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Our Lives Matter: Odyseus, SWAN member from Slovakia

Our Lives Matter: Sex Workers Unite for Health and Rights is a new report by Anna-Louise Crago, issued in August 2008 by the Open Society Institute. It highlights the creative ways in which sex workers in eight countries have organized to defend their human rights and health. Among thosee groups are also two SWAN members. In this issue we are publishing the chapter featuring Odyseus from Slovakia. More

Our Lives Matter: Sex Workers Unite for Health and Rights is a new report by Anna-Louise Crago, issued in August 2008 by the Open Society Institute. It highlights the creative ways in which sex workers in eight countries have organized to defend their human rights and health. Among thosee groups are also two SWAN members. In this issue we are publishing the chapter featuring Odyseus from Slovakia.


In a small room located in a pedestrian underpass below a street, Maria chats with a friend, drinks some soup, and takes a break from her work. She is in Klub Podchod, a drop-in space for sex workers run by Odyseus. The drop-in center is near one of the main streets for sex work in


Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Bratislava is a small city of 500,000 people. An estimated 450 men and women work in the sex trade. On any given night between 10 and 30 women work selling sex on the street or along the highway. Sex workers’ biggest challenge on the streets is a recent wave of violence. In the past four years, at least nine sex workers have been murdered.


The sex worker community is so small that most sex workers know at least one of the women killed.


“My friend was killed,” Maria said. “She was really nice, a very good friend, and only 19. About two months ago, a man pulled a knife on me and tried to stab me. I got away and I reported him to the police but they released him two days later.” As a sex worker and injecting drug user, Maria is all too familiar with the way discrimination reinforces violence. “I knew a prostitute who was raped by a policeman, and when she went to the police to report it they said they would first check and see if she was a druggie or not,” she said. Ingrid, a Roma sex worker who is a peer educator with Odyseus, added:


“I knew a girl a few years ago who was killed by a client. The police don’t help Roma women when there is violence but they always come and inspect us for our papers or give us a fine.”


Prostitution is penalized by a fine under municipal bylaws, but in an important distinction, it is not criminalized. Thus sex workers can report crimes against them without fear of arrest. Maria believes in the importance of reporting violence as a way of preventing more violence: “It is important not to be apathetic. It is important to name it. To call the police and to resolve it.” Odyseus has provided emotional and advocacy support to women who press charges.


Such a service is the key to enabling sex workers like Rozka, who works on a highway where two murders occurred in 2006, to challenge the climate of impunity in which violence occurs. “At the end of November, my colleague was raped by a man. We stopped a police car to get help. The police officers said, ‘You are dirty whores and junkies.


We could take you in the car and beat you unconscious, and nobody would ever know.’ They wouldn’t help us. I called the police station and said, ‘Where do I go to make a complaint?’ You know, we are not zeroes. We are people. I filed the complaint. The three police officers were suspended and it goes to trial next month.”


In light of this violence, Klub Podchod plays a crucial role, giving sex workers a place to obtain support, relax, talk to each other, and help protect one another. “Sex workers need to talk to each other,” said Maria. “We need to discuss the problems: the prices going down, the bad clients, the violence. At first, we didn’t think we needed to talk to each other. Competition among us is a big problem. Now we are starting to see how important it is to be one group together and not divided.”


Since 1997, Odyseus has focused on obtaining equal rights for the people with whom it works: street-based sex workers, injecting drug users, children, and youth in disadvantaged communities or housing settlements. A number of these groups overlap and many of their members face further marginalization for being Roma, homeless, or recently migrated from rural communities.


Although Odyseus’ services were initially aimed at injecting drug users, it quickly became apparent that many women injecting drug users also sell sex. The project evolved to meet the needs of these women and other women working on the street. In addition to Klub Podchod, a mobile van goes out on the streets and highways where women work. The van offers a place to talk and get support, condoms, syringes, and free testing for HIV, hepatitis, and syphilis. Though rates of hepatitis C are quite high among sex workers who inject drugs, the HIV epidemic is small in Slovakia, including among sex workers. Groups like Odyseus believe that harm reduction programs are crucial to keeping the epidemic in check. Danica Staneková, MD, of the national reference center for HIV/AIDS, gives Odyseus credit: “Thanks to the work of groups like Odyseus, the HIV prevalence and incidence among sex workers in Slovakia is very, very low.”


