In 2000, Iluta Lace founded the Resource Center for Women (Marta) in Riga, Latvia to protect and promote the rights of Latvian women, improve their socioeconomic situation and facilitate gender equality. They accomplish this by educating women on their rights and providing skills training, legal advice and support services to help Latvian women and girls live lives free from violence, discrimination and poverty. Marta also conducts policy advocacy and monitors efforts to improve legislation and legal frameworks on issues of equality and violence against women, and mounts awareness-raising campaigns to educate the public, law enforcement and social service providers on issues of concern to women.
Iluta and Marta took up the issue of sex trafficking in 2002 and have been campaigning (along with Equality Now) for a shift to the “Nordic model,” which addresses the demand that expands prostitution and fuels trafficking by criminalizing the buyers of sex, while decriminalizing victims and providing them with support services. Through Marta, Iluta frequently employs a satirical approach that has proven effective in highlighting the absurdity of opposing the criminalization of ‘johns’ and pimps, illustrates how women are continuously objectified and exposes flaws in government and legal procedures. In 2007, Marta became a grantee-partner of Equality Now’s Fund for Grassroots Activism to End Sex Trafficking (ended in 2011) and continues to play an integral role in encouraging collaboration between women’s organizations in Eastern Europe and abroad to end trafficking worldwide. Marta is hoping to build a shelter for women victimized by prostitution and trafficking.
1. What's it like to be a woman or girl in Latvia today?
To be a woman or a girl in Latvia is to have limited choices. We are expected to be either ‘girlish women,’ women that never grow up and can’t make their own independent decisions, or ‘mothers/maidservants,’ women who cook and iron for their men, take care of children and men, bring home the money and are great lovers. Women are the main breadwinners and caregivers in Latvia, which can make them very vulnerable, as they have to go to great lengths to find ways to earn money. Girls and women are viewed as sexual objects with low value placed on their lives. They tend to have low paying jobs and every day many of them are recruited into prostitution for sexual exploitation. In Latvia, killing a woman or a girl is viewed as nothing special; their personal integrity is not considered an asset to society.
2. What prompted you to create Marta?
Marta was an opportunity 13 years ago. It was a chance to build an organization that strived for gender equality and true women’s rights by helping women improve their life situations and supporting their efforts to escape violence, prostitution, sex trafficking and other discrimination.
In 2000, I was actually asked to manage a two year project in Latvia that was initiated by the Swedish Women’s Association “Martha” and supported by the European Commission. The idea was to support women’s efforts to integrate into the labor market by providing them job skills training and education on how to start their own businesses. During the process it came to light that in order to escape the discriminatory environment in Latvia, women were looking for jobs abroad. Further conversations with our specialists revealed, however, that the opportunities being offered abroad sounded very suspicious. But, because women were desperate for financial resources and better lives for their children, they were not critically evaluating the “jobs” being offered. It was then that I realized that women’s security issues needed to be addressed first and started to work to prevent trafficking in women.
That experience led me to create my organization Marta, and in 2001 I registered it as an independent non-profit. Today we offer services for women, conduct policy advocacy to improve legislation and educate the public. We recently started to work with teenage boys and girls, separately and in groups, to prevent girls from becoming victims and boys from becoming abusers.
3. What challenges have you faced in your attempts to criminalize buyers of sex and pimps?
We face a great unwillingness to change anything from both the police and many officials. We see indifference and a lack of empathy for trafficked girls and women. We hear lots of myths about sex trafficking and still lack a Latvian survivor’s voice that could be very helpful. Women do not trust the security system to protect them when they speak out against their trafficking.
4. What changes have you seen in the anti-trafficking movement – in Latvia and internationally - since Marta was founded?
Looking back there have been dramatic changes. Twelve years ago people had no concept of violence against women or trafficking. These issues were not part of public discourse or on the government’s agenda. I remember traveling to rural areas to offer “How to find safe jobs abroad” seminars. A lot of people came to these and afterwards they would approach me and say that they did not know they were victims of trafficking or that they could ask for help. Society held more victim-blaming attitudes and justification of abusers’ actions than it does now. Since then strict laws against trafficking have been enacted in Latvia. Even with strong opposition from the police, we have managed to include the issue of punishing buyers of sex into governmental discussions. We gathered nearly 16,000 signatures and insisted that politicians take them into account. Latvia can’t change if we only punish pimps and recruiters; the exploiters of women’s bodies are the ones that facilitate the growing demand.
