Gabriela, a 40-year-old sex worker from Tbilisi has not been tested for HIV since 2016. She is convinced that she does not have HIV. She also thinks that she knows everything about this virus. However, when asked if HIV is transmitted by mosquitoes, she says ‘yes’. In July, Gabriela is going to the bustling resort city of Batumi to earn some extra money.
“I do not think that I will get tested for HIV anytime soon as I have got a lot of work and do not have free time. Besides, from Batumi I plan to relocate to Turkey,” says the woman.
Gabriela did not participate in the recent research conducted in two cities of Georgia – Tbilisi and Batumi – to study risky and safe behaviours of sex workers.
No major changes
The Tanadgoma Centre for Information and Counselling on Reproductive Health is the first Georgian organization, which has been studying the HIV transmission among sex workers since 2002. The recent study held in 2017 covered 350 women: 200 from Tbilisi and 150 from Batumi. The goal of the researchers was to determine the prevalence of HIV, hepatitis C, gonorrhoea and syphilis among people involved in sex work. Besides, they were able to analyse the key risks associated with HIV and to collect valuable information for advocacy and policy development. The research study was conducted with the support of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the Curatio International Foundation and the Infectious Diseases, AIDS and Clinical Immunology Research Centre.
The study confirmed that 85% of women in Tbilisi and 97.3% in Batumi know about the existence of HIV/AIDS, but only 11.5% of respondents in Tbilisi and 23.4% in Batumi gave correct answers to questions about the HIV transmission. For example, some respondents like Gabriela did not know that HIV is not transmitted through the bites of mosquitoes. In general, the respondents from Tbilisi were less aware of HIV if compared to the ones from Batumi.
Georgian researchers say that there have not been major changes in the study outcomes since 2012. For instance, most women mention condoms as the main measure of protection against HIV.
The study results showed that the indicators of condom use during most recent sexual intercourse with a commercial partner have not changed in the recent 10 years (over 90% in both cities). However, sex workers rarely use condoms with their regular clients.
“I do not use condoms with my regular clients to show that I trust them, but I definitely use them with other clients. I have to suffer offences because of this, but I know that it is a sure way to protect your health,” says Gabriela.
Sex work in Georgia is illegal and often police will confiscate condoms if they decide that a woman could be doing sex work.
Sex-workers and drugs
The research study showed that sex workers are well aware of HIV transmission when sharing needles and syringes. Besides, the recent study showed some interesting results concerning drug use. The share of sex-workers who used non-injecting drugs in the last 12 months was 11% in Tbilisi and 20% in Batumi. The most widely used non-injecting drugs were sleeping pills and sedatives in Tbilisi and marijuana in Batumi.
As for the injecting drugs, 1.5% of respondents in Tbilisi and 3.3% in Batumi injected drugs in the recent 12 months The respondents used ‘vint’, ‘jeff’ and amphetamines in Tbilisi and heroin in Batumi.
“Before, we did not have such data for sex-workers,” says Nino Tsereteli, researcher and head of Tanadgoma.
Women are getting out of sight
Gabriela says that she does not inject drugs but takes some pills. The woman has no problem to buy them in a pharmacy and uses substances at least once a week.
“The issue of drugs became relevant to this key population as well. We have been working with sex-workers for 20 years in five cities in Georgia and cover 3,000 people with our services annually. As for HIV/AIDS, during the period when we conducted the study only three women in Tbilisi were diagnosed with HIV. What is bad is that sometimes as soon as a woman learns that she has HIV, she is getting out of our sight and we do not know where she is and if she continues working with clients,” says Nino Tsereteli.
Gabriela promises that in September she will get tested for HIV with the help of Tanadgoma. She is not going to change her lifestyle, but she wants to know if everything is all right with her health. In Tanadgoma, she will get recommendations not only about HIV because, according to Nino Tsereteli, another problem of sex workers in Georgia is violence. Sex workers do not always know how they can organize themselves to protect their rights, health and lives. In Tanadgoma, they can get knowledge and support of professional lawyers.