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After police takes your money tea, bread and macaroni are all you can afford

In this issue of Sex Workers’ Report we speak with Shahnaz, a sex worker and activist from Kyrgyzstan, a country in Central Asia, formerly part of Soviet Union. We discuss the economics of sex work. People are so much focused on the sex part of sex work, that they often forget the money side of the equation. Shahnaz, actively involved with TAIS Plus, a SWAN member from Kyrgyzstan, tells us how sex workers’ struggle to make out a living while their earnings are supporting extended families, babysitters, landlords, clinics, and police officers. More


AL: Tell us a little about sex work in Kyrgyzstan
SH: On the street, sex work is very structured. Most women work for a madam (a “mamma”). She is responsible for their safety; she writes down license plates, picks them up after a client and bails them out of jail.

AL: Is it an exploitative relationship?
SH: No. It is a positive relationship. This is the most convenient way to work. Any girl can leave her madam. There are some who might try and find her, but it is rare.

AL: What issues are sex workers facing in Kyrgyzstan?
SH: The first issue is the police. The second is housing and where to live. The third is taking care of and providing for their families and children. The fourth is getting enough food.

AL: Why the police are an issue?
SH: Even though sex work is decriminalized in Kyrgyzstan, the police still regularly do unauthorized raids. They collect girls and load them in the minibus and the mamas have to buy the girls out. Those who are not bailed out by someone, don’t have mamas or can’t pay are sent to the police station. They are kept in detention and then taken to court. When they take the girls to court, they don’t say they were arrested for prostitution, they are charged with “resisting police officers”, “standing inappropriately”, “disturbing public order”, “having no documents”. Every day the police come to the sex work spots and force the girls- or their mamas- to pay money. They collect 3-5$ US each time and it can happen several times a day. To put it in perspective, on the street, each contact with a customer is between 4-6$ and 10-15$ for a full hour.

AL: In your experience, are police ever violent with sex workers?
SH: If the girls start talking about their rights, they can offend her verbally or beat her up. Sexual violence is rare now.

AL: You also mentioned the housing issue?
SH: The rents got higher and since everybody comes from outside of the city, the minimum rent now for a 1-room apartment is 150$. That’s why it is difficult to rent a flat. Most of your money goes for food or to pay off the police. It’s too much to be able to save up enough rent for a month. So a lot of sex workers stay in a hotel where they have to pay 15$-20$ a night.
Other sex workers pool their money and rent a flat together. They never bring clients home because then clients would know where they live and keep coming back to the place. Instead, they have sex in hotel rooms that the client pays for. Also, if the landlord finds out they are sex workers, they are kicked out of the apartment and the landlord keeps the rent money.

AL: What are the issues around families and children?
SH: Most often sex workers come from villages or smaller towns and so they usually send a part of their money home to support their extended families. When they come to the city, they often bring their children and someone have to care for their children while they are working. Babysitters cost 10$-20$ a night. This is all very costly.

Many sex workers’ children can not go to school or get healthcare because they have no documents. They have no documents because their moms have no IDs and so they were never issued birth certificates. Often sex workers do not have IDs because their parents were under-privileged and could not arrange it. Or they have an ID but cannot access it because they left it somewhere as a guarantee that they would pay for a room, or food or drinks.

The only medical services that are free of charge are the maternity house, diabetes and cancer treatment, and, with the help of TAIS Plus, HIV-testing and ARVs. However, for the blood test for your CD-4 count, any other HIV related health care or any other health care in general- you have to go to a clinic and pay.

AL: What is the issue of food?
SH: You are standing on your spot on the street, and you are constantly raided and robbed by the police. With what you have left, you have to pay your rent, send money for your family back home, and spend money on childcare, money for medical care. So, tea, bread and macaroni is all you can afford. And now the prices are rising very rapidly. Last year small bread was less than 25 cents US, now it is a dollar. The price for a large loaf of bread has more than tripled.

AL: How are sex workers organizing for their rights?
SH: Sex workers are very much afraid to organize. Some sex workers recently finally went to the police to report a case of abuse and at the end, the victim was blamed and pressed accusations against in retaliation.

AL: How do sex workers help each other out?
SH: There were cases when sex workers would press charges against an assaulter when others would report with her as witnesses, but often they backed out at the last minute.

AL: What changes would you like to see happen for sex workers in Kyrgyzstan ?
SH: If I were the government, I would raise the police’s salary so they would be afraid to extort money from sex workers because they would be afraid of losing their salaries.