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"Sex-workers are a marginalized community vulnerable to violence and human rights violation"

An interview of Elena Tsukerman to Dafna Rachok and "Politychna Krytyka (Political Critique)" online magazine about "Legalife" and on situation of sex workers in Ukraine

How and when did the idea to create an organization of sex workers in Ukraine appear? How difficult or easy was it to implement the project?

This idea originated a few years ago from the head of the partner organization the All-Ukrainian Harm Reduction Association (VASV) after he saw the experience of sex workers' self-organizing in other countries. Soon after the first meeting of sex workers from 14 regions of Ukraine was held. The meeting was also attended by social workers from various regional and metropolitan non-governmental organizations (NGOs). At that meeting in particular the representatives of the sex workers' community expressed the desire to work in an organization that would protect their rights for the first time. They explained that it is crucial for their community to have such an organization. This was happening in 2007. After that, a group of activists with the support of VASV experts started preparation and subsequently registration of a new all-Ukrainian Charitable Organization "All-Ukrainian League" “Legalife". The structure of the co-founders of “Legalife” included sex workers from most regions of Ukraine. However, the registration process took long, namely, two years. They were finding fault with the Statute, refusing to accept the documents, in which sex workers were called sex workers. They were saying that there was no such a definition... Nevertheless, “Legalife” received the official registration, and it was able to start its activities as an independent organization only after Statute was rewritten, namely, in December 2009.

Do you work with sex workers only, or also with porn actors, web models, escort service representatives as well?

“Legalife” works with sex workers and cross-groups of sex workers: trans women; migrants; temporary migrants; victims of violence and / or human trafficking; drug addicted people, including patients of substitution maintenance therapy; women caught in difficult life situations, and so on. We have not yet made contact with employees of porn industry, but among sex workers, with whom and for whom we work, there are those who provide escort services, as well as those who work in show-business…

How do sex workers discover your organization?

"Legalife" disseminates information about itself through its website, partner resources, such as human rights organizations and service NGOs working with sex workers and women, through the LGBT organizations and others. We also publish and distribute free magazine on health and human rights in the sex industry "LILIT", informational and educational materials on topics relevant to sex workers, make trainings for sex workers, talk about "Legalife" and our work to the media representatives, participate in TV programs and shows. We are also a part of an international movement for the rights of sex workers and women in general ... Moreover, the communication of our regional activists with sex workers is very important, as well as our advocacy, informational and educational work in social networks. The people also get to know about us due to the events that we hold on various newsworthy information. E.g., December 17, International Day To End Violence against Sex Workers or March 3, International Sex Workers' Rights Day.

How would you describe the priority tasks of your organization?

One of the main tasks is to decriminalize sex work in Ukraine, to achieve the cancellation of Article 181.1 of the Administrative Code (article stipulates an administrative warning or a fine for prostitution – Editor), and to reform the legislation that regulates sex business in such a way that the life quality of sex workers can increase, their access to social, medical and legal services can be improved, and that there are more opportunities to favor personal growth and social integration of sex workers. The reform has to be done with an obligatory involvement of the leaders and activists of the sex workers' community. The next step should be legalization of sex work in Ukraine in order to ensure full equality of sex workers' rights and their social and legal security.

We also monitor the human rights observance of sex workers in Ukraine, we try to implement and keep charitable activities aimed at improving the quality of sex workers' lives, as well as to counter the involvement of minors in sex work.

For us it is very important to change the attitude of the society to sex workers, we would like to see sex workers treated in a more open-minded and tolerant way, we would like the society to see them as people and valued citizens. Therefore, we strive to ensure that sex workers can themselves influence human rights policy on both local and national levels. We organize and support the work of sex workers activists, our partners and supporters in the regions of Ukraine.

We also promote the implementation of various HIV / AIDS and other socially dangerous diseases prevention programs among sex workers. Moreover, we are engaged in the prevention of risky sexual behavior among sex workers, and we help women who are victims of human trafficking and / or sexual violence.

Do you cooperate with the international organizations of sex workers? If so, with which ones? How do you collaborate?

