The Uncommon Man

August 13, 2007

Addressing the Physical and Mental Health of Women Trafficked in Europe

The following is the second in a series of informal reports from Piotr M. Pawlak, a colleague in Washington DC. Piotr is the Human Rights and International Relations Specialist for Amnesty International USA, and Government Relations Fellow, Advocacy for Europe and Central Asia. He actively participates in international forums on issues related to gender-based violence, gender equality and reproductive health.


On June 28 in Washington, DC, I participated in a presentation entitled "Addressing the Physical and Mental Health of Women Trafficked in Europe." The event was sponsored by the Gender-Based Violence Task Force of the Interagency Gender Working Group (IGWG).

The speaker was Professor Charlotte Watts, co-author of the report, "Stolen Smiles: A Summary Report on the Physical and Psychological Health Consequences of Women and Adolescents Trafficked in Europe." She discussed the health consequences of trafficking and what could be done to help women recover.

Dr. Watts holds the Sigrid Rausing Chair in Gender Violence and Health and is head of the newly established Multidisciplinary Centre on Gender, Violence and Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the UK.

Dr. Watts summarized her report and concluded that women who have been subjected to trafficking and forced into service, including sex work, are more likely to suffer multiple physical and mental health problems than the general female population, according to a recent study. However, once released from such situations, women can show vast improvement after only a month of professional care.

The study "Stolen Smiles" included 207 women from 14 countries who had been recently released from a trafficking situation. The researchers interviewed trafficked women from four "spheres of marginalization and vulnerability," including:

  1. Migrant women
  2. Exploited laborers
  3. Sex workers
  4. Torture victims

According to the report:

  • Sixty percent of the women interviewed were physically or sexually abused before being trafficked. This figure rose to 95 percent of the women during their trafficking situation.
  • Many women suffered severe physical health problems: within the first two weeks upon release, 57 percent of women reported between 12 and 23 symptoms, with the most common symptoms being headaches, fatigue, dizzy spells, back pain, stomach/abdominal pain, and memory problems.
  • After three to eight weeks of treatment, the incidence decreased significantly to 7 percent.
  • Trafficked women are at high risk for psychological problems. Upon their entry into a care facility, 56 percent of women reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and 95 percent reported feeling depressed.
  • These problems appear to be more persistent, as most women did not show improvement until they received medical care for at least 90 days.

In her final statement Dr. Watts recognized that trafficked women suffer significant and dramatic health problems and consequences, and recommended the following:

  • Recognition of the physical and mental condition of women who enter the legal system once they are released from the trafficking situation. Dr. Watts cautioned that a trafficking victim "might be treated as a criminal instead of someone who has faced horrendous physical and mental abuse."
  • Giving women the time, support, and health care they are likely to need before conducting in-depth interviews/interrogations to collect criminal evidence and before asking them to make considered decisions.
  • Creation of legislation that would provide trafficked women with a full range of health care services, regardless of their legal status in a country. She stated that once the women are released from the trafficking situation, a 90-day period of reflection is necessary for the women to receive treatment and recover to a point where they are able to make decisions about cooperating with authorities or returning home.
  • Raising awareness in the legal system by conducting sensitization training and distributing pamphlets on how to appropriately deal with women who have been trafficked. Some of the practical tips include being aware of the women's state of health; providing essential medical care before interrogation; establishing trust by making male or female officials available, whichever the trafficked women would prefer; and using a credible interpreter who would not compromise the victim or manipulate the answers.

I hope this helps. Thank you,

Piotr M. Pawlak, M.A.
Human Rights and International Relations Specialist
Amnesty International USA, Government Relations Fellow
Advocacy for Europe and Central Asia
19 T. Street, N.E.
Washington, D.C. 20002, USA


Posted by Jorge at August 13, 2007 12:22 PM


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