In a country known for its sex trafficking industry, one woman is standing up for trafficked girls, taking them in and giving them a shot at a brighter future.
For the past 18 years, Iana Matei, a psychologist in Romania, has been providing shelter, psychosocial support and education to women and girls who are victims of sexual exploitation, Al Jazeera reported in a recent feature.
“I don’t know if I am courageous, but I do know that I am angry,” Matei told the news outlet. “I’m angry at the people who do this, who beat up a young girl, rape her and force her into prostitution. And I’m angry at society for turning a blind eye.”
Matei’s organization, Reaching Out Romania, has helped more than 470 girls who were victims of trafficking, according to the website. They offer girls shelter, psychological and medical assistance, and most importantly, a community.
“Reaching Out Romania is like a family,” Stephan, Matei’s son, said in the video above. “My mom looks into their lives and sees hope — she shows the girls there’s hope.”
Some of the girls are only 14 or 15, coming from dysfunctional homes where they have already suffered physical, psychological and sexual abuse, according to Women News Network. Matei provides them with long-term care, helping them return to school, or if they are older, to find a job, according to the website.
Many of the girls in Matei’s shelter are brought by police or child protection services, but sometimes Matei takes them from pimps and traffickers herself.
“It’s dangerous because anything can happen,” Matei told Al Jazeera. “The traffickers don’t expect you to challenge them. When I kidnap one of their girls, they’re in shock. Some of the girls think I am a madam initially. They’re so used to people exploiting them. They can’t believe someone would want to help them.”
There are around 2.4 million victims of human trafficking worldwide, according to the UN. Romania is one of the worst countries in the European Union when it comes to trafficking, with more than 3,000 victims reported between 2010 to 2012.
“When we came here, I was expecting that there was this man or gang or somebody that was stealing girls off the street,” said Matthew Ninaber, film producer for The Hope Narrative, in the video. “But it wasn’t that at all. It was the mom that would sell her kid, it was the dad who would get rid of his daughter because it was the best way to make money.”
Extreme poverty is a major driver behind trafficking, according to the UN, with parents forced to sell their children in order to provide for the rest of the family.
When Matei first opened her shelter in 1999, it was the only one of its kind in the country, according to the New York Times. Still today, people all too often see the girls not as victims but as prostitutes, she told f news outlet.
“They come from dysfunctional families, they need therapy… Lack of love is the common factor,” Matei toldWomen News Network. “My goal for the future is to close the center, because nobody needs it.”