We work with a number of organizations. For example, I volunteer as a sex workers community representative at the International Steering Committee of the Red Umbrella Fund, the first international fund, where the founders and leaders are sex workers who work in partnership with the representatives of donor organizations. Changes can only be achieved through the joint constructive work and combined efforts, by defending our rights and working together with organizations who share our objectives and methods. No one else than sex workers themselves knows better what the sex workers need and how they can be helped. "Red Umbrella" Fund was created to direct all possible resources to support and strengthen the movement of sex workers who protect their rights. The red umbrella is a symbol of the struggle for sex workers' rights, and against violence and cruelty directed at sex workers. "Legalife" has been a Member and a National Coordinator of SWAN (Sex Workers' Rights Advocacy Network) in Ukraine since 2011. We monitor sex work legislation, advocacy opportunities, obstacles and other changes, we work with the media, organize and participate in joint activities.

In addition, we are also cooperating with the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) and the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE): exchange information, try to learn more about the needs of sex workers in order to use that knowledge in our activities aimed to provide the right to health and a safe working environment free from abuse, violence and discrimination against female sex workers. Members' of 'Legalife' participate in both research initiated by NSWP and multiple international conferences and fora where we give voice to and stand up for the common position.

What difficulties do you face as an organization in the first place?

The specifics of the sex workers community (especially of its most vulnerable groups: sex workers who work in the streets, on highways, in apartments and cheap brothels) in Ukraine is that most of them have no education, except for lower secondary education (with rare exceptions). The only means of subsistence for them are the money they get from sex work. Activism, as we know, is either not paid at all or paid quite low, but it takes a lot of time and efforts, and it often endangers the life and health of sex worker activists. Advocacy and human rights work are especially exhausting and risky. In this regard, there are difficulties to motivate a large number of sex workers to do social activism. They often say that they cannot devote their time to social activities for free; some are simply afraid; a lot require immediate payment or are activated only when we are talking about a free trip to other cities and countries.

At the same time the majority of the activists have no organizational and team management skills, there is no knowledge on fundraising and project proposals writing. Both organization and partner NGOs often hold the trainings, but many sex workers who participated in these trainings do not use the acquired knowledge, and they transfer it to the other community members not as often as we would like it to happen. There is also the instability in the action groups structure that is fueled by migration, socio-political and economic situation in the country, loss of motivation for the volunteer work, personal circumstances, etc.

Another problem is the process of community mobilization in the regions that is progressing slowly and in a challenging way. The truth is that in the regions the situation is more difficult with infrastructure, e.g. There is a lack of safe spaces for meetings and work of the action teams; there are no means for and skills of online communication, and hence of lack of access to the relevant and objective information. There are a few trainings only in the region that teach sex workers how to work in the public sector or, for example, how to establish communication with decision makers and governmental agencies.

In addition to the above-mentioned, we can also mention the problems within the groups of sex worker activists: an internal stigma, lack of communication with other organizations and networks in the region and the country, ignorance of context and terminology of community activities, etc. We are at the beginning of a long journey …

What difficulties do sex workers face in Ukraine?

In Ukraine sex workers can simultaneously be members of more vulnerable groups: people using drugs; people living with HIV; trans people; MSM; people released from or still being in prison. We should also remember that the level of education and legal culture of the representatives of the Ukrainian sex workers' community is much lower compared to the one in developed countries.

In Ukraine sex work is an administrative offense that assumes imposing of penalties and often is a cause of infringement of privacy and other human rights. Sex workers do not ask for the medical and legal help to prevent or respond to violence from clients, police, husbands and any other type of abusers. In our conservative-minded society it is extremely difficult to initiate and support the process of the formation of the tolerant attitude towards sex workers. Most of the citizens consider that sex workers deserve violence, the stigma keeps on growing, sex workers do not disclose their occupation when medical care is needed, and the doctor has no opportunity to appoint the correct treatment that could take into account the specifics of the sex work, or to provide sex workers with appropriate recommendations about staying healthy. Besides, the situation is complicated by the myths and stereotypes around sex business in the society. For example, there is a myth that sex workers earn easy and high income and therefore they are always expected to pay more for medical and social services.

