n Europe alone there are more than 20 million people who have become victims to human trafficking, one quarter of whom are children. 65% of victims trafficked in the EU come from a country within the Union. Copyright: structuresxx/Shutterstock.com
Women in Post-Soviet Republics have been regarded as the most beautiful and sexiest women in the world. A simple Google search reveals the demand for Eastern European women. Regardless of the strides that women in these regions have made to overcome the many struggles left in the ashes of the Soviet Union, these women have been reduced to pretty faces. Even as young as nine years old, Russian model, Kristina Pimenova, is regarded as the ‘most beautiful girl in the world.’ In 2014, her mother, Glikeriya Pimenova, has attacked pedophiles for sexualizing her daughter. Comments of her daughter having “sexy legs” has led to controversy over whether or not Pimenova has been sexualizing her daughter. Pimenova comments, “Some years ago I posted a picture of little Kristina on the beach in the Maldives hugging her three soft toys and laughing. She was holding all her toys in front of her chest and hugging them, and you know what comments I got to this picture? ‘Oh, she is covering her breasts because she thinks she has something to hide!’”(Stewart). She goes on to say, “Can you believe it? I think people who post something like this have serious psychological problems” (Stewart).
It is debatable whether or not Pimenova should post pictures of her daughter on the internet, raising her to believe that her value is solely based in her beauty as early as the age of three. However, the comments made on the pictures lend themselves to a wider problem. Sex sells, and young Eastern European women are being groomed to sell their beauty and eventually their bodies. I call this the bimboficationof Eastern Europe.
Another striking case of bimbofication can be seen in Riga, Latvia. Beginning in 2009 and continuing annually for the past eight years, the Latvian Association for Blondes has organized a festival called “Go Blonde.” Blonde Latvian women dress all in pink and parade around the city to promote economic growth. This tourism generator has been compared to such events as the carnivals in Brazil and Italy. It is a unique rally from Latvian women to promote lightheartedness during the economic recession in 2008 and 2009, as well as generate economic growth. However, the international attention this Go Blonde festival has attracted creates a gender disparity. Far more men, desiring to watch beautiful Eastern European women parading around the city center, come to view the festival than women, therefore reinforcing harmful stereotypes and the bimbofication of Eastern European women.
But how did the rise of bimbofication and the Pretty Womanstereotype come about? To answer this, one must understand the economic and social situations in which these women found themselves.
Throughout the Western world the fall of the Soviet Union, and consequently, Soviet-style communism, in 1991 was regarded as a monumental victory for democracy. American political scientist and author of The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama, argued “Democracy would win out over all other forms of government because the natural desire for peace and well-being set nations on a path to progress from which it was impossible to divert” (Lee). This feeling of triumph was not equally shared, however, by those who had previously been hidden behind the Iron Curtain. Those left to pick up the pieces of a toppled 40 year ideology were often disillusioned and frustrated with their new way of life. Life had become incredibly tough without the social and welfare programs which previously in place to support the citizens of the Eastern Bloc.
Democracy offered a bleak future for those living within the former Soviet Republics. Law and order easily gave way to corruption and greed. Quickly, economies began to collapse and social safety nets, which had provided a minimum standard of living, were dismantled. Security and equality became ghosts of the past. Tens of millions of people were left to survive as best they could. The entirety of the social structure which had been an entire way of life was in shambles. In the disarray, women were left to pick up the pieces in order to keep their families together, even as the disintegration of families skyrocketed. Even the young girls were pulled into the struggle, as they attempted to provide food and capital for parents and younger siblings, searching for jobs.
