There are an estimated 794,000 people living in conditions of modern slavery in Russia (GSI 2018). Women and children are subjected to commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking in prostitution and pornography. Women are lured by the promise of lucrative employment and a new location, travelling to the country under the pretence of legitimate employment and a better life. However, when they arrive, they are forced into prostitution in brothels, hotels and saunas. There is also evidence of traffickers advertising sexual services of children online. However, despite the evidence of sex trafficking in Russia, it remains an under-recognised area of enslavement in the country.
Ira is from a small town in the Vitebsk region of Belarus. Never having a close relationship with her mother, she ran away numerous times. Ira married young and gave birth to a daughter, however the family had little money and no stable accommodation. Ira returned to her mother but found their relationship had not improved. As Ira had little education, it was difficult for her to find a job in her small town. Her neighbour introduced her to a friend from St. Petersburg who earned money by providing escort services. Ira travelled to Russia to work, however upon arrival the work was not what Ira was promised. She found herself forced to provide sexual services to men who could often be violent. Ira escaped one day, jumping from a third story window, sustaining injuries that led to her being unable to walk and confined to a wheelchair. Ira has now found stable employment and has received psychological and reintegration assistance within the counter-trafficking programme implemented by the IOM office in Belarus.
Neither my mother nor my sister was a close friend to me. It seemed to me that my mother didn’t care a lot about us. She got married for the third time; her husband was a few years younger. But she always performed her mother’s responsibilities to ‘dress and feed’ us, and we never struggled to make ends meet.
We were too young and fed up with the daily routine.
[Ira’s neighbour introduced her to a friend who earned a living providing escort services]
She wasn’t ashamed to talk about it openly. She assured me that it was always possible to choose a client and turn him down if you didn’t like him. She also emphasized that being an escort was not always about sex; it could be accompanying a client to a restaurant. The friend pointed out that it was possible to come back home any time and bring gifts for a child, for example. ‘This work means you always have money.’ She advised me that I try and said: ‘Look at the poverty around, you will be able to earn one salary at a time. In case you don’t like it you are always free to come back.’
I was puzzled. At first, I couldn’t bear any talk about it. What if people know what I do for a living? Later I made up my mind. I asked my sister to take care of my daughter. Nobody knew where I was going because I wasn’t used to sharing my plans and, frankly speaking, not many were eager to know about them.
What was my job like? It was far from what I had been promised. It was difficult to admit that you were deceived. Everything was not the way I’d expected.
The clients were totally different, several clients per day. It was impossible to refuse a client otherwise you could be fined. There was always a lot of alcohol. You had to drink because if you were drunk it was possible to stay out of work. A lot of wealthy clients sought only a heart-to-heart conversation…
A client called at night and ordered a girl. I was sleeping when suddenly I was told to go to the client. He was already drunk and aggressive. I was scared to stay with him. He made me drink and I had to obey. You feel neither pain nor shame when you are drunk. Everything goes easier. I woke up in the morning and got ready to leave when he told me to stay. He told that he had paid for the whole day and I must work it off. The door was closed. He hid the door keys and my phone. He claimed that he had paid for my services and could do with me whatever he wanted… He fell asleep soon again. I didn’t find the keys. I thought I could exit through the window. It was the third floor and there was a fire escape ladder nearby. I decided to climb over the balcony to the ladder. And fell down… Everything happened very quickly. I felt no pain… I remember that I tried to stand up but couldn’t and saw my bones sticking out of my arms. I passed out. I came round in the ambulance. Later – only in the intensive care unit. There I told my name and where I came from. Doctors called my relatives. Later my family moved me back to Belarus. It was super expensive.
When asked about my life I had to lie. There was a lot of gossiping but relatives didn’t bother me. They understood my condition. Only acquaintances could ask me questions. For sure, I avoided answering, made something up. I have only one person to talk to about it.
[What helped you start a new life?]
Probably, it was my daughter. I picked myself up and changes happened. I don’t remember what I started with. I learnt how to get out of bed and sit into the wheelchair myself. To put on clothes myself. It took me an hour to get dressed in the morning. I ordered a Balkan crossbar. I learnt to be independent. Every day I discovered something new. Slowly did I realize that I didn’t have to ask for help any more. I remember my daughter’s surprise when I put her on my knees and brought her to the bathroom to brush her teeth. Now I even mop up the floors myself. My daughter sees me as a typical Mom.
[How did you find a job?]
At one of the events for the disabled people I met a lot of people like me. They advised me that I could work remotely on the Internet. I took a risk and it was a success. After having started as an assistant on the probation period I got a job with a fixed contract. Now I know everything about my job and even train new specialists.
[What advice would you give to people reading your story?]
I think about it every day. I shouldn’t have taken the offer to go. It was very hard. Having made such a silly decision, I ruined my life.
Every person changes every day. And it’s natural. Changes influence the way how we see life. What seems acceptable now may become unbearable later and one will have to live with this for the rest of his life.
t’s also necessary to take care of your loved ones. Wonder what happens with them and what their lives look like. Don’t stay indifferent. If you have an opportunity to influence a person in a positive way – don’t miss it, help and guide a person.
Such a foolish decision negatively affects your life. Yes, it may be a short-term solution, but later… you will regret it. It may seem that now and then your decision may help to solve current financial problems. But you can’t make an agreement with your conscience. Moreover, in the society we live in, you won’t avoid judgements…
It seems to me that people may have some prejudices towards me or they may not, but I don’t care about it.
[Is there any hope that you’ll walk again?
I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to walk again. I’ve gotten used to myself. I’m independent.
[What are your next goals?]
There is always room for improvement. I don’t have any ambitious plans. My daughter is the centre of my life. I would like to become a real friend to her and support her as much as I can. I wish I could have an education. Perhaps, it wouldn’t open up new prospects but nevertheless… I like my job. I like being busy. At work, time flies. Now I know all the details of my work. And I would like to improve my professional skills. Perhaps I’ll decide to continue my education.
Narrative as told to Olga Borzenkova, a Public Information Officer in IOM Belarus and published with the title “How It Feels to Survive Slavery: Ira’s story” in 2018.