The Romanian who helps rebuild the lives of abused women
The European of the year award went this time to Iana Matei, a 50-year-old Romanian activist who, for more than a decade, has been trying to give hope and strength to the victims of human trafficking.
"It is a crime against humanity to sell and buy life," is her creed. For her efforts, the Readers' Digest magazine elected her last week "European of the Year 2010." This is after, in 2006, the US State Department gave her the Hero of the Year award, and one year later, in 2007, she received the "Abolitionist Award" from the UK's House of Lords.
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Ms Matei's association is called "Reaching Out." It finds and rehabilitates the victims of forced prostitution. She created the organisation 11 years ago, "out of fury against the traffickers and this society that tolerates this." Until now, the organisation has helped more than 400 female victims of the networks of forced prostitution to go back to a normal life.
"I would like to see these criminals locked behind bars forever. I would throw away the keys of their cells. Let's have them locked for 100-150 years," says the outraged activist. "On a global level, the traffic in human beings comes second only to drug trafficking."
Having lived most of her life in Communist Romania, she left for Australia in 1990, where six years later she founded "Reaching Out," initially devoted to street children. She came back to Romania in 1998, starting, through the same foundation, to help the victims of the prostitution networks, after having heard about Romanian children sold abroad under the cover of adoption. Many of these children ended up in international child prostitution rings. She settled in the small, dusty town of Pitesti, where she grew up.
"It is a crime against humanity to sell and buy life. There are many girls in Eastern Europe, including in Romania, forced into prostitution in rich Western countries, after they are lured with promises of getting work. Kept in captivity, abused and forced to have paid sexual intercourse with strangers, they become what can only be labelled as slaves," says Ms Matei.
She became familiar with the passivity of wider society and all the techniques of the traffickers, through which they can operate with impunity. She says the newest method of recruitment is to find girls with psychological problems, because they cannot testify in court if the matter is brought to justice. "I know how the networks operate and I know how these criminals think and function," she said. "For them, women are just objects."
She says she is not afraid: "I have never really been harassed, but I could feel the fright of the criminals when they were threatening me."
For the victims, the worst is to confront the reaction of society and the inevitable feeling of guilt. She remembers well the case of a young woman who testified against a ring of traffickers, but whom a female judge called "a simple prostitute."
Out of the more than 400 women rescued from prostitution rings, some 80 percent have kept in touch with the foundation. Reaching Out also launched a prevention programme, which tried to help the victims find work. But this project was terminated last year due to lack of money.
The organisation receives no financial help from the authorities. "It is hard," Ms Matei says, "to hear all the ironic comments directed towards these girls, but the hardest part is to see the indifference of society. It is true, Romania was one of the first countries to implement legislation directed against traffic in human beings, but it is not really implemented, which explains why the authorities are always one step behind the criminals."