National Service Volunteer Fights Trafficking in Women

"Women trafficking and prostitution are one and the same, and the women who are exposed to both phenomena display similar symptoms," 21-year-old Naama Yehezkel says. As an activist for Isha L'Isha - the Haifa Feminist Center, which aids local and foreign women working in the sex industry, she should know.

"Women who engage in prostitution usually suffered sexual abuse or neglect at an early age. They're usually looking for a way to survive, and prostitution is just that - a means to survive, but not to live. Not in the full sense of the word, because the pimps know how to prey on them," she says.

Several weeks ago, Yehezkel toured the Tiberias hotel strip with volunteers from the Hotline for Migrant Workers. There, they handed out flyers and booklets listing emergency numbers for women who have fallen victim to human trafficking. They talked to hotel workers, kiosk employees and taxi drivers to find out where women were being exploited in the local sex industry.

Yehezkel is performing her national service as a volunteer for the organization, after refusing to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. "I have a problem with any organization that resorts to violence to solve problems," she says. She is the first national service volunteer to be working against trafficking in women.

Upon her return from India at age 19, where she spent two years attending an international school that emphasizes personal initiative and involvement, she requested to perform national service instead of military service.

After a long process involving suspicious military review committees, angry relatives and many arguments and much correspondence with the authorities, she found a post through which she thought she could help society.

"I didn't know much about women trafficking back then," she says. "After the army finally agreed to give me a discharge, I decided I wanted to help work on that important issue. I had no particular desire to lick envelopes for some charity project. I wanted justice."

Her service with Isha L'Isha was approved, and Yehezkel began studying the subject. She went on to hold conferences, workshops and lectures to raise awareness of the plight of many foreign and local women who find themselves enslaved to pimps.

The more daring part of the job involved reaching the women and helping them escape from their employers. This entails encouraging them, providing them with legal counseling and directing them to shelters. With foreigners forced to work in the local sex industry, Yehezkel and other volunteers help the women in obtaining visas and returning to their homelands.

Yehezkel founded volunteer groups in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Be'er Sheva and Eilat. Along with volunteers from the Hotline for Migrant Workers, they search for advertisements for establishments offering sex services and other telltale signs of exploitation. Pretending to be potential clients, they then milk the management for information by phone to help them reach the women.

"There is no replacement to just being there," Yehezkel explains. "You have to ask the people, the local people living and working in the area. They can tell you where to go to find women in distress."

She says the excellent degree of cooperation she and the other volunteers receive from the general public is one of the major factors aiding them in finding pimps and brothels. Recently, the sex industry has had to go underground due to more energetic law enforcement, she says.

"This has made the pimps harder to locate, because they have become more sophisticated," she says. "Instead of obvious advertising, they've turned to posting ads for so-called massage services in the privacy of the client's home."

When despite the efforts of the pimps, who are usually linked to organized crime, the volunteers succeed in reaching a sex worker, they first help her reach a safe house and locate her children, if they are in the country. Then, after supplying her with necessary documents, they contact police to deal with her employers. "It's not like any other job where you can quit. No one just quits," Yehezkel says.

To counter the women's utter dependency on their captors, Yehezkel proposes the state initiate an educational program on gender equality and human rights.

"People need to know that prostitution is an industry whose main commodity is illusions," she says. "Clients think that if the woman is smiling, then things can't be that bad. They have no idea what's hiding underneath it all."