“ALL ABOUT THE WAR AND SEX WORK IN UKRAINE” IS A SERIES OF INTERVIEWS WITH REGIONAL LEADERS AND PARALEGALS OF THE CHARITY ORGANISATION LEGALIFE-UKRAINE. We are talking about the impact of the war on the lives of Ukrainians, the fate of sex workers in Ukraine. We are comparing what have changed over the time and what remains unchanged.

Today we are talking with Iryna Emelyanova, the leader of the initiative group of sex workers from CO “Legalife-Ukraine” in Lutsk.

Natalia Dorofeeva: Hello Iryna! You have been leading the initiative group for several years and have a trusting relationship with women from different vulnerable groups. According to your observations, what has happened in the field of sex work over the past two years, and how are SWs surviving this war?

Iryna Emelyanova: The war has affected the entire population of Ukraine, but most of all, probably, sex workers, who have faced additional challenges. Volyn region of Ukraine has a common border with Poland, and as soon as it was opened, many girls immediately left. Those who stayed faced increased patrols on the streets, a decrease in demand for sex work, or no work at all. It has become much harder for them to survive. The prices of products and services are constantly rising, and many of these girls have children, families, and frail parents.

Saunas, bars, clubs, and restaurants used to operate in Lutsk before the war. Girls were looking for clients in these establishments. With the outbreak of war, these establishments closed or changed their working hours due to curfews. Some girls returned to the streets, but most were afraid to go out because of police and military patrols.

Girls have started to organise themselves and rent apartments to work in. One of the problems that sex workers are currently facing is a significant increase in rental prices.

In addition, homeowners sooner or later find out that sex services were provided in their premises, in particular thanks to all-seeing neighbors. In these situations the owners usually are demanding to vacate the apartment, or they significantly increasing the rent. When evicted, the girls are often not returned their money or rent deposit, and may be threatened with physical violence. SWs themselves are trying to change the locations for the sake of safety, but this constant search for apartments is very exhausting. Moreover, due to the large number of IDPs, there are not so many apartments offered, and their prices are simply of cosmic level.

Aftermath of rocket strike in Lutsk

ND: And what about the constant rocket attacks, power cuts and curfews, etc., how do sex workers manage to work in such conditions? Is there a possibility to find another job in Lutsk?

IE: SWs perceived the introduction of the curfew as a personal tragedy, because sometimes they are without work and money for weeks.

Sex workers today are simply struggling to survive. The more capable ones have started to move to webcams. But even here it is not so easy, as frequent power cuts and the lack of regular income force them to go back to the streets or look for other ways.

Many girls work with young men and taxi drivers, who find them clients and force them to pay a considerable amount of money for these services. Girls who have been working for a long time have regular clients, but they also complain that many of their clients have left the city or joined the army.  Others look for clients on the internet.

They also continue to work on the streets, but much less than before the war. It is obvious from talking to the girls that they are confused. All their normal life is broken by this barbaric war. Some of them openly said that they were going abroad because they saw no prospects for the future in Ukraine. Others were thinking about going to work as normal. But many girls have no profession.

The choice of vacancies on the labour market is small, especially given that Volyn has received almost 80,000 IDPs. One girl left sex work and got a job at a factory. She says that she earns 18 thousand hryvnias, which is a high salary for Lutsk, but the work is very hard. The girl earned less as a sex worker and does not want to return. She says something has changed in her. But this is an exceptional case. 

ND: Ira, you mentioned the large number of IDPs, do many of them go into sex work and how does this affect sex work market and the income of the joint venture in Lutsk?

IE: Since the beginning of the war, IDP sex workers from different regions of Ukraine have appeared in the city. Usually these girls speak russian or surzhik.

[Surzhik is an idiom (spoken language), including elements of the Ukrainian and Russian languages, widespread in some border regions of Ukraine, as well as in neighboring regions of Russia and Moldova.]

