This is the story of Adelina, an Abanian woman trafficked into prostitution in Italy as a child. Since then she has been an advocate and activist for women and girls in prostitution, in the hope that she can prevent others from experiencing the hell she went through.
“Unfortunately, it all started with my kidnapping in Albania. I was about 17 years old and I was just walking near my house when a car came close to me and they grabbed me and took me to a bunker. There, the group started to rape and beat me. I had never had sex before. This is when my hell began. This is what a person who is raped and doomed to a life in prostitution lives: hell.
Before that I was a normal girl from a normal family; poor, but normal. I went to school, I went to the swimming pool – I was even part of a swimming team because I was such a good, fast swimmer.”
Did your parents look for you when this all happened?
“No, honestly they…. Well, I suppose maybe at the beginning when I first went missing, but then they essentially erased me as their daughter because from their point of view I had brought shame to the family. They simply erased me. But sometimes I think they also did it to protect themselves and their other children. Now I have no contact with them at all. Nowadays my brothers and sisters are not those I share blood with, but those who support me, those who I surround myself with.
How did I arrive in Italy? One a rubber dinghy with other girls, many other girls who had also been kept in the same house as me, where I was taken after the bunker. From there we were taken to a campsite and then put on a dinghy that brought us to Italy. This was the year 1995 or 1996. Once we reached Italy it really was hellish. I arrived in Brindisi but was then brought to northern Italy.
Then I arrived in Tradate, in Varesotto, in a house with my exploiters and the other girls. There were about 10 of us, the youngest only 14 years old. All but one of us was Albanian, with one Bulgarian girl who had recently been bought. I found out the youngest was 14 only after I escaped and reported my abusers to the police. Doctors examined us and, through bone analysis, they discovered her age, which even I hadn’t known. In the house where we were kept there were also women whose job was to perform improvised abortions on those of us who got pregnant. This was the first time that the criminal offence of enslavement was applied in Italy, when I escaped and gave a police report that triggered the Acheronte operation by the police in Varese. I was also the first non-EU national to benefit from Article 18, brought in by the Turco-Napolitano law, which offers social protection. This was an extremely difficult and unforgettable journey.
That hell lasted for 4 years before I escaped. Police officers came every day asking us if they could help. They did that for months but initially I didn’t trust them. Eventually, though, I had to.
80 Italians and 40 Albanians were reported and arrested, then sentenced to 15 to 20 years in prison. I was committed to helping the other women. Under article 18 we were protected. They put me in a safehouse for a long time and then there was the trial, during which I identified all of them, the people who threatened me, but I wasn’t scared because I had my angels there – the police – even though they had told me they would kill me. In a way I think I’m lucky that my parents erased me because they saved themselves.”
When did your new life begin?
“In 2000. I had a baptism, a communion. Because before that I didn’t belong to a religion. In my heart I’m an Italian citizen, but officially I’m a ghost. I don’t have citizenship because of bureaucratic problems related to my health card and other things. President Mattarella has seen my case: he wrote to me after my operation [for cancer], when I was in hospital. My visa for humanitarian protection has been renewed for 5 years. My prognosis with the kind of tumor I have is up to 5 years, save for a miracle. I want to live the rest of the time I have left as a citizen of this country.”
Sign Adelina’s online petition asking President Mattarella to grant her Italian citizenship.
How do you feel about prostitution now?
“Prostitution is not a free choice. It can be as a result of a lack of choice, of opportunity, and there are many women like that. We do have slavery in Italy, but there are also those who simply have no alternative. And that cannot be defined as a free choice.
I’ve seen with my own eyes because I have worked for 20 years on the front line to free girls from the streets. In Italy no woman can prostitute herself alone, even if she wanted to. The country is ‘ruled’ by organised crime. Maybe there are some who prostitute themselves in secret because they can’t make ends meet, perhaps young mothers, and then there are those who ‘work’ in luxury hotels, but we are always talking about situations of illegality. So I believe that we have to give them dignified opportunities, because no woman wants to be touched by a man she doesn’t know.”
How do you respond to the idea that we should re-open brothels because they offer protection for women and that prostitution can be an opportunity and represents individual freedom to choose what one does with one’s life and one’s body?
“Above all prostitution can never be a job of self-determination, as people – politicians and others – have been defining it recently. I strongly disagree because here in Italy we have more than 120,000 women who are victims of trafficking, women who are raped, abducted, tortured, tricked, and recently even drugged. Lately the organised crime networks are changing their tactics, getting women to use drugs to the point where they become dependent.
So I strongly disagree. Because I’d like to tell those men and women who suggest prostitution as an act of self-determination, I’d like to see how they would react if it was their own daughter saying “Dad, I’ve found a job as a prostitute!”. I don’t think they would be very happy. And so they have to think that all of these girls could be their daughters.
The sex industry, organised crime networks, have a vested interest in prostitution becoming legalised. They want to change the Merlin Law because that would remove the crime of facilitating or promoting prostitution, and so the criminals would have free rein.”
Aside from the criminalisation of the buyers, what do you think we can do to change people’s mentality, what can we do at a societal level?
“The buyer is complicit in the slavery of these women and girls. They are aware of what they do. In order to change the mentality we need to make them see and understand the suffering, not punish them in a malicious way. We need to say, ‘look, this is a 13-year-old girl who could be your daughter. She is in a living hell. If she doesn’t take back enough money, her exploiter or pimp beats her, they hurt her family. This is the reality and the money you’re paying to this girl isn’t even ending up in her pocket, but fuels the criminality that deals in arms, drugs and other girls.’”
In your opinion, what are the psychological consequences of your experience?
“They’re devastating. They ruined my life. Today I could have been with my family, I could have studied and graduated if they hadn’t kidnapped me. But today I can also say, actually because of what happened to me, that I’m in a position to help other girls and I’ve made that my mission. These are girls that suffer, that crumble. The government has to do more for them, by supporting them in finding a job and integrating into society. Change is possible and people do manage to free themselves, but the government has to actively help victims of trafficking.”
Have you had romantic relationships in recent years?
“Yes, one very important one, but in the end it didn’t work out. For victims of trafficking it’s very difficult to realise this dream.”
What alternatives should the government offer?
“A job that helps rebuild a person’s dignity, affordable housing. I used to dream about winning the lottery and opening the biggest shelter for victims of trafficking, where I would also build a textile factory to give them work. Many women know how to sew.”
If you’d like to know more about Adelina’s story, you can watch this video by Andrea Laquidara, one of 7 finalists in the Experimental Short category at Lanús International Film Festival in 2018.