Russian transcription by Olga Zelinska
Translation and editing by Sophie Pinkham
In 2009 we submitted a list of rights violations and violence against sex workers in Ukraine to SWAN, becoming the fourth country that will have a pilot project to document rights violation against sex workers. The violations were mainly connected to law enforcement officers. Our problem is that people don’t know their rights, so they can only talk about violations, but not about the right to life, the right to [physical] integrity, and so on. The right to work is affirmed in the Constitution. No one talks about the violation of this right, because in post-Soviet space every person [finds work] himself, depending on his abilities. The government probably offers some kind of work, but what it offers is either very low-paying or doesn’t match people’s qualifications. People don’t have enough qualifications, so there you are. But you can consider this a rights violation.
As for the right to education—there are very few free schools. I’m not even talking about the fact that they are only theoretically free of charge—that practically speaking, you have to pay for education. The right to health care—only emergency medical workers give care free of charge. Nothing else. When you go to a polyclinic, you always have to pay. That’s normal all over the world, but everywhere in the world there are social programs for the needy. We have those, but very few. Not enough to meet the need. That’s why for now it’s only about violations connected with law enforcement officers. People don’t know about any right except the right not to be beaten and killed.
In Ukraine, people only understand sex trafficking as trafficking to another country. Some clever old man who collects girls, brings them somewhere abroad and sells them, for example, to a bordello, in the Czech Republic or somewhere, Germany, Italy and so on. They’ve only recently started understanding pimping as a form of human trafficking.
So here, there’s still no one prosecuted under that law.
In principle, there’s plenty of absolute voluntary sex work. If in any civilized country a sex worker is conscious of her human choice and she wants to be a sex worker, she likes this work, she know that in this way she can achieve her best professionally, then in Ukraine 90% of sex workers do not want to be sex workers. There are economic factors. Here, a girl ends up earning money with her body because she can’t do it any other way.
And in that’s in the easiest scenario. Lots of girls get trafficked. There are pimps in nearly every city of Ukraine. In many cases sex work is legal de facto, because almost every city has “offices,” “firms,” houses where people can go to order sexual services.
In the Kiev newspaper “Work and Study,” the last three pages are employment offers for sex workers! Three pages! A legal newspaper in the capital city. They ask for attractive girls between 18 and 25. Sometimes it’s even more interesting—they ask for attractive women from 22-45. Once I called about one of those ads, just to find out exactly what it was. They told me openly over the phone that it was sexual services. They just wouldn’t give me the address of the office—they told me what neighborhood it was in. They gave me all the conditions right away and told me to come if I was interested—I’d just have to give them a cut in exchange for working on their premises. There, I think, they wanted people from 30 to 70.
Male sex workers haven’t yet been studied in Ukraine. Up till now we’ve studied and worked with only women, for lots of reasons. First of all, women sex workers are a more accessible group: second, we looked at them in terms of STIs and HIV/AIDS. Men are a closed group. I couldn’t even say how many there are—those statistics simply don’t exist. We know that male sex workers belong to two categories—heterosexual men who offer services to women and homosexual men who offer services to men. And bisexual men. According to orientation and behavior. Personally, I’ve only interacted with two or three, that’s all. Until recently, until the registration of our organization, the League positioned itself as a women’s organization. We say that we’ll work with male sex workers, but no one has come to us yet. If necessary, we’ll help male sex workers, too.
This is how our mobilization work began and continues: I travel to different cities of Ukraine, cities we choose in advance, before the project starts. There I look for an organization that has a project on [HIV] prevention, harm reduction among sex workers, or for a contact person who can take me to a potential association of sex workers. They convene girls who are sex workers and meet with them. As a result of this meeting, they choose a leader from among themselves, a person who can be in contact with me and represent their interests…
For two years, we had trainings on leadership qualities and organizational management. Now we have project HOPE, to develop HIV services in Ukraine. Five leaders from Pavlograd, Cherkassy, Kiev and more. Five leaders from the League are taking part in these trainings, which are focused on HIV, STIs and tuberculosis. Beyond that, we’re trying to help people who are disseminating information about the League locally to do something more, to lead self-help groups and work on their own projects…
Apart from that, we recently printed two informational publications for sex workers: a brochure where we described various aspects of interaction with the police and what the police have the right to do and what rights sex workers have, how to avoid being beaten or held overnight and so on. The second was about social services, how to apply for disability, how to get residency registration, how to get on the unemployment registry. To help girls make their lives easier. We don’t talk only about HIV/AIDS. Our leaders have talked about that all over Ukraine, but girls have lots of other problems with other infections and illnesses, and just mundane problems—nowhere to live, nothing to eat, nowhere to work, no way to clothe their child. There’s nowhere for them to send their children. And [HIV] prevention programs don’t deal with these problems—they don’t have the resources or the time. It’s a different structure.
In terms of the loss of maternal rights—it depends on the individual situation. It happens, but our system is organized so that they don’t just take the child. You have to try really hard to have your child taken away.
Why do they take away parental rights? If they’re absolutely homeless. If a neighbor made a statement, that the child is starving, freezing, dying. If the child is sick and the mother doesn’t come to the hospital. Honestly, I’ve never seen cases where children were taken away just because of their mother’s sex work or drug use. Our law on the protection of mothers and children isn’t bad at all, by the way. A woman doesn’t lose her parental rights till the very last moment.
