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Stolen Smiles: The Health Consequences of Trafficking Women in Europe

The unspeakable physical and mental suffering experienced by trafficked women in

Europe was highlighted at a seminar based on the first comprehensive study of their health. Dr Cathy Zimmerman, of the LondonSchool of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s Gender Violence & Health Centre, emphasised the severity and widespread nature of trafficking and related health concerns, including depression, fatigue and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). She retold shocking accounts from trafficked women and referred to statistics from the research during the presentation at Birkbeck on 26 November.  The seminar, called Trafficking of Women for Sexual Exploitation, was held as part of the international 16 Days Against Gender Violence campaign (25 November – 10 December).

Personal testimonies
Dr Zimmerman explained how a 13-year-old Kosovar refugee was trafficked to Italy, and how another victim had a gun put to her head and only found out it was not loaded when the trigger was pulled. She also epitomised the impact of trafficking by quoting the words of a Lithuanian woman trafficked to London: “I feel like they’ve taken my smile and I can never have it back”. Such testimonies were drawn from a series of interviews with women who had recently escaped from traffickers and were attending centres offering post-trafficking services in the UK, Belgium, Italy, Moldova, Ukraine, Bulgaria and CzechRepublic. The women were interviewed 0-14 days after first attending the centre, again between 28-56 days and finally 90 days or more after first attendance. Many of the findings can be found in the report:  Stolen Smiles: The Physical and Psychological Health Consequences of Women and Adolescents Trafficked in Europe .
Health problems
Zimmerman set out the wide variety of problems affecting trafficked women before, during and after being trafficked. She showed how 60 per cent had been physically and/or sexually abused before being trafficked (15 per cent were sexually abused before they were 15). Such abuse is likely to make women more vulnerable to being trafficked. While under the control of traffickers, 76 per cent of the women experienced physical violence, and threats against the women and their families were common. After having escaped the trafficking context the list of symptoms mentioned at the first interview with researchers was extensive, including fatigue (82 per cent), headaches (81), sexual health problems (60-70) and memory problems (63). Levels of depression, anxiety and hostility recorded at the first interview were also very high and despite declining somewhat over the subsequent two interviews, symptom levels remained much higher than those of an average female population. 

Implications for policy
Zimmerman emphasised the potentially acute psychological distress suffered by trafficked women as a consequence of having endured repetitive abuse and/or “uncontrollable and unpredictable” events.   She indicated that when women emerge from a trafficking situation, post-trauma reactions may inhibit their memory and cognitive functioning. She highlighted that during and after life-threatening events, individuals may be less able to notice and accurately recall details about their ordeal. She suggested that police who are planning to conduct interviews and collect evidence for criminal investigations immediately following a brothel raid, for example, need to recognise the time and support women may need before being able to fully cooperate and provide reliable evidence. Zimmerman also set out her ABC principles of trauma-informed care to assist trafficked women: Acknowledge violence, Bestow control, Create a safe space. Her presentation showed how it is essential for women to have the appropriate assistance and recovery time to foster their well-being, independence and reintegration into society.
By Guy Collender, Communications Officer, LIDC

Further Reading

Stolen Smiles: The Physical and Psychological Health Consequences of Women and Adolescents Trafficked in Europe

Dr Cathy Zimmerman’s biography

LondonSchool of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s Gender Violence & Health Centre