I rarely talk about the practical life-saving applications of speaking another language. But the topics of female sex trafficking and bride kidnapping make me wonder about how speaking another language, particularly English, could liberate women who would otherwise be shackled to brothels or unwanted marriages.
Sex trafficking in Eastern Europe
When I saw the movie, The Whistleblower, a true story about the UN’s complicity in sex trafficking of young women from the former USSR to work in the brothels serving NATO troops, the UN Police Force (IPTF) and other international clients, I was not only sickened by the story, but I wondered if speaking English could have helped the abducted girls escape from their captors.
In the movie, Rachel Weisz plays Kathryn Bolkovac a police officer from Nebraska, United States working in the international police force in Sarajevo, Bosnia, after the Bosnian War. To her horror, she discovers that her colleagues at the police force are collaborating with local brothel owners, diplomats, and international agencies, such as the UN, to illegally bring in girls from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to work in bars that serve as brothels. The trafficked girls thought they were going to work in hotels and legitimate businesses in Germany. Instead, they were smuggled into Bosnia, had their passports taken by the brothel owners and forced to have sex with foreign “aid” workers, military, police and other internationals. The stolen women had to relinquish their earnings to the bar owner to pay for their passage. They were undocumented indentured sex slaves who were stuck in a former war zone with no way of getting home.
Sex slaves don’t speak English, have trouble communicating with international organizations trying to help them
In a scene from The Whistleblower, Weisz meets, for the first time, the abducted and abused girls, one of whom is speaking English. This is fiction. In reality, trafficked women most likely don’t speak such good English. If they did, they would have had more of a chance to escape because they would feel confident that if they got away from the brothels, they’d be able to communicate.
It is too bad that the movie incorrectly shows the girls speaking in English because it shows them as more powerful and able to communicate than they really were.
I know for a fact that the safe houses in Bosnia for trafficked women from the former Soviet Union needed a Russian interpreter because I was either asked to volunteer or I offered my services to interpret from Russian to English for these women and girls.
Vanessa Redgrave plays Madeleine Rees (Head of the UN High Commission for Human Rights in Bosnia) in the movie. I met Rees at an outdoor party in Sarajevo where she told me about her work to prevent trafficking. Either Rees or my friend working for the UN High Commission for Refugees told me the safe houses needed a Russian speaker to interpret for the girls who were trying to get back home and recover from their horror.
The movie impacted me deeply as it was not just a true story being played out on screen, but the movie was set on or around the same time frame I lived in Bosnia (2000-2001). Since I am from the former Soviet Union, I take the cases of child and adult sex trafficking very seriously. I wonder what would have happened to me had I grown up in Russia and not come to the US. Could I have been tricked into leaving Russia, only to end up in a brothel against my will?
I discussed this with a woman in Boston who deals with rape victims in the US and sex trafficking worldwide. She disagrees with my idea of English language ability being a key out of bondage. She says that these trafficked women have such a fear of authority because of all of the police, military and diplomats complicit in the sex trafficking industry. Even if the women do speak English, they would not turn to the police or United Nations for help because they distrust the ability and will of those organizations to do the right thing and help them get home.
Nonetheless, I do see English language knowledge as key in giving women in non-English language countries freedom and safety when abroad, especially when they are illegally trafficked into another country. If they can’t speak English, how else will they be able to communicate with international agencies whose job it is to help them? Yes those agencies have interpreters, but they may not have enough. If I was asked to volunteer in Bosnia, that means there were not enough staff interpreters to handle the need.