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Iana Matei

One woman's fight against human trafficking

Fighting human trafficking: Iana Matei with pictures of rescued women © Reader's Digest - One woman's fight against human trafficking
Fighting human trafficking: Iana Matei with pictures of rescued women © Reader's Digest
Iana Matei has been awarded "European of the year 2010" for her work in fighting human trafficking. It is not just her tireless efforts that have made her a role model for women around the globe. It is the fact that her fight against human trafficking has a human face -- rather than focusing on the perpetrators, Matei focuses on the victims.

It was a phone call that turned her life upside down. Nothing more. “We don't know what to do with these girls we have just picked up,” the policeman said. Looking back, Iana Matei knew then, in that moment, that nothing would be the same again. All her plans were put on hold: moving back to Australia where she had emigrated earlier, returning to her career as a psychologist. Instead, she stayed in her native Romania and has devoted her life to the fight against human trafficking: trying to prevent women from being sold and traded like goods.

The girls: 13 and 14 years old
The three girls who had been picked up by the Bucharest police were victims of trafficking: tricked by their own families, they believed they were going off to well-paid positions working in a restaurant or café. In reality, they had been sold by their parents, and were destined to go work as prostitutes, first in the streets of the Romanian capital, later somewhere abroad. They were just 13 and 14 years old.

That night, when Matei received the call from police not knowing where to take the girls, the idea of “Reaching Out” was born; a center for victims of human trafficking that would provide shelter, protection and medical aid. 

Today, in the 11 years since Reaching Out was born, Matei has rescued more than 420 women and girls. Victims of human trafficking come to her in different ways. Some are handed over by the Romanian police, many are sent by agencies that repatriate girls from other countries, such as the Salvation Army in Britain. Occasionally, she has even gone to kidnap victims being held in captivity by hardened criminals.

Activist Iana Matei  © Reader's Digest
Activist Iana Matei © Reader's Digest
Modern slavery
For the perpetrators, human trafficking is a lucrative business: most of the time, when these women are sold into prostitution, 100 percent of their earnings go straight into a brothel owner's pockets.  This way, owners can make around 700 pounds a day with a trafficked prostitute, according to an estimate report. 

“Locked up, abused and forced into sex, they are slaves – there’s no other word for it.” When they arrive at the center, most of the girls need medical attention. Some of them have been tortured with razor cuts and cigarette burns, some are pregnant, and most of them are suffering from post-traumatic stress.  Matei encourages them to fight to put the traffickers behind bars, gives advice on legal proceedings and assists in filing the complaints.

"European of the Year"
Especially since the enlargement of the EU and the opening of the borders, human trafficking has increased tremendously.  According to a 2009 US State Department report on human trafficking, the two main destinations for women being trafficked from Romanian are Italy and Spain, closely followed by Greece, the Czech Republic and Germany.  In total, an estimated 700 000 women are trafficked worldwide every year.

For her "tremendous job" both rescuing victims of trafficking and educating officials, Matei was declared a Hero of the Year by the US State department in 2006; the following year she received The Abolitionist Award at the House of Lords in Britain.

She is now the 15th European of the Year, a nomination the European editors of Reader’s Digest award to outstanding personalities. In 2006, the price was given to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the former member of Dutch Parliament and human rights activist.



Shila Meyer Behjat
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