‘The Unspoken Secret’
By Hazel Thompson
As a storm gathers over the skies over Stockholm, a women in her thirties called ‘Magdalena’ * arrives at a small church hall, with her 77 year old friend Elise.
Magdalena appears a little nervous but very eager to sit down and start sharing her story of how she was sexually exploited as a child around Sweden. She is dressed in a pristinely white hooded sports top and black leggings, with her hair dyed cherry red and beautifully manicured nails. There is a real sense of strength and defiance about her as she introduces herself and looks at you directly in your eyes. Even so, Elise sits protectively next her as we gather around a small table with tea & coffee in the corner of the room. Magdalena describes Elise as her adopted grandmother and you can see the close bond between them. Elise was also sexually exploited and now helps other women through an outreach programme at Clara Church in Stockholm. She was the first person to really understand and listen to Magdalena. For year’s Magdalena has fallen through the gaps in the Swedish system and her cry’s for help have fallen on deaf ears.
As soon as we sit down and before we have time to pour out the tea, Magdalena starts to open up and launches into talking about her childhood without any prompting.
There is a real urgency in her voice and she talks quickly, as if her moment to be heard might suddenly end.
Magdalena is from a very little town in the north of Sweden.
She describes it as a typical Swedish town where everyone knows each other and each other’s business. From the outside she says her family appeared to be a normal Swedish family. Her mother worked as a carer in an old people’s home and the family lived in a nice house that her mum kept spotlessly clean. But behind closed doors, there was a hidden secret.
Both her parents were addicts and her father separated from her mother when she was small. So Magdalena was left in the sole care of her alcoholic & pill addicted mother. When she was about 2-3 years old, her earliest memories are of many different men visiting their home on a daily basis. While her mother was high or drunk in the front room, Magdalena was taken by these men into the bedroom, where she was sexually abused and raped. Her mother would sell her to these men, so to earn an extra income, to feed the addictions controlling her life. The authorities first picked it up, when the teachers at her day care noticed that Magdalena had caught ‘crabs’ when they changed her nappy and they called social services.
Magdalena was instantly taken into care, but after just a few weeks was returned to her mother, after she had convinced them she was not an addict, working a good job and keeping a clean house. But her mother continued to sell her to men for sex and Magdalena continued to suffer in silence. There was even an instance when she was about 7-8 years old that her mother sold her to a group of men who held her captive for days. The traumatic memory of this event only re serviced in Magdalena’s conscience in recent years during a counselling session. It was so horrific that her mind buried the memory. Curious to check if what she remembered was true, Magdalena contacted the police to check her records and they confirmed she was kidnapped as a child.
With the authorities not removing her from the abusive environment and with the entire trauma suffered from when she was a few years old. By the time Magdalena was eleven years old she had become an addict herself, drinking, sniffing glue and taking anfetimines to numb the pain and traumatic memories. But it was when Magdalena was eleven years old she thought her luck had changed. She had met this wonderful 45 year old man who was kind to her and took her under his wing.
‘’ He was very nice to me and I became fond of him, I saw him as a father to me. I trusted him, I felt secure and safe with him. He would buy me earrings, clothes and take care of me.’’
But her trust was quickly abused and he started selling her to other men for sex.
He would pick Magdalena up from her home and drive her from town to town, only stopping at hotels where other men would pay to sexually abuse her. She was an easy target for a pimp to traffic and exploit within Sweden. Neglected by her family, this man was able to control her by just showing her a little bit attention and love.
‘’These men are good at finding girls like me. They know what to look for.
They see we are broken’’
The man also filmed and photographed Magdalena being abused and sold these images in child porn movies abroad in Germany. During all this time she was still living with her mother and being they lived in a small town, Magdalena says many people were aware what was happening, her mother, teachers, neighbours, even the social worker saw this man pick her up from the house one time. But know one dared to question or confront the truth and just passed a blind eye, allowing the abuse to continue undisturbed for a number of years.
The pimp only stopped selling Magdalena when he got caught by the police selling the child pornography movies. He was prosecuted for producing and selling child porn, but once again no specialised help was offered to this teenage girl, already severely damaged by years of abuse.
At 18 years old, one of Magdalena’s former teachers helped her get work in a kitchen and she started to have independence and rebuild her life. At work she fell in love with one of the other staff members, they became a couple and she moved into his parent’s house. She smiles as she talks about this season in her life and describes how she received her first Christmas present from her boyfriend, as with her family she never was given a present as Christmas was just about drinking. During this time with her boyfriend she got clean from drink & drugs and Magdalena started to experience real happiness and a stable home life for the first time. But due to her never getting proper counselling or help for the trauma of being sexually exploited as a child, her past life soon caught up with her.
