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The evil "underbelly of globalization': human trafficking

After she granted an interview in the lobby of the Hotel Washington a few hours before catching her flight home to the Ukraine, Oksana requested that her last name not be used.

She worried that they would come after her, referring to international crime syndicates. Oksana, 42, is part of a worldwide network of rights activists fighting against trafficking in women and girls, a multibillion-dollar industry.

Although reliable data is hard to come by, experts estimate that more than 1-million victims _ some as young as 6 _ are smuggled worldwide yearly, oftentimes with the blessing of corrupt officials. Experts say 50,000 victims make it into the United States each year.

Conned into thinking they are getting legitimate jobs, as babysitters, waitresses and, in one case in the Ukraine, as a doctor, they are forced to work as prostitutes, as servants, as beggars on the street.

"Many times women leave family to improve situation, many mothers of children," said Oksana, in heavily accented English. But, she added, "It is so brutal of human rights, and it's difficult to stay indifferent."

Invariably, the victims end up as slaves, sold repeatedly to the highest bidder. They can bring anywhere from $500 to $25,000.

Theresa A. Loar, director of the Vital Voices Global Partnership, a non-profit organization devoted to the economic, social and political progress of women worldwide, said traffickers sometimes do business in open slave markets. She cited the Balkans as an example.

Loar calls the trade "the dirty underbelly of globalization."

"It's just so evil," she said.

You don't have to go far to encounter the problem. In April 1999 in West Palm Beach, six men who admitted forcing 17 women and girls into a prostitution ring were fined and sentenced to prison. The organization smuggled the victims, some as young as 14, into the United States from Mexico.

Last fall, President Clinton signed into law a bill sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., targeting the traffickers. In addition to prison terms _ in some cases life sentences _ countries that fail to tackle the problem can lose economic aid.

In meetings, Smith said he has urged the new administration, including President Bush, to make the issue a priority. Last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell shared his concern on the subject during testimony before the House International Relations Committee.

Smith, a member of Congress since 1980, said that although he had been an advocate of human rights over the years, it wasn't until recently that he learned of the problem firsthand.

He met with some of the trafficking victims in Russia.

"Man's inhumanity toward women is simply without restraint," he said.

Although the trafficking of women and children is a an established practice in some parts of the world, including Asia, experts say the problem has mushroomed since the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

Traffickers have taken advantage of economic chaos and military conflict and the lowly status of women to promote their business.

It wasn't until 1997, however, during the first Vital Voices international conference in Vienna, that the problem started to get attention. It was there that people such as Oksana began to spread the word and people such as Loar, then with the State Department, began to listen.

Oksana, who is married and has an 18-year-old daughter, said she began working on the women's movement in Ukraine while she was working in Parliament. "It was absolutely clear that high-level unemployment of women in Ukraine and poverty pushed our women to look at job abroad," she said. "At the same time, we had been informed of the dangers."

In 1997, she helped establish a women's rights hotline. And she began to hear the stories.

A 17-year-old orphan forced to serve clients in Germany. A mother with two children who ended up in a sex club in Turkey. A doctor who wound up in the sex trade in Italy. She had been told she would be treating the poor.

Through the hotline, Oksana has managed to bring home dozens of victims. Although their stories are endless, officials say there is a way out.

Like the drug trade, nations have to come together to crack down on the traffickers. Smith said the United States, for example, should send a message to the world by implementing the new anti-trafficking law.

Countries also have to provide economic opportunities for women and not treat them as second-class citizens. Countries also should warn women of the dangers of human trafficking.

Oksana tells of the two Bosnian men who traveled to a village in the Ukraine to propose marriage to two local women. The men even met with their families.

Once out of the country, though, the grooms sold their wives.