However, despite all our efforts, trafficking is on-going. Vulnerable girls and women are still exploited here and around the world. Objectification of girls and women continues to grow in the media where they are portrayed as sexual objects, contributing to the belief that girls and women only exist for men’s pleasure. Many countries don’t understand the reality of prostitution; this also fuels trafficking. There are so many myths about prostitution that are used to justify trafficking – that some women and girls have higher libidos (‘special sexuality’) and it’s a ‘free choice’; there are countries that view pimps as entrepreneurs instead of criminals; there are myths about men’s ‘special’ sexual needs. This all fuels public indifference and a great ignorance of the suffering of trafficked girls and women.
5. Your campaigns are innovative and sometimes controversial. Please tell us more about these campaigns.
When we talk directly about violence against women, nobody listens. However, if we put in a context they can understand, people are interested. Therefore, we always look for ways to reach people’s hearts in order to stop this vicious indifference by employing methods that allow people to understand the issue by connecting it to actualities of everyday life in Latvia. This helps us to come up with creative ways to change the way people see things and feel and talk about them. For example, we started a public discourse on tourism in Latvia that led to a discussion on sex tourism that linked to sex trafficking and ultimately to violence against women. Some of our most successful campaigns include:
- City ‘night life’ guides which were a great tool for us to get sex tourists to think about their actions. We made alternative Riga (Latvian capital) night life guides with pictures of beautiful Latvian women, but with totally different messages such as, our women are not for sale and a lot of information about consequences – articles on punishment for exploiting teenagers, sexual diseases, ruined marriages etc. The brochure also included a postcard to send to their girlfriends or wives with nice views of Riga and information on cultural sites to visit. This helped us to reach men that ultimately became volunteers and supporters of our work.
- Another campaign -- “Save the country and become a prostitute!” – ended with me having to go to the police station when Marta was accused of being one of the major pimps in Latvia. This was due to a fictitious website we created – www.girls24.lv  – to allow people to see how easy it is for someone to buy any type of girl they want at “affordable” prices. Anyone that contacted us through the site received an email saying that as the girls were getting used up too quickly, it was a great opportunity for their mothers, sisters and daughters to find work! The campaign incited extensive public discussion. When Marta was accused of being pimps we created a new “sex police” website where people could report on real online brothels. The amazing thing was that no accusations were made against the real bad guys! Because of media interest and coverage of the campaign, three months later the accusation against us was dropped and some investigation of real criminals began.
- Now we even SING to reach people that would otherwise never ever think about trafficking or supporting our work. Our CD, “Words of Power,” is used to raise funds and to further raise awareness of our work.
We see that many unfortunate actions by women and men are caused and continue because of too many gender stereotypes, but I think it is always better to do something against trafficking then to just let it be.
6. Considering how horrific sex trafficking is, how do you manage to remain positive and retain a sense of humor?
I personally retain my positive outlook because I see results. I see women that have changed their lives, including women who work with me, their lives have changed -- they are more independent and have a voice. I see that gradually legislation is changing. People who were shouting at me - that I am such a stupid feminist, that I have a bad private life and so and so, they have changed their point of view, and now see me as a role model. I see changes, just doing things, I see them and that gives me joy to continue, and my inner feeling tell me that I can’t do otherwise.
Everybody has their mission in life and this is mine.
7. How do you encourage women to come to Marta for help? What options are available to them once they do?
Word of mouth works perfectly because women talk to each other. Marta has become a well-known women’s rights advocacy organization. In 2008 when we had to close our shelter and hotline, women who were trapped in foreign brothels still continued to call our office.
We dream about re-opening the shelter, but until then we offer consultations with case managers who provide a supportive shoulder for women while they resolve their situations. We also have psychologists, legal advisors and psychotherapists who work with women. Case managers also look for other community resources and encourage women to explore all available internal and external resources that could help their situations.
8. How can the general public help you in your work to end sex trafficking and assist survivors?
The general public must stop being apathetic! They can report taxis, hotels, policemen and brothels that promote sex trafficking. The general public needs to stop accepting and making allowances for exploiters, and start reporting the men who exploit girls. They should show empathy to the girls and women who have experienced all this horror. This is the only way girls can be encouraged to testify against criminals – if they feel that the criminals will be punished and their criminal activities will not be tolerated.
Marta doesn’t receive government support and we struggle every day to find the resources to continue our work, so we really appreciate donations.