Woman of Valour

This post appears in the WIZO Lapid Newsletter.

Today is International Women’s Day, a day dedicated to highlighting the status of women around the world. It was my privilege to interview Orit Zuaretz, former Member of Knesset (MK – Kadima) and a graduate of WIZO Aviv and our prestigious political leadership course.

Zuaretz was head of the Knesset committee on the Advancement of the Status of Women and Human Trafficking and took some time to patiently answer my questions.

Orit Zuaretz is a modern day Boudica. A warrior for the improvement of the status of women in Israel and a trailblazer in the fight against human trafficking, her success has been so great that she was recently given the Presidential award for her “Special Contribution in the fight against Human Trafficking”. Every year, three awards are given out to individuals from NGO’s, government or industry for excellence in the fight against human trafficking.

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For Zuaretz, the choice to join the committee on the Status of Woman was natural. “It was a very clear choice because I came from a woman’s organisation and I had a very focused goal. It was a portfolio that nobody really wanted but I did and I took the next step which was to recruit a team that would be as equally committed. MK’s Shlomo Moolla and Nachman Shai, who are champions for women’s rights, joined a sub-committee to fight human trafficking.”

 It is a little known fact that Israel is a top tier country in the fight against human trafficking. It was not always this way. In the past, Israel was an attractive destination for traffickers wanting to move women from either the former Soviet Union or Africa. Criminals targeted Israel because the laws in place at the time were slack. This changed in 2006 when human trafficking became a global issue. So what alerted Zuaretz to the plight of trafficked women?

 “When we formed our committee, I met with a government worker who worked with the trafficked  women. It was a step by step process and we started out by going to speak to the women who had been rescued from the Sinai or Egypt and were in shelters or in a prison facility. Their stories were heartbreaking – many, including children and young boys have been sold into slavery and prostitution.  Rape is common occurrence for these victims. We took the media into these facilities and this really contributed in highlighting and bringing attention to their awful situation. The first law that was legislated was the creation of “no mans land”. Pressure was put on the government, judges and the police and today Israel is a country that leads  the global fight against human trafficking,” says Zuaretz.

 In a few short years and thanks to the efforts of Zuaretz and her team, Israel has succeeded in bringing debate over human trafficking into the global consciousness as well making sure that women who are pimped or trafficked from Africa receive treatment as good as their counterparts from the former Soviet Union. This has led to the opening of several shelters rather than prison as an option for those rescued from the Sinai.

 Perhaps the most notable achievement is that Israel is the only country in the world to sponsor a year of rehabilitation for victims that have been trafficked and this is paid for by the government. A comprehensive training programme that includes personnel from the police services, hospitals and health workers who take care of victims has been successfully implemented. Government and NGO’s (non-governmental organisations) work in partnership and this has helped Israel become a first tier country. Israel has instituted a policy of “safe return” which entails skills training as well as physical and emotional therapy for victims. If a person is unable to return to their country of origin for whatever reason, Israel will grant asylum.

 There is still so much to be done in the global fight against human trafficking and WIZO as an International Women’s movement is proud to play a role in helping to shine a light on this issue. Zuaretz is a prime example of how WIZO women have impact in government. An incredible achievement like this which is not just an example of tikkun olam on the part of Israel but is sadly a growing phenomenon in many parts of the world where women barely have any status deserves attention. Thanks to this true woman of valour, the battle lines have been drawn.

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