‘Reaching Out’ Romania works to bring better lives to trafficked girls

Eva Fernández Ortiz – WNN Features

Iana Matei
Romanian ‘Reaching Out’ shelter director and advocate for youth, Iana Matei, believes strongly in the empowerment of girls as she works to help sex-trafficking survivors gain life skills, training and a stronger self-image. Image: Marina Gersony

(WNN) Constanta, ROMANIA: After studying psychology and living in Australia for some years, human rights activist and street-child advocate Iana Matei returned to her native country – Romania. When she returned in 1998 her life changed in a big way. As a psychologist and ‘expert’ in street children, Matai was contacted by local police when they told her that they needed her help.

Three teenage girls who were picked up for prostitution needed to be taken to see a doctor. Matei helped the girls, but was well aware that there was no where they could go after their visit to the doctor.

At the time, there was no shelter in Romania that would take in young prostitutes or help them.

Aware of the dangers the girls would face if they stayed out on the streets, Matei made a decision that would end up helping numerous teenage girls find a new future and a new life. It was then that Matei decided to start Reaching Out – a shelter that continues today to work to build back the lives of children who are victims of sex trafficking, exploitation and sexual slavery.

Sexual slavery is not something any young girl wants, outlines Matei. It’s often deep desperation that causes a girl who is vulnerable to be manipulated by a sex-trafficker. The selling of a girl to a human trafficker does not happen just once; it is often part of an ongoing process of being sold over and over again to different ‘owners’.

“The overwhelming majority of victims of trafficking are exploited youth who are often runaways or castaways from dysfunctional homes where they have already suffered physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Romania is a country whose crippled economy and weak social
service structure provides virtually no social safety nets to assist them,” said Matei in a formal statement for a United Nations in-depth study on violence against women in 2005.

“With a scarcity of jobs in a male dominated society, young girls are particularly vulnerable to carefully crafted offers promising ‘unique’ opportunities that will bring good jobs and good money outside the country. Impoverished, abused, and without education or family guidance that would foster intelligent decision-making, these young women become easy prey to savvy traffickers who befriend them and tempt them with offers they can hardly refuse,” Matei continued.

Human rights journalist Eva Fernández Ortiz, for WNN – Women News Network, recently had a chance to interview Iana Matei about her life and her work to save children trapped by human trafficking. Their engaging and informative discussion follows.


Eva Fernández for WNN: What were your thoughts when you came across girl-trafficking for the first time in 1998?

Iana Matei: I was obviously shocked, because when you say prostitutes my mental image was an older woman, maybe 40 something year old looking woman… nothing like what I saw – they were aged 14, 15 and 15 and a half. I asked the girls about how they ended up in the situation and they told me that have been sold and bought. This is when I realized we have slavery in the country, in the twenty-first century, and I became very angry.

The girls had syphilis and were in the hospital for two weeks, which gave me the time to start the program. 

WNN: What was the children prostitution situation at that time and how has it evolved since you started in 1999?

Matei: At the time I started the program only about a quarter were minor and three quarters were over 18 year old. Often the under 18 were exploited in Rumania before being sent across the borders. However, right now we have three quarters under 18 and only one quarter over. A decade ago there were less underage girls but more violence.

WNN: When did this change happen?

Matei: In 2003/2004 it started to change… and in 2007 the figures clearly showed predominance of minors. Everything has changed too, the modus operandi of the traffickers, the countries of destination, etc. They have changed while we (who fight the traffickers) are still in the same situation, the same legislation, the same approach… and I think this is another problem.

For example, now we have boys who are exploited in the sex industry, they sell boys. They put drugs in their drinks; they rape them and they sell them. And if you ask our legislators, we don’t have this problem yet. We don’t talk about it even if these children exist. It is not official; it is like “it might be”.

WNN: How do the girls arrive to your shelter? What conditions are they in when the arrive?

Matei: They arrive through the police who contact me…usually have medical problems…more than only sexually transmitted diseases. I’m talking about kidney problems, facial problems due to the beating….

Psychologically they are a mess. They don’t know who they are. They can’t find their identity. They are ashamed… that’s the most relevant characteristic. They don’t understand that it is not their fault. They think it is their fault for being stupid and believing; it is always their fault. They feel guilty.

Bucharest, Romania nightclub entrance
An entrance door to a Bucharest, Romanian nightclub shows a larger-than-life depiction of a young girl on roller skates leaning over in a ‘compromised’ position. This entryway encourages nightclub visitors to ‘accept and expect’ the exploitation of young girls. “Bucharest is well known for its exquisite clubs and bars and most of all for our beautiful girls. And you can’t argue that,” outlines an anonymous online blog that highlights ‘things to do’ in Bucharest. “On the streets, in the bars or clubs, everywhere you look you see real catwalk girls, it’s like a nightmare, man!” continues the blog. Romania is currently one of the world’s active destinations for sex-tourists with a thriving environment that encourages human traffickers to do business in the city. “Even though prostitution is banned in Romania that doesn’t mean we have the phenomena under control,” continues the blog. “Actually, a study showed that we rule this domain in Europe, so if you’re looking for another type of fun, you found it,” the blog explains.