How would you describe the current situation of the Ukrainian sex workers? How acute, for example, is the problem of the police violence?

Police officers are regularly extorting money from sex workers by blackmailing, threatening with disclosure of the status of "prostitute" to sex workers’ friends, co-workers (if there is the second, official, work) and relatives. And as the state does not react to it in any way (as if encouraging violence and violation of laws), the corruption level among the law enforcement authorities constantly grows, and their impunity warms up violence against sex workers from the side of ordinary people (even if they are clients of sex workers), pimps/”mummies”, the extremist groups which are actively operating today in some regions of the country, relatives and sexual partners. Sex workers often perceive violence in relation to themselves as usual routine, as side-effects of the profession, and they do not contact the law enforcement authorities to file the complaint against criminals who violate the law and the all-civil rights and freedom. The lack of real access to justice and real punishment for violators of human rights drives the situation into the deadlock.

Women and trance women who work in Ukrainian sex business can face violence because of the stigma around sex work and discrimination by gender, skin color, HIV status, drug use, or other factors. In most cases violence against sex workers is the manifestation of gender inequality and discrimination against women and transsexuals who do not meet gender and heterosexual "norms" due to their outlook or the ways they express their sexuality. Sex workers often do not want to report the violence cases to the police, as they are afraid to have their statuses disclosed, to face additional violence from police officers or to be held responsible for doing sex work.

Moreover, sex workers are one of the main groups of the population affected by HIV. Their vulnerability is strengthen by a set of different factors: administrative punishment for engaging in sex work; violence; dangerous working conditions; human rights violations; stigma, discrimination and social marginalization; alcohol and drugs intake; inequality in access to the corresponding health care services; minimal access to effective HIV prevention remedies (for example, to means of protection and safer equipment for drug injection); limited opportunities to agree with clients about safe sex (it is necessary to escape somewhat quicker by the car to avoid police attention); higher price offer for unprotected sex; absence of sex workers focused information on HIV due to the limited financing of the programs managed by sex workers and based on compliance with human rights.

When anti-HIV programs in Ukraine do not consider these factors and do not act accordingly to reduce their influence, these programs can only lead to temporary changes which will benefit only to small percent of sex workers, at best. Such situation does not help to strengthen sex workers' community in general, and it does not give them the chance to protect themselves and to work safely.

The strategies that currently exist in Ukraine and are aimed to protection of sex workers from HIV are insufficiently productive. They not only fail to take into consideration human rights of sex workers to the needed extent, but also, in fact, often put their health under threat. For example, in HIV prevention projects (since the beginning of 2015) the self-testing for projects’ clients is implemented actively everywhere, without adequate pre-test and post-test consultation and without testing directly by the doctor who has specialized education and has VCT (Voluntary Consultation and Testing - Editor) skills. This can lead to both irreparable consequences for physical and mental health of "self-tested" people, and their environment. Not only sex workers, but also the staff of the non-governmental organizations implementing the corresponding projects are speaking about a problem of shortage of personal hygiene means, as well as HIV and STD prevention means (lubricants and various quality condoms for different types of sex), and also lack of information.

Besides, the representatives of official mass media in Ukraine are still not prepared to speak and write about the problems of marginalized groups in an objective and tolerant manner, according to the rules of journalistic ethics and with respect to human rights. While reporting about the actions organized by marginalized groups, the Ukrainian mass media rarely care about privacy and safety of the persons about whom they write / whom they film. The mass media pay little attention to these people's rights and the risks which certain people, the organizations, communities and society in general can face if the information fails to be represented according to these principles and democratic European and universal standards. Therefore, "Legalife" in particular plans to hold special trainings and to create a network of friendly journalists, which can and should promote the change of the society’s attitude towards sex workers to become more tolerant and loyal, as well as the creation of a humane, civilized society.

Who and why is generally engaged in sex work in Ukraine? Will you be able to describe a portrait of an average sex worker?