After the misfortune of the miscarriage of two pregnancies, Magdalena couldn’t handle the emotional pain, left her boyfriend, returned home to her mum and turned to drink and drugs again for comfort.
Life then turned again for the worse. One night, Magdalena ended up stabbing her mum’s violent boyfriend while trying to protect her mum during a big fight where he held her captive. Magdalena ended up serving time in Prison, where she got some proper counselling and was able to get clean of her addictions again. In prison she also met many other women who had had similar experiences to her, who had also been sexual exploited or sold for sex, as children and she no longer felt alone in her experiences.
After serving her prison sentence, Magdalena found it hard coming back into normal society and the roller coaster of trauma continued in her life. She soon got into another abusive relationship, with a man who used her experiences of being prostituted against her. He would violently beat her and tell people about her past life. Over the next few years she finds a job, but has a child with her boyfriend and eventually marries him, staying in the abusive cycle she is so familiar with since a child. Magdalena also starts taking drugs again, and occasionally prostitutes herself to pay for her addiction. She fall’s pregnant for a second time, but when her baby is born it is clear that the child is not her husband as her new baby girl is black. Magdalena had fallen pregnant by one of the men she sold herself to pay for her drug addiction. Her husband became enraged that she had been unfaithful, threatening her and her new babies life. Magdalena fled her marital home with the children, leaving everything they owned behind. Returning to her mother’s home in the small town she grew up in and worried about her parenting skills with her addictions and in need for specialized counselling for the abuse, she turns to the social services for help. But over the next few years Magdalena doesn’t get the help she needs and she struggles. Once again her addictions spiral out of control and the social services take her children into care. A situation that could have been prevented if they listened to her cries for help. With all the trauma of her childhood and loosing her own children deeply affecting her, Magdalena repeatedly goes in and out of prison due to getting into fights on the street. During all this time her two daughters are in foster care, but she is able to keep contact with them over the phone.
One day she gets a phone call from her eldest daughter, who was about 8 years old at the time, telling her that the boys in the foster care home were touching and sexually abusing her. Magdalena instantly calls the social services for them to remove and help her daughter, she was going crazy that she couldn’t help her own child and that it wasn’t safe for them in foster care. She felt like she did as a child, that her desperate cry’s for help were falling on deaf ears. As she describes what happened, Magdalena starts to talk really fast and it’s hard to keep up with the details of events. But you can still hear the raw desperation in her voice that she couldn’t protect her own child and was helpless while knowing her own daughter was going through the same pain she did, a mother’s worse nightmare. The situation does eventually get investigated and the abuse was found to be true. But four years later Magdalena says her daughter has not received the specialised counselling she needs and the social workers prefer to pretend the abuse never happened.
When I ask whether she is now getting proper counselling for herself she tells me;
‘’I feel judged by the social services; they have labelled and stigmatised me by my past, by the actions of my mother. They are not giving me a chance or helping me. I just want them to let me prove I am good mother’’
She is now fighting to get her children back. Elise breaks in the conversation and explains that this is a common story for Swedish women who have been sexually exploited, that they fall through the cracks in the system and the social services lets them down. Magdalena’s strength of character to keep going on is astonishing.
She explains though ‘I can’t cry, when I feel it comes, I close it in’
It’s clear that meeting Elise and getting help from the Clara church has really been a turning point for Magdalena. She now has a community around her that understands what she went through as a child and is helping her rebuild her life again.
The girls on the street
On a Friday light summer’s eve, I venture out with Elise and her team to witness first hand their outreach work to the girls, similar to Magdalena who are prostituted on the streets of Stockholm. At 8’o clock we walk up through the streets to Malmsvillnadsqatan street. We stop by the metro station exit and set up a little stand with coffee & tea, sandwiches, clothes and educational material for the women Elise welcomes each week.
Elise, aged 77 years old, has been reaching out to women on this street every Friday night until 2-3am for the last 15 years. She is very focused and particular how she sets up the area, stating that everything must be perfect for ‘her girls’. Elise is currently reaching out to about 40 different women on the street. She is former prostitute herself, who was sexually exploited by a family friend since the age of 5. Her life’s passion is to now help other girls who are sexually exploited. She says that 99% of the girls she works with on the street are exploited first as children, often entering into prostitution aged 14-15 years old. When asked the question if any of the women choose to enter the sex trade on their own accord, Elise becomes very animated and angry at the suggestion.
