Civil Society, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: TV Serial Raises Awareness on Trafficking in Women

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 14 2008 (IPS) - The soap opera has proved itself an effective medium for portraying social problems in Latin America, and now a popular one in Argentina is addressing an issue on which the news broadcasts have remained silent: the disappearance of women for commercial sexual exploitation.

“Vidas Robadas” (Stolen Lives), shown daily from this month on the Telefé TV channel, stars Facundo Arana and veteran actress Soledad Silveyra, and was watched by an estimated two million viewers every night during the first week.

The idea of a fictional plot based on a real-life story had already been used successfully in “Montecristo”, a 2006 soap opera that told the story of a young woman whose parents were “disappeared” during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, and whose true identity was kept secret from her by the couple who stole her as a baby and raised her as their own.

“Montecristo” had the highest ratings of any soap opera on Argentine television to date, and was later sold to stations in Chile, Mexico, Portugal and Uruguay.

Stolen Lives begins with the kidnap of a young girl from a low-income family, who falls into the hands of a human trafficking network which forces her into prostitution. The villain of the piece is the head of the trafficking ring, and the complicity between state and society in covering up the crime is shown.

After the first episode of the serial, the station broadcast “Humanos en el camino”, a programme on real-life cases of women who had fallen victim to networks trafficking in persons in Argentina. Audience monitoring indicated that most viewers stayed with the channel and did not switch programmes.

Silveyra, who plays the mother of the kidnapped girl, met several times with Susana Trimarco, the mother of Marita Verón, a young woman abducted in 2002 in the province of Tucumán in the northwest of the country, and who is presumed to have been sold to a brothel.

Verón is still missing, but her mother’s search has led to the discovery and freeing of hundreds of women, many of them foreigners.

Human trafficking has already been the subject of popular serials in Brazil and Colombia. However, the real stories of the girls kidnapped in Argentina are much stranger than fiction.

In 2004, 26-year-old Andrea López disappeared. The father of one of her three children was her partner Víctor Purreta, the owner of two brothels in the province of Buenos Aires. Purreta was sentenced to prison for forcing López to work as a prostitute, but when he was released he denied any knowledge of her whereabouts.

López’s mother, Julia Ferreira, told IPS that she agonises over the soap opera, but at the same time she believes that discussing the problem publicly may help people “to become aware of what is happening, to have compassion for us and to come forward with information that can help us find the girls.”

“Because of shame or ignorance, I never asked for help, but now I think that if I had done so when my daughter was beaten by her husband, perhaps she would not have disappeared,” she said. Now she only has vague clues suggesting her daughter might once have been in a brothel in the province of Córdoba, but no solid evidence.

The only witness who said he had seen the girl in one of Purreta’s brothels was found hanged with a gag in his mouth, “a mafia killing, for which no one was ever charged,” Ferreira said.

Ferreira lives in the central province of La Pampa, and is raising her grandson, now seven years old. She has to put up with Purreta’s visitation rights.

“As the justice system maintains that my daughter abandoned her marital home, it gives him the right – he, who forced my daughter into prostitution – to take the child away with him on the weekend,” she complained.

Ferreira is convinced that Purreta knows what happened, but won’t say. “He said he woke up and she wasn’t there, but he only told me 20 days later. I wonder: if he knew that every time he beat my daughter, she came to my house, why didn’t he phone me that time to ask whether she was with me?”

Although there are no official statistics, women’s organisations report that there are about 500 young women who are missing, and who could be in the hands of these networks. Some have been kidnapped, while others have been lured by tempting offers of supposedly well-paid jobs in other provinces or countries.

Activists have not managed to get a law passed against this crime, which would also provide support and assistance to the victims. They blame a lack of political will. “The state does not show much interest in dedicating resources to this issue,” lawyer Marta Fontenla, of the Women’s Association for Work and Studies (ATEM), told IPS.

“The soap opera is very important because it creates awareness and raises the profile of the problem. My only concern is that it might get stuck on the cases of kidnapped girls, when in fact those who weren’t forced to the same degree are also victims if they fall into the hands of a network,” she said.

Fontenla said Argentina needs a law against trafficking that does not oblige women over 18 to prove that their captors used trickery or violence to force them into prostitution, as is stipulated in a draft law that was considered by Congress in 2007, but failed to make it through both chambers.

Sara Torres, the coordinator of the Red No a la Trata de Mujeres (No to Trafficking of Women Network), said that it was necessary to go beyond the fictional story. “The soap opera is good because it makes the problem visible, but this must not end there,” she told IPS.

“The issue is gaining visibility in Argentina, because although pimping is against the law, new brothels are being opened every day,” she said.

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