Sex Work in Ukraine: Cancelling the Fines and Placing Condomats at Bus Stops Could Halt HIV Spread

Nataliya Isaeva is protesting and advocates for the fast decriminalization of sex work

Author: Yana Kazmirenko, Ukraine

Civil society NGO activists in Ukraine are developing a new legislation on sex work. According to them, eliminating the fines could help increasing access to medical care for women and men involved in sex work – a profession vulnerable to HIV.

“Sex workers try not to have too many condoms with them. If there is a police raid, discovering condoms and recording it in a protocol automatically means detention for sex work,” says Nataliya Isaeva, the head of the All-Ukrainian Charity Organisation “Legalife-Ukraine”, explaining the need to finally decriminalize sex work. Nataliya has been a sex worker since she was 16. Today, after being a sex worker for 15 years, she has HIV-positive status, a family, two healthy children and projects that offer support to her ex-colleagues.

Hostages and victims of violence

Even administrative charges for sex work that are still in force in Ukraine, make sex workers vulnerable to police violence. According to the Article 181-1, of the Ukraine’s Administrative Code, commercial sex is an administrative offence punishable by the fine of 15 tax-exempt minimum wages (UAH 225 or €7.5) as a maximum penalty.

“Today decriminalization is more important than legalization. Decriminalization would create an environment where sex workers could go to police to complain of violent actions against them,” Nataliya clarifies.

Preparing for the 22nd International AIDS Conference to be held in Amsterdam in 2018, “Legalife” activists have conducted a research on the types of violence against sex workers in Ukraine. They surveyed 175 women and anticipate high levels of “truthful answers”, given that the women were interviewed by activists who had been involved in sex work.

“Preliminary results show high rates of psychological violence against sex workers from police. Many have to deal with unwarranted aggression from their clients: people in passing cars throw bottles at them, and there was one case when they cut a rude word on a woman’s breast,” Nataliya is sharing.

Healthy women work longer

The Ministry of Ukraine’s Center for Public Health estimates the number of sex workers in the country at around 80,000. Some 7.3% of them have been diagnosed with HIV. Administrative liability drives sex workers underground and makes them conceal their occupation, even from doctors.

“Sex workers are usually not the ones to go and have their first HIV test on their own initiative. Decriminalization forms the prerequisite for medical screening and offering help to those in need,” Sergey Kharitonov, the head of HIV prevention and access to treatment projects for sex workers, NGO Convictus Ukraine is saying. Nataliya Isaeva, however, thinks that sex workers do try to take care of their health and contribute much less to the spread of HIV as opposed to what researchers believe.

“Women professionally involved in sex work prefer to use condoms, get tested and make sure they are in good health. The healthier they are, the longer they can work,” Nataliya explains.

Discovering status means banning from pick-up points

Experts from Convictus Ukraine have surveyed sex workers to find out what they do when they learn that they have HIV. Most of them leave work for a while, usually going back home. The story of Polina (34) from Kyiv confirms this. After she discovered her HIV-positive status in 2014, she went home to her parents for the first time in many years. Polina started using injecting drugs when she was 16. After the 9th grade, she travelled to Moscow, hoping to earn good money, and ended up in sex work through the advice from her friend. Amphetamine, heroin, dope – she could just almost write a manual on drugs. In early 2000s, she found out she had Hepatitis C, but she cannot remember when exactly she was diagnosed. After discovering her status, she applied for the opiate substitution therapy.

After learning about her HIV status, Polina switched to opioid substitution therapy

“My body gets ugly from all the injections, but my look is my income. Thus, with a doctor’s paper certifying substance use, I applied for a paid substitution therapy service. It costs UAH 1600 per month. I saved up some money, and I also want to get Hepatitis C therapy,” Polina is saying.

After she was diagnosed with HIV, Polina started to take more care about her health. “I always use a condom, do not go to saunas for groups, etc.,” she says.

According to Polina, only her mother, partner and son know about her status. Her son lives with his grandparents in Russia. Polina hopes that opiate substitution therapy will “wise her up”, help her quit drugs and find her six-year-old daughter whom she abandoned after birth.

Polina’s colleagues find it hard to establish an alternative source of income, and that is why they go back to where they were. Many of them are afraid of undergoing further testing, fearing disapproval from doctors and friends in case “God forbid, someone finds out”.

“Most sex workers suffer from self-stigma which prevents them from accepting their HIV status. If they find out one of them is HIV-positive, the colleagues try to remove this person from the pick-up point by any means,” Sergey Kharitonov says.

New law under development

Activists admit that there is little chance for changing the status of sex work in Ukraine. Back in 2015, decriminalization attempts failed. Andrey Nemirovskiy, the Deputy of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine (Samopomich party), submitted and, following a lot of buzz in the media, revoked the legislation regulating sex work in Ukraine. The project failed, not least because of the influence of the Orthodox church, whose vast congregation could have cut off electorate support for the party.

New legislation is developed, but, according to Nataliya Isayeva, it will only be submitted after allies are found. Currently activists are conducting advocacy work among female deputies and developing amendments to other laws.

The project manager at NGO Convictus Ukraine Yulia Tsarevskaya believes that apart from the new law, it is possible to reduce the spread of HIV among sex workers with comprehensive programming. For example, the service of condom and lubricant distribution could be replaced by placing condomats in all cities (at the bus stops and metro stations.)

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