”Not ONE of the girls choose to be a prostitute, they HATE it. There is no such thing as a ‘happy whore”. I get crazy when people say girls choose this abuse, especially the Swedish girls. All the girls I know were abused as children and were tricked in’
Elise’s words seem to echo through the street and quite pioently opposite were we stand talking, the artist Ernst Nordin’s statue of a little girl titled ‘ I don’t want to be a slave’ is facing us. Intensely looking into me, Elise continues to vent her frustration;
‘’Grown up people who can see what’s happening, need to open their mouths and speak up. In Sweden we don’t want to dare see what’s really happening to our own children. I think people are scared to stand up and take responsibility, but the children are hurting, our children.’’
As darkness starts too drawn in, Elise’s girls start to appear out the shadows.
The girls are not just from Sweden, but also from Nigeria, Kenya and Eastern Europe.
Each girl greets Elise with a warm hug and seems so happy to see her. They don’t stay long to chat, as their pimps are hiding in the shadows watching their every move. But you can see the moment of love and care brings comfort and hope to them. Elise doesn’t fear the pimps, but is aware of their presence. Half way through the evening Elise walks around the area with one her helpers, looking for any new pimps or girls out on the street. She sees the signs of the sex underworld that most people are blinded to. She shares a story about how one Friday night a few years ago she spotted a van on the corner that men were going in and out of throughout the evening. Inside the van she spotted young girls, so she called the police. When the police came they found six teenagers aged 12 to16 years old who had been trafficked from the Baltic’s by a pimp who was driving the van around from town to town around Sweden. She talks about how fifteen years ago it was only Swedish girls on the street, but over the last eight years there has been an increase of foreign girls each year and the girls are getting younger.
Trafficked into Sweden
Gorel Strand, who is a ‘god man’ and guardian for refugee children in Sweden shares similar stories that she has heard directly from children who have been trafficked and sexual exploited into Sweden. Children applying for asylum in Sweden are given a ‘god man’ representative by the government, to supply support and care for them during their application. Once they have gained asylum they are then given a guardian to represent them until they are 18 years old. Gorel has been a ‘god man’ & guardian to 260 refugee children aged 8 months to 18 years old in the last 8 years. She knows that fifteen of those children (boys & girls) were trafficked, which twelve have found to be sexually exploited in Sweden.
Swedish authorities estimate that from reported cases approx 2000 people a year are trafficked from other countries into Sweden, in which 200 of those are children. Its hard to know the exact scale as trafficking is an under ground criminal Activity. But EPACT Sweden estimate from their reports that approximately 600 women and children are trafficked into Sweden via ferry alone, on an annual basis for sexual exploitation.
When meeting Gorel, she talks about the children she has cared for with a real motherly tenderness. She carries a number of the children’s passport photos in her purse so that she remembers them and their stories. As she goes through the photos, she shows the faces of boys and girls from countries such as Belarus, Romania, Morocco, Nigeria, Uganda, and Guinea & Tanzania.
Gorel works closely with a number of government homes those children the children who she is ‘god man’ to, are sent to live while seeking and gaining asylum in Sweden. We visit one home in the countryside, south of Stockholm called ‘Villa Madeline’. This home is for refugee children who have been granted permission to stay in Sweden, but are still under the age of 18 years old or are in full time education. The home is of a very high living standard and has the atmosphere of a normal family house.
These homes are where trafficked children often stay once the authorities have identified them. They are put together with other boy & girl refugee’s and there is currently no specific care system to meet their individual needs as a victim of trafficking and sexual exploitation. There is also currently no specialized home in Sweden for children who have been trafficked. Marita Abrahamsson, a social padagog at the home speaks of a great need for specialized homes for trafficked and sexual exploited boys & girls. As when they have had children who have been sexual exploited in their care they have found it hard to get them the right long term help within the social system.
‘’We need a specialized service and separate homes for boys and girls, because the children need special help as they often hurt themselves and its hard to keep them off the streets, as they get drawn back to the streets as they are stuck in patterns. If the girls are all together in one home, they can talk about their experiences and feel normal’’
Marita has worked as a social worker and cared especially for sexually abused children for 11 years before working at Villa Magdalena. She shares, that as a social worker she has noticed specialized services available for sexually abused victims has decreased within the Swedish Social system. Marita starts to speak of her concern especially for Swedish children who are getting coerced and sexually exploited within Sweden.
‘’There is an unspoken problem that many social workers know is happening, but they don’t ask the question, they don’t want to look’’
Paulina, aged 32 is a passionate advocate for children in Sweden who have been sexually abused. She runs an organisation called ‘Novahuset’ which she started after personally going through the social and justice system after being sexually exploited herself by a boyfriend she met over the Internet when she was 20 years old. Paulina was tricked by a man she thought loved her and wanted to start a family with her. After raping and threatening her on their first date, he sold her to men in towns all over Sweden for four months, filming and often joining in with the abuse. Four years later Paulina was able to get justice after finding one of porn movies she was filmed in, that he was still selling over the Internet. This evidence got him the maximum penalty of serving 14 years in prison, where he still remains today.
