she is in Spain, she is forced into prostitution.”

‘Sold by their own parents’

According to Iana, there are organised gangs who traffick girls, but there are also individual pimps and even family businesses. “I have seen many girls that were sold by their own parents.”

She lights a cigarette. From her office you can hear girls laughing in the living room.

“The only way to stop trafficking is through education and through addressing dysfunctional families,” she says. “But the hardest thing is to change the mentality of the people.

“In the village, my girls are called names. Old women are gossiping that we make porn films in the shelter.

“Once a girl has been in prostitution, the people here don’t want to have anything to do with her. No matter if the girl was forced or if she is underage – she’s just a filthy prostitute, they’ll say. But how on earth can you call an abused 13-year-old girl a prostitute?”

Source: Al Jazeera