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We are just as much citizens as everyone else

An interview with Elena, a sex worker, social worker, newspaper editor from Kev, Ukraine
SWR: Please tell us about yourself. Why sex workers’ rights are important to you?

 
E: For about 10 years, I injected drugs. After the third year, I started to do sex work so that I would have money for drugs and could afford to live in a separate apartment on my own.
About three years ago, I stopped using drugs and started to work for an organization and a newspaper called Butterfly, for HIV-vulnerable groups.
But I remember very well what kinds of problems I faced when I was a sex worker and how difficult it was for me and for others to stand up for our human rights. That is why I want to unite as many sex workers as possible around this problem, so that our voices will be heard so that everybody knows that we are just as much citizens as everyone else. We have rights which nobody is allowed to violate. I also want sex workers to respect themselves and their profession.

 

SWR: Is there some sort of division in Ukraine between sex workers who are using drugs and those who are not ?
 

E: True, sex workers who are using cheap and heavy drugs face prejudices from sex workers who are not using drugs. I think this can be changed if sex workers who are drug users are given access to therapy through harm-reduction or sex work programs. Then they will be able to live and work normally and their behavior won’t be asocial or aggressive.

 

SWR: Do sex workers who are drug-users watch out for each other ?

 

E: In most cases, sex workers who are using drugs only watch out for themselves and this is an additional obstacle. But if they use drugs and live in the same flat or work in the same brothel, they can take care of each other, help each other with drugs or money.

 

SWR: Is there discrimination against sex workers who want to access detox?

 

E: There is no such discrimination as sex workers do not publicize their status in rehab centers. The difficulty is that in general in Kiev and in other big cities of Ukraine, a large proportion of sex workers are from other provinces and do not have registration papers to live in the city. It means that they cannot access the rehabilitation programs in the cities where they live.

 

SWR: Are there good possibilities of detox for free ? And what about access to substitution therapy ?

 

E: There is no absolutely free detox in Kiev. But there is one type that is relatively cheap. In order to go through it, you have to stay in the hospital for several weeks after which you have to switch to substitution therapy.
There is a lack of places for those who don’t live in the city and those places are not free. In addition, the substitution medication (buprenorphine and adnoc) that are prescribed are not strong enough and have side-effects.
Sex workers can not and don’t want to live like this. Recently, methadone was registered in Ukraine but there are still discussions going on about introducing methadone programs in the country. The opposition comes mostly from people who have no idea about the issue or from the church. Such institutions do not let harm-reduction and substitution programs develop.

 

SWR: Is there discrimination against sex workers who are drug users ? How do police treat them ?

 

E: Police express discrimination against sex workers who are using drugs when they treat them with more aggression and disdain compared to those who don’t use. They can be purposefully held in the police station for several days (especially since most do not have registration). The police taunt them when they start going into withdrawal and are not feeling well. They can be blackmailed and they can be offered drugs in exchange for information or for confessing to things they haven’t done.

 

SWR: In Ukraine, do sex workers who use drugs have problems with drug-dealers ? For example, can dealers force them to work if they have a big debt?
 

E: I am not sure. According to my experience, only drug-dealers who sell expensive drugs to expensive sex workers can [make them work]. Smaller or lower-class drug dealers prefer not to conflict with anybody. They just stop their communication with those who owe them until they get their debt payed.

 

SWR: What are the top five things that could lead to concrete and good changes for sex workers who are using drugs ?

 

E

  1.  Prostitution shouldn’t be an administrative offense anymore 
  2.  Access to free medical care 
  3.  Access to free detox that comes with social and psychological treatment and support 
  4.  Training for police forces and police representatives to raise their tolerance towards sex workers in general, and especially sex workers who are drug users 
  5.  Development of projects such as drop-in centers for sex workers

 

SWR: Do sex workers of all genders work together in the Ukraine ?
 

E: In most cases, they work separately, but there are agencies that have sex workers of all genders working under them.

 

SWR: As a journalist, what do you like to write about ?

 

E: I like writing about things that I know. I like writing about news events, about violations by law enforcement structures (when such violations are supported by facts), about human rights in my country, about peace.
I like giving coverage to different actions. I try to do it objectively.
And for this I usually get into trouble. Or simply my materials do not reach the reader.

To be continued

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