The Heart Of The Matter

It's not often that billboards urge you not to buy or sell something. But the Moldovan capital of Chisinau is an exception. Its streets are filled with admonitions: TU NU ESTI MARFA (YOU ARE NOT FOR SALE).

The dawn of market economics in Moldova has had an infamous side effect--a fire sale of its women. Desperate to escape the poverty and joblessness of home, they've taken flight en masse--many ending up in streets and brothels around the world. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Geneva puts it bluntly: "Moldova is the main country of origin for the trafficking of women and children for the purpose of forced prostitution in Western Europe, Balkans and the Middle East." By some estimates, nearly two thirds of the prostitutes in southeast Europe come from Moldova, compared with about 15 percent from Romania, 9 percent from Ukraine and 1 percent from Russia. Europe's poorest country is also the most fertile hunting ground for its flesh trade.

Could that soon change? Possibly, if a massive internationally funded ad campaign succeeds in convincing Moldova's women to stay where they are, no matter how bad life may seem. The initiative, sponsored by the IOM and international funders, has pulled out all the stops, from airing TV spots to setting up telephone help lines to plastering kiosks and billboards with images of young women being groped for dollars. Graphic brochures detail the fate of a typical woman caught up by sex traffickers. It begins with an invitation abroad, then leads to an illegal crossing of mountainous borders by foot and finally rape, sex with foreign peacekeepers and forced prostitution.

The saga may be lurid. But will it deter young women who can't find work at home and are tempted by the chance of making money in Europe or living the good life as a mail-order bride? Just ask Stela Enochi, who was 21 when she was trafficked in 1999. Returning home a year later, she went on television to recount her ordeal (which included rape, police harassment and near starvation in Albania) as a warning to her countrywomen. A petite mixture of nervousness and steel, she explains that most women go abroad not knowing what awaits. Naively, they answer ads for a caretaking job in Italy or waitressing in Greece. But others do know and choose to go anyway. "They have small children they can't feed," she says, "or sick parents they can't help."

Against this backdrop, it's hard to be optimistic about the IOM's ad campaign. Standing beneath one antitrafficking billboard in Ungheni, 16-year-old Nadia Bivol says she has heard the horror stories and wouldn't succumb, "not for anything." But a few kilometers away, in a small village where selling fruit by the side of the road is her only prospect, another 16-year-old takes a different view. "I'll have to," she says. "I'll be very careful, but it's impossible to live here." For her, those glossy billboards are merely a pious backdrop to a life she's determined to escape.