Because of this, they periodically have conflicts with clients and local residents. Local sex workers are also not happy to see IDPs working alongside them. Many IDP sex workers have not been able to adapt in Lutsk and have gone abroad.

As for the prices for sex services, they are lower in Lutsk than in the rest of Ukraine. The girls’ earnings have decreased compared to pre-war times, and SWs note an increase in costs and risks in their work.

ND: Please explain what new risks we are talking about?

IE: Well, for example, a significant part of our clients are military men, and recently girls have started to complain about aggression on their part, about refusing to pay for sex services. There are cases when girls have had their phones and money taken from them. The girls are afraid to go to the police, where they will be accused of prostitution or pimping, because the police continue to hunt sex workers.

In general, the level of aggression and tension in the country has increased significantly during the war. Girls also complain about domestic violence and violence in families. The mental state of many sex workers is very depressed.

And, to our regret, our gynecologist, known throughout the country, received a 5-year prison sentence for pimping. The sex workers who worked with him are out of work again. The girls sympathise with him because he not only provided them with more or less safe work, he helped them in many of their life’s troubles, did not leave them in difficult moments and always provided medical advice.

ND: Given all that you have told us, what kind of support does the community offer to SWs, what kind of help do you provide in response to their problems?

IE: Since the beginning of the war, CO "Legalife-Ukraine" was the first to quickly regulate and take care of SWs. Thanks to this, we were able to provide SWs with food packages. Our girls still fondly remember and are sincerely grateful for that help.

Throughout 2023, our girls received monthly food and hygiene kits, power banks, electric mats, backpacks, underwear sets, flashlights and much more from us. For this, we are also grateful to our partners and donors - CO "100% Life", ActionAid, Ukrainian Women’s Fund, SWAN network, Renaissance Foundation and other concerned people.

"These products are enough for me for a whole month. I would probably have died of hunger if not for your help. I never thought I would be in this position. I had no savings for such an eventuality. I lived one day at a time. I took life lightly - today I’ll buy an expensive thing, tomorrow I’ll earn money. When I got sick, I realised how irresponsible it was. Now I am feeling much better, and I hope for a speedy recovery,"

this is how one of the women sincerely thanked our organisation for its help. She has big health problems now. She does not go to work and is treated at home. She has no savings, her parents live in a distant village and cannot help her. And there are many similar stories...

Once one of sex workers told me that her son was having problems at school because he had an old phone that was constantly glitching, and most of the education in schools today is online. The teacher was constantly calling and threatening that she would not certify the child. My mother could not afford to buy expensive equipment, which is why this boy received poor marks, suffered from bullying from classmates and did not want to go to school.

I thought that other SWs probably face similar problems, and I had an idea for my own project.

In November, I wrote an application within the framework of the competition for mini-grants for initiative groups from the Public Health Alliance. My application was supported. As part of the project, tablets were purchased for the children of the SWs, as well as backpacks with light-reflective elements, rechargeable lamps and certificates for UAH 500 for groceries.

I was very pleased to feel like St Nicholas, I was in seventh heaven when I saw the happy eyes of the children who received such long-awaited things. And that boy, having received a tablet and a new backpack, really started to study better.

Another part of the grant was the opportunity to receive individual or group counseling from a professional psychologist. During information sessions, women provide psychological support to each other. They also communicate on Viber in our chat “Women of Volyn”. The most important thing of this program is that the girls will be united and are not left alone with their problems.

Meeting in the office of "Our Future"

ND: Iryna, are there any problems with access to HAART (Highly active antiretroviral therapy) or SMT (Substitution Maintenance Therapy) services now?

IE: There are almost no big problems with this in Lutsk today. The HIV/AIDS Centre has enough HAAR drugs. The drug dispensary also has free places, and everyone is accepted for SMT. Stable partnerships have been established with medical staff. If sex workers have problems with SMT, we solve them in a working order. Volyn is provided with SMT drugs, and there have been no interruptions recently.

