November 13, 2005, Updated September 19, 2012

Women hold a workshop at the Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center.An impressive array of female leaders from throughout the world recently gathered in Haifa to address a host of common concerns, including a problem that is becoming a world-wide plague: trafficking in human beings.

This modern form of slavery – which usually victimizes women – was one of the central issues addressed during the three-day conference on Migration and Gender Issues held at Haifa’s Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center (MCTC). The purpose of the gathering was to examine the role of migrant women in achieving the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals and develop strategies to assist in the obstacles and challenges faced by migrant women.

More than 50 women leaders from around the world attended the conference, including ministers, members of parliament, judges, representatives of the World Bank, UN agency officials and representatives of international organizations. Many of them had never before been to Israel. Special guest of honor, Rachel Mayanja, UN Assistant Secretary General, Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, delivered the conference’s opening and closing remarks.

In addition to trafficking, the conference looked at different aspects of migration in light of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. All UN member states have adopted and pledged to meet these goals, which are aimed at reducing hunger and poverty, boosting education, gender equality and health, by 2015. The conference focused on the trends and changes in the migration of the 21st century as they affect women, and will expose the obstacles and special challenges facing migrant women. In addition, the participants discussed the empowerment of women undergoing the process of migration, emphasizing the special role of migrant women as agents of change, and examining their vulnerability.

The visiting dignitaries were particularly interested in discussing strategies for fighting the phenomenon of international trafficking in women. It is, unfortunately, a problem with which Israel has been increasingly familiar in recent years. While the country faces a long road in combating trafficking, in recent years Israeli officials have made great strides towards formulating guidelines to contain the crime. At the conference, the women from around the world compared notes and learned from one another.

Describing trafficking in women as “one of the most severe violations of women’s right to liberty,” MK Zehava Gal-On, chair of the Knesset committee for the struggle against trafficking in women, outlined the phenomenon in Israel, as well as the committee’s goals, achievements and future directions. According to Gal-On, awareness of this crime – among both the general public and law enforcement authorities – has grown significantly during the last five years.

Where ignorance or indifference once characterized Israeli attitudes to trafficking, both citizens and governmental bodies are now more aware of this industry. Annually, said Gal-On, several thousand women, many of them 18-25 year old single mothers from the former Soviet Union, are smuggled into the country – at an annual turnover of at least one billion dollars. Often they are tricked or forced to work as prostitutes, abused, threatened, or imprisoned, and are traded as property in the criminal world for thousands of dollars.

In addition to bringing the problem to public attention, Gal-On’s committee has sought to promote stringent treatment of trafficking offenders and to ensure protection and compensation for victims. Among its accomplishments, the committee, working closely with the government and NGOs, has passed comprehensive legislation to tackle different aspects of the fight against trafficking.

“The committee set itself a goal to serve as watchdog over the authorities and has compelled the state to act in accordance with international standards,” said Gal-On. “Today women are treated as victims of a crime, and as people whose human rights have been breached. Those who traffic and pimp in the bodies of women are treated severely.”

“I must emphasize just how important it is to continue and press the law enforcement authorities to detain the offenders, to close the brothels, to be more stringent in punishment, and to give priority in the courts to cases of trafficking in women,” said Gal-On, who has drafted a bill for the establishment of a governmental authority for the war against human trafficking.

In recent years Israel has significantly increased efforts to combat trafficking in women, said Head of the Criminal Division of the Ministry of Justice’s Department of Legislation and Legal Counsel Rachel Gershuni. According to Gershuni, the country’s record in prosecuting criminals, holding police-initiated investigations, apprehending central figures and working with other countries is steadily improving.

“Our Supreme Court can be seen as a light unto nations in this matter,” said Gershuni, pointing out that the Court defines trafficking as a human rights offense, and gives it a wide interpretation. Any transaction in the body of a person is viewed as trafficking, and is punished severely.

District courts, according to Gershuni, are “pretty good when they specialize in these cases, but need to become more sensitized to the needs of victims.”

In other efforts, the Ministry of the Interior has given temporary visas to victims following their testimony. A shelter for trafficking victims now operates in North Aviv. There, 50 women receive housing, as well as medical, social services and employment services. Legal aid is available for both those in the shelter and other victims of trafficking.

“Zehava Gal-On and our NGOs have been completely dedicated to helping victims, lobbying and teaching,” said Gershuni.

The international conference was convened with the support of MASHAV – the Center for International Cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Center for International Migration and Integration (CIMI), the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Set back on a quiet, leafy Haifa street, MCTC was founded in 1961 by MASHAV. Designed as a training center for the socio-economic advancement of women from developing countries, MCTC regularly holds courses, workshops and seminars on subjects dealing mainly with education, community development and small business management. To now, some 12,000 participants, more than 70% of them women, have taken part in these activities.

At any given time, a rainbow of international visitors, often sporting their countries’ varied and colorful dress, can be found at the Golda Meir center. Their presence serves as testament to that former prime minister, whose tenure was distinguished by her commitment to the developing world.

In Meir’s words, ‘As long as there are spots on the globe where some people are more developed and others less, there is no development and no culture, there is nor freedom and, I am afraid, no peace in the world.’

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