I have one friend who has three children. In Chernovtsy. She ended up in the hospital, where she gave birth to her third child, she had no documents. She’s from Zakarpatiya. She’s lived in Ukraine for a long time. Her children were registered in Chernovtsy. While she was sick, she arranged for her children to live temporarily in the children’s home. When she got out of the hospital it took us a year to get the children back. There were objective reasons. Even now she’s not angry at the government, because when she got out of the hospital she had nowhere to live. She had no documents, including no passport. She started by finding a place to live–we have a center for the resocialization of the homeless in Chernovtsy. She went and lived there for three months, and got a passport.
I started working in this field in 2003. But according to my training I didn’t have much in common with these kinds of organizations. I’m a building technician. I have higher education as an economist. But in Ukraine there was that dark time beginning in about 1996, even 1991. Until 1996 I was barely staying afloat. In 1996 I lost my job. I had a pretty serious conflict with my parents, and after that I left home and started living independently. I was 24.
Then I had a great love. Since childhood I had been a good girl, well raised, educated. And now the good girl was out in the big world. Without a place to live, without work and without a means of living. And I fell in love for the first time. I worked on the night-shift of a bakery, baked bread. As a seamstress. And my boyfriend turned out to be an alcoholic.
Ever since childhood, I’ve had this problem…I always want to help, to get people out of trouble, to make everything all right. But this time I didn’t recognize that you can only help a person who wants to be helped. The places my handsome man and I lived…
In this period I had experience of sex work, and life on the streets without a permanent place to live, all those wonderful things. For a while I slept near heating mains. In building entrances. I looked for food in garbage cans. Two years passed before I had finally understood that I couldn’t save this person—I was just burying myself along with him.
I just left him. I had help from some very strong friends of mine from school. I just went and lived with a girlfriend. I was so ashamed. It was so uncomfortable that I’d sunk so low. With an education, and here I was…it was so unpleasant, but she pulled me through. We went to the heating mains, where we had lived for a while. We got my things. After that it took me about a year to feel like myself again. I learned how to talk, interact, look people in the eye, earn money and everything else. Everything calmed down. I started working, first as an administrator at an organization that sold computers. Then I got married and started working at a military base.
Then in 2003, I met an old acquaintance. We had known each other from childhood. He’s gay. He’s a very unique gay man for Ukraine—one of the first who came out, since there was a law against that until very recently.
I saw Kolya with a big bag on his shoulder. I said, “Oh, Kolya, we haven’t seen each other for ages. What are you up to?” And he said, “I work in an organization.” I asked what kind, and he said “HIV prevention.” I was surprised. He told me, “I give syringes to drug addicts and condoms to prostitutes.” That’s exactly what he said. (At that time in Ukraine, we didn’t use the term “sex workers.” I always use it.) So I said, “Wow! That’s great! Where’s your organization?” He gave me the address. Somehow I knew deep inside myself that I had to work at this organization. And of course people looked at me strangely, because in Ukraine, as a rule, the only people who work in that sphere are drug-dependent…at that time they had no project with sex workers, and people thought that a person without experience working with drug dependence couldn’t work with drug-dependent people.
So I showed up, with higher education and everything. Larisa Ivanovna Milanich was the director at that time. She asked me, “Ira, is it necessary for you [to work here]?” And I said yes. She asked me why and I said “I don’t know—but it I need to do it.”
I volunteered for about a year. I still made some money at the bazaar, then I became a social worker, and then the trainings started. By 2005 I was a bit burned out, especially with the tiny salary—270 hryvnia, plus the loss of career status. And there were always barriers to advancement—it was understood throughout the collective that you won’t get farther than these syringes, these condoms. I felt that I had outgrown the organization. I understood that I had to move on.
I arrived in Kiev with all of 80 hryvnia. I spent 50 at an employment agency near the train station, they promised me the moon and stars, and did nothing. It was almost evening. I had nowhere to stay. I had acquaintances, but I was too proud. I found a job through the newspaper. It was a Canadian business, selling things out of a suitcase on the street. I worked there for a month and a half and lived on a balcony in Troeshina [a neighborhood in Kiev] for 15 hryvnia a night.
After a month and a half I found the Harm Reduction Association. I went to the director, it was Ksenia Shapoval then, and told her that I was going to have to run away, because I was starving, and that I worked from 6.45 in the morning to 9 at night. Ksenia offered me a job as an administrator at the Harm Reduction Association. When that project ended a year and a half later, I started working at Krok za Krokom [another harm reduction organization in Kiev]. In 2007, after the SWAN conference in Kiev, I was asked to write a project on [sex worker] mobilization. [I like this work] because I really see results. And it’s helpful work, and it’s interesting to think things up and to help people.
The work of the League does not aim to completely abolish prostitution. And it’s not only focused on the prevention of social harms. Our work aims to give people the right to choose. If you want to be a sex worker, go ahead—our goal is that you won’t be killed doing it, won’t be beaten up or raped or robbed. If you don’t want to be a sex worker, there is a broader goal. Our work is to find you a place to study, to live. I think that’s what’s needed in Ukraine today.
We work on a peer-to-peer basis. If I didn’t have personal experience of sex work, I don’t know…I just understand better what a girl is going through when she has those kinds of serious problems. I know what a person feels when they’re under fire. I know what a person feels when they’re raped. And again, yes, you need to have professionalism, it’s great. But in any community, the advice of an equal is more effective. And mobilization is important because this category of people is like street children or the homeless or people who were incarcerated. It’s one of the categories that’s usually considered, in relation to the government, only in terms of punishment. That’s why it’s very important that a community help itself. First of all, it takes a burden from the government, and second of all, it attracts attention to the problems of this category of people and lobbies for their interests, to change laws…