WNN: On average, how long does it takes these girls to get over the trauma of being exploited by human traffickers?

Matei: It depends on the background, depends on their situation at home… most of these children come from dysfunctional families or from orphanages. The program is for one year on average. For some girls it takes 6 months, and for some others it takes 2 years.

These days, and since we are having more minors, if a girl comes when she is 14 I cannot put her back on the street when she is 16, I have to keep her for longer until she finishes education and then until she can leave independent when she is over 18. If the kids have a good family, however, then they can go back home.

WNN: What do you think is the most common cause leading girls into this situation?

Matei: Lack of love. They come from dysfunctional families; they need therapy to change their mentality, their way of thinking. Some of them are coming from orphanages and then it is a bit more difficult… but lack of love I’d say is the common factor. The girls always look for love and if someone comes to them saying “I love you”, they would follow that person blindly.

WNN: What is the average profile of a sex-trafficker?

Matei: Generally they would be boys/men, although you also have females who convince the girls [by] talking about a better place, better pay…

WNN: How do teenage girls end up in prostitution?

Matei: Many want to earn more money to be able to send it back to the family, thinking that then their family will love them. Otherwise, this is basically the story: they fall in love in Romania. After awhile the guy would say to them, “Let’s go to Spain or to Italy. I will work in construction. You work taking care of old men. We can make some money and eventually get married because we will have money for the wedding”.

And…the girls believe that. And as soon as they get there they would be forced to work as prostitutes. In those cases, they won’t be able to contact the police because they feel guilty. They think “I’m stupid, I came here freely, I cannot accuse him of anything because I agreed to come here”. Now it is getting more mental.

WNN: What are the parents’ general reactions once their daughters escape from the cycle of human trafficking?

Matei: You have all sorts of reactions. Some of the lower educated feel very embarrassed if their community knows what their girl did…we treat that with family therapy. Some of them have heard about trafficking and they can’t believe that has happened to their daughters… Those who are not ashamed, are angry against traffickers and angry against the authorities for not taking measures.

WNN: Have you ever felt threatened by traffickers who followed the girls back to your shelter?

Matei: Some have tried to get back to the girls to scare them off, but it [Reaching Out centre] is safe. We have a security company that protects us. We have a panic button. We are well protected.

The girls are scared of the traffickers because they can be violent; they can threaten to hurt their families…This is one of the traffickers’ ways of keeping them, so it takes a while for the girls to understand that it [their slavery under human trafficking, once they are safe in the centre,] is over.

WNN: What measures are taken by the authorities, and should be taken, in order to improve this situation and stop the sexual slavery of children?

Matei: At a European level I think there is no unity in the approach, and this is one problem. We have so many approaches within the European community, either by punishing the traffickers or punishing the girls by calling prostitution illegal…

None of those approaches point directly to the traffickers and this is my main concern. I’ve been saying that for the last five years and I can’t still understand why, from a European level, we cannot approach trafficking from this point of view.

Since the trafficker is the one moving the girls from one place to another and recruiting clients, why don’t we put the trafficker in jail for a hundred years, why don’t we seize the properties and the money that he made? I still don’t have an answer to this question.

WNN: Do the girls generally move from one country to another?

Matei: Most of the time girls move to Western countries because there is where the money is. They are in a very weak position because they don’t know the language; they don’t know the country.

WNN: What about society? Do you think people and the media really know what’s going on?

Matei: No. I think mass media is playing its role and we play a role as well by spreading the message. As a consequence, part of the people will understand…Still a lot of people would think that if they are prostitutes they should pay the price.

WNN: What does a possible happy ending for these girls look like?

Matei: The girls live independently, and that’s the most important thing. 86 percent of the girls who have passed through our program are now living independently. They keep in touch with us. They call to explain how they are doing… how I am doing… so I know exactly how they are. Some of them are married. Some of them have children. Some of them never [get] married…

With the years of work you’ve put into helping these girls, what is your personal goal for the future?

Matei: My goal for the future is to close the [Reaching Out] centre because nobody needs it.


The ‘Reaching Out’ center provides shelter for teenage girls who have been trafficked and trapped in the Romanian sex-industry. Each girl stays on at the shelter at least one year, or until they reach the age of 18, while she is assisted with life skills that help her become independent through empowerment, education and job training. This story highlights the dedicated work of Iana Matei and the survival of girls who have had little to no one they can trust. This 5:08 min May 2012 video is a production with host Mathew Ninaber for The Hope Narrative.


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WNN – Women News Network human rights journalist and European correspondent Eva Fernández is a native of Barcelona, Spain with an M.A. in Journalism from Cardiff University with a specialty that spans women and gender, current affairs and international development. As a WNN reporter she is also a broadcast and video producer. In 2010 Fernández finished an in-depth study on the women of Cameroon covering the impacts of female self-mutilation in, “‘Why breast ironing’? – Women’s Rights and Gender Inequalities”.


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