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From West Africa to the Balkans: exploring women’s roles in transnational organized crime


There is a lack of reliable data on the role of women in transnational organized crime. So far, the focus of this research has overwhelmingly been on the Italian Mafia. Little is known about women’s roles in other types of organized crime activities. Since there is an ongoing perception that draws on stereotypical imagery of women in organized crime as appendixes to their male counterparts, this article explores whether women are indeed as oppressed in transnational organized crime as they are in other spheres of life. It focuses on the stereotypical constructions of femininity (victims) and masculinity (criminals) and argues that hegemonic gender roles are defined by the dominant European/American culture. The article takes a multicultural feminist approach and studies female criminality in the context of “doing gender,” an approach that assumes that the feminine gender role is something that must be accomplished in the context of specific situations. By studying the roles of women from West Africa and the Balkans in transnational criminal activities, it specifically examines how time and space, as well history and culture, contribute to one’s position in a criminal network.

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  1. Then during the mid-1970s, two controversial books, Adler’s (1975) Sisters in Crime and Simon’s (1975) Women and Crime proposed ideas about women’s criminality. Adler argued that lifting restrictions on women’s opportunities in the marketplace gave them the chance to be greedy, violent, and crime prone as men. Simon concluded that women’s increasing share of arrests for property crime might be explained by their increased opportunities at the workplace to commit crime. Simon also examined whether the emancipation of women might encourage law enforcement officials and courts to be more interested in treating women and men equally. This came to be known as the “emancipation thesis:” as women are achieving social equality and equal access to opportunities in the workplace, they will eventually commit the same amount of crimes as men, and there will convergence in male and female crime rates.

  2. While some have argued that traditional patriarchal control prevented women from deviating (Heidensohn 1985), others state that the failure of patriarchal society to deliver “promised deals” to women removed the controls which prevented them from offending (Carlen 1985).

  3. By “leaders” and “organizers” we refer to women that are actively involved in the strategic planning of the trafficking/smuggling operations, and are able to bring decisions, and most importantly, have full or partial control over the finances.

  4. One of the authors organized this expert workshop together with the Belgian Federal Police in Brussels in Oct. 2008.

  5. The U.S. database was developed with the help of research assistants Michael Temple and Jeffrey Walden.

  6. This word is most often used to imply a female who controls sex workers/brothels. However, it can also imply an active female criminal, i.e. organizer, involved in the strategic planning of human trafficking activities, however, not necessarily for sexual exploitation.

  7. See the study by Siegel and de Blank (2010) where the roles of women are defined and discussed (e.g. supporters, partners in crime and independent businesswomen/madams/organizers).

  8. For the purpose of this paper, the term ‘Balkan organized crime’ refers to organized crime groups whose members originate mainly from Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, or Serbia.

  9. Based on personal interviews with law enforcement officials and prosecutors from Albania, Italy, Belgium, Macedonia and Kosovo conducted between 2008 and 2011. Parts of the conclusions are also based on the findings from the expert workshop that took place in Belgium in October 2008 as well as on the analysis of court and police files.

  10. Based on interviews with Interpol’s official working on Balkan organized crime and on intelligence reports from 2008 and 2009. Note: most countries in Western and Central Europe reported females involved in human trafficking at between 10 and 50 % of those investigated/prosecuted (Aronowitz 2009).

  11. These are by no means mutually exclusive groups/categories. There have been cases where Slavic offenders have been cooperating with ethnic Albanian ones. However, these are some common group classification made by police agencies on the basis of the core membership of groups (organized crime) that have been arrested and prosecuted.

  12. In Japan crime levels are significantly lower when compared to other developed nations (Dammer and Fairchild 2006) and female participation in criminal behavior is even lower than in other countries. Women in Japan however also act as “interim” figures in organized gangs in case their companion becomes imprisoned or dies. This is because in Japan, although women are forbidden to become involved with gangs, they tend to be motivated by the matriarchal system which highlights that mothers or spouses should glorify men’s success (Otomo 2003). For example, Yoshiko Matsuda, an interim figure who took the reign of a powerful Japanese gang after the death of her husband, controlled over 300 gangsters and led street fights in Tokyo.

  13. Patsy Sorensen, Victim shelter “Payoke”, ref. to VH case.

  14. According to interviews with Belgian law enforcement officials (case of Sami and Zakim in Verviers)

  15. Read more about the NK case in: “Networking sites—Criminal group expands across the Balkans” (2009) Jane’s Intelligence Review, 21(12): 43–47. See also Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR 2009), From Kosovo Inmate to Sarajevo Businessman, N°18, 2009.

  16. Personal interviews with Macedonian law enforcement officials and with Patsy Sorensen, Director of the Belgian victim shelter Payoke. Sorensen was actively involved in this case and interviewed some of the victims (interviews conducted between 2007 and 2010).

  17. More information on this case available at:

  18. It is important to acknowledge, however, that after 2010 there have been some positive developments in Kosovo. For example, a woman was elected president in Kosovo in 2011. Also the GDI in 2001 was 0.6.

  19. Read more on the social construction of femininity and masculinity and the way female bodies are displayed in anti-trafficking campaigns in Andrijasevic (2007).


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Correspondence to Jana Arsovska.

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Arsovska, J., Begum, P. From West Africa to the Balkans: exploring women’s roles in transnational organized crime. Trends Organ Crim 17, 89–109 (2014).

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  • Transnational crime
  • Organized crime
  • West Africa
  • Balkans
  • Gender
  • Female offenders
  • Patriarchy
  • Multicultural feminism