Ten years later, Paulina now has hundreds of young boys and girls contacting her through her website and organisation for help. They feel safe contacting her, as they know she has experienced similar traumas. Paulina also talk’s of a great need for a specialised centre for sexual abuse victims and her dream is to see expert help available in every major town around Sweden. She feels quite helpless at times finding the right help for the boys and girls who contact her.
Paulina is also talks about the high demand for sex in Sweden and says that she feels that there are no limits on what people can buy online these days.
‘’ Its not so terrible to buy sex here. Its usually rich people, using the Internet to find girls and boys and its hard for them to get caught. We are very free about porn and sex here’’
Paulina then shares the shocking details about some of the sexual abuse she suffered when she was exploited.
‘’I went through four months of hell, forced to have sex with perverted men in different towns. I was taken to hotels and even people’s homes where I would look at the family photos of wife’s and children of the men raping me. There were no limits on what they would do to me. Strangle, bind, spit, slap…they would do to me what they couldn’t do to their wife’s. They would rape me in my mouth, anally…everywhere, they would even pee and pooh on me. Really sick things, it was a living nightmare. I was a nobody to them, just a tool’’
Ten years after her experience she is deeply concerned that the demand for abusive sex is increasing from hearing the stories of the children and young adults contacting her.
Being Sweden is one of the few countries that has criminalized the purchase of sex (and the 1st to implement in 1999), targeting the buyer, some experts believe that traffickers and pimps from abroad avoid Sweden as it’s hard to work there. So therefore with comparisonly low numbers (compared to 3rd world nations) of foreign women & children being trafficked into Sweden, is grooming and coercing Swedish children how the demand for child porn and sex with children is being met?
There are no official statistics monitoring over the years if there is an increase in demand within Sweden for child porn and sex with minors. But in 2010 the National Police board did do a survey on the demand for child porn on the Internet, reporting 50,000 attempts out of Sweden a day on child pornography alone. Helener Karlen of EPACT Sweden says that within Sweden the demand for child porn is really strong and their hotline is receiving over 1000 tips a month from the general public reporting child-porn websites and suspected cases of child trafficking for sexual purposes.
Patrik Cedelof, who is the National Co-ordinator against prostitution and Trafficking
is heading a task force (NMT) that is targeting the demand and identifying victims of trafficking with education programmes, plus creating the best model to assist victims. Patrik has years of experience working with trafficked and sexually exploited victims within the social services and police and is very passionate about the issue.
‘’ No one volunteers to go into prostitution. There is always someone doing this, something in the victims background ’.
It was in 2009 that the National method support team against prostitution and human trafficking (NMT) was created. It works in cooperation with parties who have worked the longest with trafficking issues in Sweden. Such as the police authorities, social services, the Swedish Prosecution Authority and the Swedish migration board. The National method support team against prostitution and human trafficking was created for the Governments national action plan, which finished in December 2010.
A Salvation Army shelter, that is part of the NMT’s resource team called Skogsbo. Ran one of the pilot trails for 6 beds especially for trafficked victims, from June 1st to December 2010 with NMT for the national action plan. The shelter was only funded for 6 months of the trial and they are currently awaiting for news if a special national centre for trafficking and sexual exploitation will be created and confirmation if funding will continue for the six beds for the trafficked victims. They still have some of the women and children who were in the trial living in the home, so have had to find funding within the salvation army to continue supporting them. Eva Göransson who is the director of the home said:
‘’ The women and children are here now. We can’t wait for laws and protocol to come into place. We have to act now, do whatever we can do to help’.
Sweden has made great progress in the last few years with the issue of trafficking.
But there is still room for improvement. It is clear a specialized national centre and shelters for women, men and children who have been trafficked and sexual exploited is urgently needed. The greatest progress has been made in identifying trafficked children from abroad and also making the general public to become aware of children from abroad being trafficked into Sweden. But when you suggest that Swedish children and women are being sexually exploited and trafficked within Sweden, the general response is one of disbelief.
The idea of trafficking and sexual exploitation happening within a Westernized European countries boarders is one that people find hard to accept in any European country. But the real life stories of victims is showing there is growing evidence that it is happening and it’s a problem that needs to be urgently addressed.
There are no official figures for internal trafficking in Sweden and there is little written about the issue in the National Police reports. It appears to be an issue that the Swedish authorities and general public are finding hard to acknowledge. An ‘unspoken’ secret that needs to be urgently addressed for the sake of the Swedish children, who are suffering in silence and are becoming easy prey to those who wish to exploit them. As written on the Ernst statue of the little girl, surely the cry of the children is ‘ I don’t want to be a slave’.