However, there are problems with the treatment of hepatitis C at the Hepatocentre. There were free courses of therapy, but the examination had to be done at their own expense. Not all girls who needed treatment could afford it. Today, free hepatitis C treatment courses have ended, but an application has been sent for 2024.

ND: Iryna, who else provides support to SWs in your city?  Do you have any cooperation with local authorities, medical institutions and other organisations to help sex workers?

IE: Yes, we cooperate with the main state institutions that provide services and work with women from vulnerable groups. We support partnership relations with the Human Rights Compliance Office. We have been cooperating with the senior inspector for special assignments of the department of commissioners for monitoring the observance of human rights in police activity Natalia Bartashchuk for 5 years. She responds in a timely manner to cases of violation of women’s rights.

Partnerships have been established with the Volyn Regional Centre for Social and Psychological Assistance, which operates a shelter that provides services to women in situations of gender-based or domestic violence. This is especially important so that sex workers who have suffered from violence can receive comprehensive assistance without stigma and discrimination.

We cooperate with regional representatives in Volyn Oblast of the All-Ukrainian Association of Drug-addicted Women "VONA", CO "Positive Women" and CO "VOLNA". Together, we represent interests of vulnerable communities in the Coordination Council on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Drug Addiction at the Volyn State Administration.

Currently, together with the regional representative of the CO "Volna" Vadym Movchanyuk, we are addressing the issue of barrier-free access to hepatitis C treatment for vulnerable groups at the expense of the state.

The Rivne Regional Charity Fund "OUR FUTURE" provides harm reduction service to sex workers in Volyn. We have a partnership, and we are grateful to the foundation for the opportunity to use the organisation’s office for meetings and classes of the initiative group of sex workers.

Round table "How to help women from vulnerable groups who are suffering from gender based violence"

ND: What about private individuals, entrepreneurs or businesses, is it possible to negotiate with them to support SWs?

IE: In my opinion, it will be difficult to negotiate with private entrepreneurs in Volyn to help sex workers. In western Ukraine, churches of different denominations have strong positions, and the level of stigma and discrimination against sex workers is very high. I have heard many times from different people and officials about helping sex workers. Their main argument is that sex workers should change their profession. Talking about the difficulties of adapting to society, different family circumstances that force women to earn money through sex work, etc. does not work for private businesses. And while it is still possible to find common ground with government officials, it is almost impossible to do so with business.

ND: Yes, the stigma and discrimination of SWs only increases with the war, as evidenced by our recent surveys and research, and we need to work on this. But do you have the opportunity today to carry out measures to inform society, to build tolerance towards SWs and other vulnerable groups?

IE: Yes, I am involved in trainings for police and healthcare workers conducted by the Rivne Regional Charitable Foundation "Our Future" in Rivne and Volyn regions, focusing the attention of participants on the need to respect human rights in working with sex workers.

Training for law enforcement officers

ND: Iryna, thank you for your time and interesting conversation. But traditionally I will ask you a question: What do SWs dream about today? What do they talk about most often in the kitchens?

IE: Probably, like all women in Ukraine, they dream of peace in Ukraine. All people are affected by the war, and sex workers are, first and foremost, ordinary women. Each of them is concerned about the health, safety and well-being of their families and friends, and the happy future for their children.

They also dream of decriminalising sex work in Ukraine, of equal rights and opportunities for every woman, of reducing stigma and discrimination in society. All women dream of being happy, and sex workers are no exception.

Interview by Natalia Dorofeeva (CO “Legalife-Ukraine”)

The publication of the interview was made possible thanks to support of the Government of Canada as part of the project "Women’s Voice and Leadership - Ukraine" («Голос жінок та лідерство – Україна»), which is being implemented by the Ukrainian Women’s Fund (UWF). The content of the information is the sole responsibility of CO "Legalife-Ukraine". The information presented in the article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of Canada and the UWF.

We thank BO "100% Life" (БО «100% життя») for supporting the mobilization and advocacy development of the community.

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