Faces of Prague: South African activist uncovers international sex trafficking stories

We spoke to Yael Schoultz about her NGO work in Prague uncovering international human trafficking and sexual exploitation issues.

Melis Karabulut

Written by Melis Karabulut Published on 01.05.2023 17:00:00 (updated on 02.05.2023) Reading time: 7 minutes

Melis Karabulut's series features the kindred stories of the ordinary and extraordinary people of Prague, highlighting how they contribute to making the city a better place with arts, storytelling, and healing communities. In this article, we introduce Yael Schoultz, an academic and activist from Johannesburg, South Africa. 

Yael Schoultz is the director of the Prague-based, anti-human trafficking NGO L'Chaim ("to life" in Hebrew). She started her academic and NGO career in the late 2000s in Seoul, South Korea. For several years, she reported on North Korean human rights stories and actions.

In search of a new destination for her academic career, she moved to Prague in 2011. After her arrival, she decided to specialize in the topic of human trafficking.

Back then, the Czech Republic ranked as Europe's third worst country for forced labor and sex trafficking. Geographically, it was the sourcing, transit and stay destination for sex trafficking,'' said Schoultz. ''This made the country – tragically – an interesting case for academic research and NGO work.''

With an aim to observe the level of sexual exploitation of Czech and foreign women in the country, Schoultz has been paying regular visits to the brothels and the notorious streets around Wenceslas Square, I.P. Pavlova, Žižkov, and Holešovice, as well as a few in Brno.

''Bulgarian, Romanian and Nigerian women find their final destination in Prague, while Czech, Slovak and Polish women fill Brno's brothels,'' she told us.

For many long years, Schoultz and her volunteers have collected countless sex trafficking stories and connected the dots between them. When I ask about the main goal of her work, Schoultz said:

Photo by Yael Schoultz
Photo by Yael Schoultz

'We've put efforts into information-sharing about human trafficking and helping victims gain awareness of their rights. We're not trying to stop sex work, we're trying to prevent the sex work that is forced and exploited. We provide informative leaflets about human trafficking and how to get out of it, as well as crisis numbers. Some women want to do sex work, and we encourage them to take care of their health, and take actions to avoid STDs.''

Being a collector of these difficult stories is a challenging task. As we dive into them, Schoultz underlines that building human-to-human relationships with the victims is crucial in order to build credibility through many stories she listened to from countless women.

''Paying frequent visits, making small talk, asking them about their health, and bringing small gifts like earrings or soaps prepare them to open up, and share deeper layers of their stories. These stories matter a lot, because they inform whether these women have been trafficked or not, as most of the time the victims are not even aware that they have been trafficked. On the flip side, they tell many stories to themselves. Sometimes we cannot say too much of the truth to them, because it would make them fall apart completely. They all try to keep some level of dignity in their own ways.''

Photo by Yael Schoultz
Photo by Yael Schoultz

Bidding Nigerian women on sex slavery: The Juju Belief

Among the many beyond-belief cases of sex trafficking in the Czech Republic, the Nigerian women's story leaves one in shivers. Schoultz reports that most women trafficked from Nigeria who now reside in Prague come from the same province where people believe in Juju – a superstitious belief system that is followed by groups in various West African countries such as Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Nigeria.

The female leaders of Juju gather girls aged between 16 to 20 and say that they will be sent to Europe for a job opportunity. Managing to convince both the girls and their parents, the Juju leaders carry out a religious ceremony that bonds the girls to a blood promise: to pay a debt of approximately 50,000 euros to the human traffickers for helping them reach Europe.

''In the initial phase, the girls have no idea what job they would be doing, and what this amount of debt means. They come from uneducated backgrounds. The Juju keeps some of the personal belongings of the girls in the shrine. This makes the girls believe that if they ever break the promise, the Juju would use those belongings to curse them with death or madness,'' said Schoultz.

The debt-paying and prostitution begin as the journey begins. The girls are trained on what to say and do once they arrive in Italy or Spain. As all refugees, they go through the asylum-seeking process and reside in the camps for some months. Once they get their paperwork done, they travel to the destination set by the traffickers.

''The Nigerian girls don't have much life outside of the brothels. They live together, they go to church regularly. Most of their earnings go to debt payments. They also do many extra hours to send money home. Their families think that they have a good job – like an au pair or hotel clerk, so they expect their daughters to provide. To keep the story of having a good life in Europe, the girls work very hard, seven days a week.''

Photo by Yael Schoultz
Photo by Yael Schoultz

''By their mid-40s, they still have some debt. At that age, their traffickers tell them that the debt can be deleted if they bring a few girls from Nigeria. Then, the traffickers send them to Nigeria with very nice clothes to keep the good-European-life story going. The women bring more girls to Europe in the same way that they themselves have been trafficked. Once they come back to Europe, they continue prostitution as well as earning money out of the new girls – and become a part of the traffickers' cycle.''

Schoultz says that Nigerian girls won't admit to having been trafficked. They either fear that the Juju curse would do bad things to them, or the traffickers would hurt them or their families in Nigeria.

''There is no easy way to report or prevent this. They don't and won't directly say that they have been trafficked – as we can't openly use the word 'trafficking.' They only repeat that it is impossible to walk away from the promises they have made. If they ever end up being deported back to Nigeria, they get re-trafficked, and end up somewhere else in Europe.''

Trapped by Romanian 'lover boys'

The question regarding the Romanian and Bulgarian cases is clear – how are European Union citizens regarded as ''trafficked'' if they do sex work in another EU country?

Schoultz answers, ''In terms of Bulgarian women, it is unclear how they have been trafficked to the Czech Republic as they remain mobile in the streets. Some of them are trafficked for working in farms or in other sorts of labor.''

''In the Romanian case, most frequently, there is a lover boy or pimp – the boyfriend who builds a relationship with the girls. They often have a baby together, and then he convinces the girls to go to another EU country to earn money and support the family.''

Photo by Yael Schoultz
Photo by Yael Schoultz

''The pimp usually has 4-5 girlfriends like this. He's not married to any of the girls, but he calls them his wives. Most girls feel affection towards him as he is the father of their babies. According to UN laws, this case does count as human trafficking because the money goes to the boyfriend – but it is difficult to prove it. The girls bring cash to him, there are no visible bank transactions. There are many Romanian women in this situation all over Europe, and we try to help them gain awareness. As an example, we helped one of the girls get protection in a domestic abuse shelter, as his lover boy was abusive towards her.''

The debt that forces Czech and Slovak women into sex work

When it comes to the Czech and Slovak cases, it is even more difficult to define them as cases of sexual exploitation; since most of the time, they end up in sex work due to poverty or other reasons.

''Some are indeed forcefully pushed into sex work by people or situations, and some do it because they have huge debts and they see prostitution as the only way to make money fast. Some have deep psychological problems. We have witnessed an 18-year-old girl with bipolar disorder get involved in porn and sex work during their manic periods, get too involved in it, and then move to a very depressive episode.''

''Another 19-year-old girl was abandoned by both parents, and she only did sex work when she was starving from hunger. We believed her story, as we brought her a cake, and she ate it like a starving animal. She told us that she could never forget how hungry she once was.''

L'Chaim – How to Help

Currently, L'Chaim has more than a dozen volunteers who are in the training program to learn about human trafficking and practice tackling it.

L'Chaim is in constant need of more volunteers, especially those with Czech and Romanian language backgrounds to help more sexually-exploited women gain awareness of human trafficking. Get more information about L'Chaim and volunteering here. You can also reach out directly to Yael about volunteering at yaelschoultz@gmail.com. All photos by Yael Schoultz.

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