SLOVIANSK, Ukraine — It’s an especially hot day in early July, and four women are hiding from the sun in a ruined building by the highway just outside Sloviansk. Their clients know where to find them.
The women are sex workers, four among the tens of thousands working in the front-line towns of eastern Ukraine.
While sex work is risky and illegal anywhere in Ukraine, it is especially dangerous in the areas marked by war, where violence and poverty are abundant.
Each woman has a personal tragedy. Many began providing sex services to sustain drug addiction, some had no other means to financially support their children, others came from abusive families.
Russia’s war in Donbas, which has killed over 13,000 people since 2014, deepened their hardships, leading to an increase in physical violence and a decrease in well-paying clientele, as thousands fled the region amidst fighting.
They are sometimes paid as little as Hr 200 ($8) for a sexual act and regularly suffer from violent clients, including from the military.
Police are not only reluctant to protect the women; they often step into the shoes of the perpetrators.
Marked by war
“When Sloviansk was occupied, it was terrifying. You’d leave for work and wouldn’t know if you were coming back,” says Dasha, 32, as she stands near the ruined steps of what used to be Metelitsa, a large restaurant by the highway, destroyed by shelling in 2014.
The women in this story spoke under the condition of partial anonymity due to the illegality of their work.
Sloviansk, a city of 111,000 people 665 kilometers east of Kyiv, was occupied by Russia-led forces for almost three months, from April to June 2014. Dasha says it wasn’t the shelling that she feared most, but rather the mayhem that ensued “because of the idiots that were in town,” referring to the Russia-controlled occupation authorities.
“They recruited everyone — drug addicts, former convicts… No one was ever sober,” she says.
All four women say sex work was safer and more profitable before the war.
Now that the occupied territories are isolated, there’s little movement along the highways, where they usually fish for clients.
As sex work remains an administrative offense in Ukraine, punishable by a fine of Hr 85–170 ($3-$6), women who’ve been assaulted by the clients are reluctant to involve the police. They say most abusers are military personnel.
A local police official told the Kyiv Post that sometimes sex workers report physical abuse as rape and avoid mentioning being paid for sex, as it could lead to fines.
As she stands in the debris, Tanya, 35, quickly pulls up her T-shirt to show a large purple bruise on her left hip left by a client. “He did his thing and didn’t want to pay,” she says.
Her ex-husband forced her into sex work. Tanya says that her only options were “to go to the highway or die.”
Tanya is not alone — 21 out of 36 sex workers interviewed by the Donbas-based non-profit Club Svitanok reported being coerced into providing sex services. Seventeen women said they’ve been physically abused while working.
Amnesty International, a human rights non-profit, rang the alarms that growing poverty in war-torn Donbas increases the risks of women providing sex services as the only means to provide for their families.
“I don’t need a lot of money, just for food,” Tanya tells the Kyiv Post. Taking only one or two clients a day, she makes anywhere from Hr 200 ($8) to Hr 1,000 ($35) a day.
“They’re scared,” says Anastasia Pshenychna, a social worker, about sex workers who come to her daily, seeking help.
Just four years ago, Pshenychna was in the same profession. Then, a friend offered her to join a non-profit that provides health services for sex workers and people who struggle with drug addiction, as these vulnerable groups often overlap.
Pshenychna talks to the Kyiv Post inside a white van used as a mobile clinic for infectious disease testing. At her table are rapid tests for hepatitis B and C. On the walls — pamphlets about infectious diseases and treatments.
She works for the Alliance for Public Health — a non-profit that has been preventing and treating infectious diseases for over 20 years.
Alliance’s mobile health clinics go around the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, providing quick, free, and confidential testing for HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B and C, and tuberculosis. They also provide free condoms, lubricants, and other hygiene products.
Sex workers are at a higher risk of contracting infections, while also being exposed to stigma within the healthcare industry. Poverty and stigmatization of sex work force women to rely on local volunteers for health services and free contraceptives.
Sex workers are often victims of physical violence, yet receive little protection from local law enforcement. On the contrary, dozens of women have reported to volunteers being assaulted. Several said they were raped by the police.
“According to the law, they can’t do anything (to sex workers) other than issue a fine. But they do nasty things,” says Pshenychna. “They pour zelenka (staining green antiseptic) on them so no guy will take them.”
A study done by Legalife, an organization that advocates for the rights of sex workers, showed that law enforcement often doesn’t respond to such calls of abuse. Researchers also said the level of stigmatization is relatively higher among female police officers, and in settlements remote from the capital and large cities.
At a press briefing, tucked away in a room at the local hospital, the head of communications of the patrol police department for Sloviansk and Kramatorsk Natalia Bokova boasts about her department’s commitment to having a tolerant, progressive task force.
She says they already organized training sessions so the officers are better-equipped to deal with vulnerable groups such as sex workers, or people struggling with some form of addiction.
Yet when confronted about the cases of violence, Bokova becomes hesitant.
“I’ve been informed about this… I can’t say that these incidents no longer happen, but they’ve been quite prevalent before the police reform,” Bokova told the Kyiv Post, referring to a sweeping effort to reform the police shortly after the EuroMaidan Revolution in 2014, when over 100 protesters were killed, many of them by riot police.
But when asked how the police deal with reports of misconduct, she quickly changes the tune — “these cases are old, and they happened before the police were reformed,” Bokova says.
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