The disintegration of families, which left young girls vulnerable to exploitation by organized crime rings and sex traffickers, arguably is directly linked to the different Family Laws, or Codes, enacted by the Post-Soviet governments across Eastern Europe throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Khazova elaborates, “Family law had to be adapted to the new social and economic realities, which came to these countries together with tremendous political change” (1). The first of these laws, the Civil Law of Latvia 1937 (restored), passed in 1992. In the coming years Estonia, the Russian Federation, Georgia, Belarus, Lithuania, Azerbaijan, and Moldova followed suit. Armenia was the last of the Post-Soviet republics to pass a Family Code in 2004. Family Codes were to democratize the marriage, which previously, under Soviet rule, had been seen as a bourgeois relic and often had very strict legal rules, such as providing alimony only in cases of serious disability, placed upon it (Khazova 3). More importantly, Khazova states,
“Four countries also restored betrothal or engagement. Some of the laws introduced (or, in fact, restored) the fault-based divorce, or at least some consequences of a fault-based approach. Two countries returned to legal separation– another old and well-known institution. All the new laws allowed spouses to deviate from the matrimonial property regime stipulated by law and to make marriage contracts. One of the countries introduced the concept of “family property” that aimed at providing more protection to an economically weaker spouse and the children, as well as to the family as a whole (5)”.
So, between new legislation on family law, social disillusionment, and high rates of alcoholism ravaging the Post-Socialist countries, divorce rates skyrocketed. Ukrainian social psychologist, Andriy Strutynsky, explains, “Ukrainians are a matrimonially active nation… “But this is more of a bubble: people get married early and easily, and they split up the same way. The family is no longer the crucial element holding society together. Very often, we don’t take marriage seriously, and we break it. Financial factors matter, too. As a result, respect for marriage fades” (Butkevych). He explains that, “alcoholism, [is] one of the fiercest pandemics tormenting Ukraine. It destroys 20-25% of all marriages” (Butkevych). Ukrainian marriages last typically around 11 years before falling apart. Reasons for the dissolution of marriage in Ukraine, and other post-Soviet countries include an incredibly simple divorce procedure, which lasts only a month and a half, compared to Western Europe’s year and a half-long appeal time, and the cost of child support is absurdly low (Butkevych). Butkevych reports that “the number of single-parent homes increases annually” and in 2012, percentage of single parent homes was at an all-time high of 20%. Since children “remain with the mother in 90% of all cases” (Butkevych) women are left to bear the burden of the family with minimal support from the ex-husband. This is a singular social or economic phenomenon happening in Ukraine. Many countries in Eastern Europe are facing the same family crisis. Therefore, women and young girls are forced to go seek out alternative methods to support themselves. This leaves these women and young girls vulnerable to exploitation.
Dalia, Puidokiene, director and founder of the Klaipeda Social and Psychological Services Center in Lithuania, says,
“…in Eastern Europe we women are programmed to see ourselves as sexual objects, asobject of beauty. Now that we are a free democratic and capitalist nation, we look at ads and we see sexualized women standing beside expensive cars or wearing expensive clothes, living a high life style, and we see that they are dressed well, groomed, and, most importantly, we see that they are happy. So we think: If I sexualize myself, I can have a car like that woman or a good life. This is one of the problems women in Eastern Europe grapple with, coping with our newly acquired freedom (Vince 250)”.
This is indeed one of the major of problems of Eastern Europe in a post-communist environment. As newly independent countries attempted to crawl out from beneath the metaphorical foot of the Soviet Union and engage in capitalism for the first time in decades, coupled with new, exciting Western products and Western advertising flooding their markets. Common among Western adverts was the sexualization of women. Unfortunately, for women in Eastern Europe, left vulnerable by the system, this was especially dangerous.
Organized crime bosses recognized that these beautiful and desperate women were perfect targets—well mannered, educated women with no future ahead of them in the ruin of socialism. Throughout the cities of Eastern Europe—Kyiv, Bucharest, Budapest, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Odessa, Minsk, and Prague—a new phenomenon of firms, or intermediaries, began to spring up. These intermediaries offered a space where these young women could apply for jobs. One advertisement in a Ukrainian newspaper from such an institution read, “Girls” Must be single and very pretty. Young and tall. We invite you for work as models, secretaries, dancers, choreographers, gymnasts. Housing is supplied. Foreign posts available. Must apply in person” (Malarek 10). Others offered appealing jobs such as, “Jobs as nannies in Greece… domestics in Italy and France… maids in Austria and Spain… models in North America and Japan” (Malarek 3). It was an alluring prospect for women from urban spaces who had grown up dreaming of romantic fantasies of the West. These opportunities seemed to offer a way out of poverty, which infiltrated every aspect of life. They could re-locate to the West and become “normal,” living enriched lives with everything they had only heard in rumors.