People come to the decision to try sex work for various reasons. And these people are very different. Contrary to stereotypes, not only women become sex workers. There is a full gender variety in sex work. It is connected to the variety of demands from the clients. Also the stereotype that people become sex workers only if they suffered violence in the childhood (or in any other age), if they come from dysfunctional families or those lured in by false promises of "easy money" does not work. In sex business there are people of absolutely different destinies, from different social groups, with different stands towards sex and their own sexuality. The only thing that is common among them is the desire to earn, provide normal life to themselves and their families: their children, parents, partner. These are usual desires for anyone searching for a job. But sex workers are compelled to seek job and to work secretly, without protection by the law from the outrage of bandits and police officers, unlike other working citizens of Ukraine. In other words, sex workers in our country are deprived of civil rights in every aspect and practically cannot count on justice. The absence of objective information, as well as stigmatization and stereotypes present in our society also deprive sex workers from the right to be understood by ordinary people. In these conditions it is no wonder that sex workers have been a marginalized community vulnerable to violence, human rights violation, to socially dangerous diseases since long time…

Therefore it is impossible to define "an average sex worker". The group of sex workers includes too many so-called cross-groups: e.g., sex workers living with drug addiction; female sex workers, men, transgender persons; sex workers living with HIV; street sex workers, sex workers working in an apartment, in a club, in a brothel, those working in a group or individually, or those working in a city or in regions. All of them differ and have specific needs. So far we have no demographic information on Ukrainian sex workers. But the International Alliance on HIV/AIDS in Ukraine periodically conducts research aimed at data acquisition about number of the sex workers in Ukraine, their health, data about community specifics, etc. It is possible to study data of Alliance on their website. It is difficult to work with sex workers also because their requirements are very specific for each particular subgroup.

Speaking about sex work, people often mention human trafficking. Is this problem particularly acute for the Ukrainian sex workers?

Prostitution is mixed with human trafficking both in the international agreements, and in mass media. The concept of "voluntary consent" and equating exploitation and sex work are the cornerstone of such a confusion. The UN protocol on prevention and preclusion of human trafficking, especially of women and children, and on punishment for such an activity, provides a definition method of human trafficking. However, human trafficking is seen by it first of all as a crime, therefore the Protocol gives preference to law and order protection measures rather than protection of human rights. National laws and policy adopted this model, and they adopted laws on fight against human trafficking that pursue all participants. There, where sex work is illegal, compliance to the laws on fight against human trafficking is often confused with compliance to the laws that ban women from sale of sex services. This leads to a number of very negative consequences.

For example, such situations have a very negative effect on the migrants, because the police and migrant authorities' raids are most often targeted at migrant sex workers. Moreover, raids on workplaces quite often are of a violent nature, and they lead to detentions and deportation. They threaten safety of sex workers and violate their rights to decision-making. Migrant sex workers lose all means invested in migration. Fear of raids compels migrant sex workers to work in more dangerous conditions, which complicating their access to support and necessary services. Mixing human trafficking and sex work supports racial discrimination. Institutions where the employees have appearance that differs from the dominating ethnic group's appearance, become objects of immigration authorities' raids more often.

Migrant sex workers who are not the victims of human trafficking are often arrested during the rescue operations. They lose means to livelihood and are accused either of illegal migration, or of illegal sex work; they are labeled as victims of human trafficking and they are forced to cooperate in a lawsuit; they are either sent to the rehabilitation centers, or forcibly returned home. As they are seen as victims, they are deprived of the right to make decisions independently. In spite of the fact that the “victim” label harms the victims of human trafficking, the whole industry of fight against human trafficking prospers on this concept. Film directors, writers, development advisors and many others gain huge profit from it.