Sex workers who inject drugs, however, face tremendous barriers accessing basic health services or obtaining HIV testing through a medical establishment. They often lack needed medical insurance and identity documents. “The state is more prohibitionist now,” said Katarina Jiresova, director of Odyseus. “There are fewer social programs, and this has eroded solidarity. We have even had patient groups denouncing the fact that drug users get any kind of health care at all.”


To respond to such stigma, Odyseus has made a commitment to support sex workers as they join forces to improve their health and rights. One goal is to develop a network of sex worker–friendly doctors and institutions. Currently, free HIV tests are only available at one hospital two days a week from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. or at public health institutions daily between 7:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. These limited times are a major barrier for sex workers.


Another goal is to expand the hours of the sex worker drop-in center and offer services to indoor sex workers. “There are issues faced by indoor sex workers that are different,” Jiresova said. “We know how to get in. We have contacts. Indoor sex workers have told us how we can support their needs but we lack resources. We work out of a falling apart basement with no light and, right now, an out-of-order bathroom. I am not able to provide a decent wage to employees. After investing months and years in training highly competent people, I lose them to higher-paying jobs.”


Innovative action: unique outreach tools

Odyseus has produced materials on self-defense, rights, health, and safety for female and male sex workers. The pamphlets are not text heavy. They use color cartoons that are highly realistic, edgy, and popular.


They also produce a monthly newsletter by and for sex workers and drug users called Intoxi, which includes a list of customers that sex workers have reported as violent or disrespectful. “The bad customer list is very useful to me,” Rozda said. “I get every new issue of the magazine that includes the list, and I have saved all of them.”


Networking with others

A major challenge to Odyseus is being the only group that offers services to sex workers in Bratislava from a rights-based perspective. “It is not easy without more people who share our view that sex workers, as well as drug users, people living with HIV, and Roma, are equal members of society,” Jiresova said. “Our biggest victory is that the group is still alive. Foreign support has been very important to our survival.”


Sex workers in Slovakia are highly mobile; many go to Austria, the Czech Republic, or Germany to work. Male sex workers, as well as transsexual or transgender sex workers, often find a much larger and more accepting community in countries near Slovakia. Odyseus now distributes pamphlets informing sex workers about legal, health, and safety issues in countries where they may travel.


Participation in the Sex Workers Advocacy Network of Eastern Europe and Central Asia (SWAN Network) has allowed Odyseus to break its small-country isolation through sharing information and strategies with others. “International support has meant that we can be independent from Slovak moralism or prejudice,” Jiresova said.


“It allows us the freedom to be unafraid to take on issues publicly.” In turn, Odyseus has shared its experiences working for sex workers’ health and rights with others in the harm reduction movement.


Public advocacy from a rights-based perspective

Odyseus’s participation in public debates and the coverage of its activities by the media help dispel prejudices against sex workers. “Our presence in the media also has been very important in terms of building trust with sex workers on the street,” Jiresova said.


“When they see that what we say in our outreach work about the rights of sex workers is the same as what we say in the media, they know they can trust us.”


Odyseus’s advocacy gets results. During a syphilis outbreak in eastern Slovakia, officials blamed Roma settlements and sex workers and required anyone affected to agree to a lengthy and expensive stay in the hospital. Odyseus condemned the scapegoating of Roma communities and sex workers and demanded that outpatient treatment be made available. Officials compromised by making outpatient services available to people referred by Odyseus.


Odyseus has participated in news conferences and public forums, published opinion pieces that address myths and realities about the sex trade, and issued press releases to highlight International AIDS Day, the Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, and the anniversary of the opening of Klub Podchod.


Lasting change

Odyseus’s most important achievement, according to Jiresova, is that it has increased sex workers’ self-esteem. Sex workers like Rozka now believe they deserve equal treatment and protection from violence and are willing to take a stand.


Jiresova wants to see sex workers in decision-making positions. “The social workers cannot be the ones to lead,” she said. “We support people achieving their freedom and power. We don’t believe in offering services to communities without their involvement.


This is true whether we are targeting services to mothers or to sex workers.” Odyseus has started training sex workers to be project staff in order to turn this vision into a reality. “It can be a very long-term process that can involve investing a lot of time in supporting and empowering someone to take the lead,” Jiresova said. “But it is an important goal and crucial to any meaningful change.”


The law and sex work in Slovakia

1. No laws govern prostitution.

2. City by-laws are often used to fine street sex workers and their clients.

3. Street sex workers report that police frequently extort money from them and their clients.

4. Roma sex workers report that they are often asked for their identity papers and forced to pay off police.

Odyseus Contact:

Lubica Tornoczyova

Email: lubica.tornoczyova@centrum.cz