Women in Eastern Europe, however, did not idly sit by while an entire generation of girls went missing. Through their diligence and hard work, NGOs devoted to rescuing and reshaping the lives of these young women began springing up throughout the former Eastern bloc. Fojotvá writes on sex work, migration, and law, explaining:
“NGOs have focused on a variety of women’s issues and on providing a wide range of needed assistance—from shelters for battered women to feminist libraries to information centers for equal employment opportunities. They have been the main source of training and education for women, publishing feminist materials, coordinating media campaigns, lobbying governmental bodies, and monitoring national legislation… NGOs have not only played a prominent role in assisting women with legal, medical, psychological, and financial services; they have also brought a wider visibility to various issues such as human trafficking and violence against women (Jusová 190).”
So while the United Nations was failing to prosecute the perpetrators of the horrible crime of sexual exploitation, and other organizations which had been set up to help local populations in Eastern Europe were unable to make much of a difference, women took steps to organize themselves. Such was the case with the Center for the Support of Families of the Missing in Lithuania, another country that saw many of its women disappearing—stolen from their families by sex trafficking rings. The Center has been in operation since 1996 after the founder and director Ona Gustiene’s daughter, Aušra, did not return home from a camping trip. She states that the idea to create the Center came to her when, “After a year of searching, I was at a meeting with a human rights organization from Helsinki. A man from this organization put a thought in my head. He said to me, ‘If you want to find your daughter, do it yourself, and don’t rely on outside organizations” (Vince 228). Unfortunately, Aušra has never been found, but her mother continues to help other women and families while hoping someone will find her daughter.
The Center for the Support of Families of the Missing in Lithuania turned its attention to helping victims of human trafficking and their families. Gustiene says that this came very naturally, since the majority of girls who disappear from the region are victims of trafficking. Services offered at the center include: counseling for the victims, counseling for the families of those who have disappeared, providing instructions on how to search for a missing person, and offering assistance through the process. It even hosts an underground shelter where victims can live and work without fear as they begin their journey to recovery and healing. This organization has completed eighty projects—each and every one of them funded by grants and donations.
Many of the women recovered from trafficking rings often have a difficult time readjusting back into society. A victim of trafficking, Justina, who had been helped by the Center for the Support of Families of the Missing in Lithuania, said in her interview with Vince, “….When the people around you, and especially your employers, don’t see you as who you are now. They only see you as who you were then. But you must get beyond that. I was in so much mental pain. I felt as though it were written on my forehead: I was sold” (Vince 249). Justina and Gustiene both agree that only love can help one recover from this sort of trauma. It is important victims are not left alone so that they may feel important to someone, even if only to just one person. When trust has been so violently shattered, it is imperative for victims to know that there is one person in the world who believes in them and can help them rebuild not only their trust, but also their hope and belief in a better, kinder world. Sometimes it takes six months to undo the brainwashing. Sometimes it takes a year. Sometimes it takes even longer.
Gustiene’s organization spends quite a bit of its time on prevention. Posters are pasted all over the cities with slogans such as, “Don’t let them string you up like a doll” accompanied by pictures of a woman strung up helplessly by large jagged fish hooks (Vince 225), showing how one will lose all sense of autonomy and free will if, or when, one gets caught up in the trafficking rings. These posters also have essential information and precautions for young women who are looking to go abroad. The precautions include: “Don’t surrender your passport; make sure your family has a contact telephone number; have a return plane ticket, and so on” (Vince 225). The information and prevention services provided by organizations such as The Center for the Support of Families of the Missing in Lithuania and the Klaipeda Social and Psychological Services Center are critical not just for women looking to go abroad, but for teenage girls who are at risk for running away. According to Ona, “if a teenage girl runs away from home, she almost certainly becomes a prostitute” (Vince 229). Teenage girls are perhaps some of the most vulnerable group of young women and, therefore, easy prey for organized crime rings. Accordingly, prevention of their capture and exploitation is imperative. Organizations such as these enable women to create spaces for themselves where they can rise above sexual abuse and come together. This is a political act because rather than relying on outside forces, women have created autonomous spaces for themselves.