Raids are also threatening the safety of sex workers and they are destroying the systems of support. After a working place looses the support of colleagues and social workers, it becomes unprotected and open for abuses. The demand elimination model (so-called "Swedish" or "Scandinavian" model) threatens safety of sex workers by criminalizing clients. Earlier a lot of sex workers used the help of trusted clients when they were trying to find a way out of violent and abusive situations. Now in the countries where "the Swedish model" is adopted, such an opportunity does not exist anymore, as clients are under the risk of going to jail. Street sex workers who experience oppression from the police (which tries to reveal as much as possible human trafficking victims) moved away from support networks more than any other type of sex workers. Periodically there are some discussions about "the Swedish model" in Ukraine too…

A lot of raids could have been avoided if consultations with sex workers would have been held. Continuation of raids in the places where sex work is being done, despite the absence of results, means that the police does not trust sex workers. Apparently, there is an assumption that the sex workers, who are not the victims of human trafficking, are involved in exploitation of the sex workers sold in slavery. It is shocking, especially when we take into consideration the interest of a lot of sex workers to terminate human trafficking.

Measures against human trafficking include toughening border control and visa issuing process. They also support local militarized groups that drive out illegal migrants and the potential victims of human trafficking. The more difficult it is to move to and to start working in another country legally, the more strongly the sex workers depend on the help of intermediaries and agents. Dependence on intermediaries increases the price of migration and puts the sex workers at risk of deception, thus increasing vulnerability of sex workers to exploitation.

Mixing the sex work, human trafficking and migration puts an obstacle to the sex workers organizations to develop programs and to provide services to sex workers. Moreover, the grant resources are redistributed from the sex workers organizations to the organizations fighting against human trafficking, which leads to the general reduction of supporting services. Resources spent by the sex workers organizations for protection of sex workers rights to work and to resist against the lobby against human trafficking could be spent with bigger advantage to human rights advocacy in relation to sex workers and rendering social and medical services necessary to sex workers.

It is especially worth highlighting that the contribution made by sex workers in the fight against exploitation and for safety on a workplace, including access for sex workers to justice is not reflected in the anti-human trafficking discourse. The organizations of sex workers protect the rights of sex workers, seeking to increase safety and justice of working conditions to provide migrant sex workers with equal rights and equal access to services.

Mixing human trafficking with sex work allocates an anti-prostitution and anti-human trafficking lobby with the tool for continuation of their actions. Groups that fight against prostitution use rhetoric of fight against human trafficking to achieve a ban on engaging in prostitution. The lobby fighting against immigration uses a discourse of fight against human trafficking to strengthen restriction on migration. They emphasize vulnerability of sex workers during migration to justify the need to impose restrictions on their mobility. When sex work is mixed with human trafficking, the public opinion starts seeing exploitation in any sex work. When sex workers are not seen as workers, they are excluded from ranks of workers whose mobility is appreciated for the contribution to economic development and social well-being. Sex work has no work value and sex workers have no protection by the labor legislation. This prevents safety measures from entering the sex industry, dooming the subsequent generations of sex workers to work in unsafe and unfair conditions.

Is male prostitution widespread in Ukraine? What kind of specific difficulties are faced by male sex workers?

Certainly, there are male sex workers in Ukraine. It is rather specific and closed group, with their peculiarities and requirements. Needs of male sex workers in many respects are still poorly studied, they actually are not present among activist sex workers community. Representatives of this subgroup of sex workers do not disclose their status of a sex worker and therefore it is hard to reach them. This situation of finding male sex workers is made even more difficult due to illegality of providing sex services in Ukraine, about which I already talked before, discrimination and stigmatization of sex workers, corruption of the police, poor knowledge by the police officers of human rights and failure to comply with these rights by the police in regards to citizens of Ukraine (especially from the marginalized groups). This situation is also fueled by the impunity of lawbreakers due to the fact that they hold high positions, bribe, belong to certain “shadow” or government structures and establishments. Today, when Ukraine declares its movement towards the European values, when human rights have to come to the forefront in the solution of the issues actual for all the citizens, it's high time for the decision makers, and for the society in general to think, whether sex business should continue to bring huge incomes only to the “shadow” structures and police, while breaking the lives of thousands of people and their families? Or will this business become legal, will it become a part of market economy and bring income to the country through official taxes, will it be regulated by the state that will provide observance of human rights of sex workers on an equal basis with other workers, and will recognize sex work as work.

Source: internet magazin "Political Critique"

Published on 20 of May 2015

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