ALL ABOUT THE WAR AND SEX WORK IN UKRAINE WITH NATALIA ZHURAVLEVA

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 “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.

Natalia Zhuravleva, the leader of the initiative group of sex workers from the CO "Legalife-Ukraine" in Dnipro, spoke about her life and experience in the human rights movement. We also talked about the changes that this war has brought to the lives of sex workers.

Natalia Dorofeeva: Hello, Natalia! While preparing for our meeting, I suddenly realised that despite the fact that we have been working together for a long time, I still don’t know much about you personally. Could you tell me a little about yourself, - when, how and why you have started your human rights activism?

Natalia Zhuravleva: Well, this all started around 2013 on my own initiative when I gradually started working in various LGBT and human rights organizations that were protecting rights of trans people and sex workers, as well as implementing HIV and STI (Sexually Transmitted Infections) prevention programs.

Actually, my educational background is in computer engineering and telecommunications networks. Ever since I was young, I was drawn to computers and software, to reinstall and configure something, etc. That’s why I studied in this area. During my life, I tried myself in various fields, from electrical engineering and network setup to entrepreneurship - I opened my own business, which was registered as an individual entrepreneur business. But after 2013, when the dollar jumped and, accordingly, the prices of everything jumped, - it became difficult to maintain and service my business, so I had to sell it.

Then, I gradually started to get involved in the human rights movement. At that time, I often visited Kyiv and, on occasion, I attended various events: forums, conferences, marches, including those of the LGBT community, and even attended BDSM parties and trans apartment parties. These meetings allowed me to talk to activists, meet human rights defenders and leaders of various organizations in Ukraine. But, after the first apartment party, I realized that trans people are the most vulnerable group among all vulnerable communities. And if a trans woman is also engaged in sex work, this is a double risk for her.

International LGBT conference in Kyiv, 2018

Later I began to conduct trainings on advocating the rights of trans people and sex workers in different apartments in my city, etc. Then I conducted several trainings from the HPLGBT organization. I got to know the representatives of the Ukrainian Charitable Organization "Conviktus-Ukraine" (ВБО “Конвіктус-Україна”), later they came to us for events with prevention programs - counseling, testing for HIV and STDs, issuing condoms and lubricants.

Probably, this constant movement and a constant feeling that you are doing the right things motivates me. Well, of course, new faces, communication, support... all this also matters.

ND: Tell us more about how you came to work for us at CO "Legalife-Ukraine" and why you chose to stay with us? 

NZ: My friend told me about CO “Legalife-Ukraine”. Actually, I had heard about this organization before, I knew what they did and so on. I was interested, but I didn’t knew how to start interacting. My friend advised me to apply for the competition for regional community leaders. So I applied and was accepted. Now I am the leader of the initiative group of sex workers of CO "Legalife-Ukraine" in Dnipro city.

I like this job. Firstly, I like to help people. Secondly, this is a very friendly team. The management has a good attitude towards the team members, no one puts pressure on anyone. Then, there is this constant communication with new people, meetings with representatives of various organizations, institutions and stakeholders. And, in the end, we must achieve the decriminalization of sex work!

Ferst International Conference for the defence of human rights of sex workers in Ukraine, 2018

The events we are organising for the community are always interesting. In addition, we are constantly being taught some things, many different trainings are held for personal growth and development of leaders and activists. It’s very useful, and a lot of this has come in handy in my work and life.

ND: What are the challenges in your work? What is the most difficult thing?

 NZ: Among the difficulties... probably negotiations, agreements with various officials and bureaucrats. Many of them do not understand our problems, why support and protection of vulnerable communities is needed at all, especially now, when there is a war and many other problems.

Some are worried about their rating, image, etc. We have to explain, to talk about European values, the benefits to the whole society, etc., but it is very difficult to convince them. Well, the Soviet mentality is still there somewhere, and we have to work with it.

ND: You mentioned that this war affects the ability to receive support or assistance, but how has the war affected sex work sector in your city in general, and have the needs/problems of SWs changed as a result of the war?

NZ: The war has affected all people, and sex workers, perhaps, even more so. Many of them went abroad, those who had the opportunity, those who, let’s say, had nothing to keep them here - no relatives, no home, no opportunity to work.

Others are trying to survive somehow, adapting to today’s realities. It has become much more difficult to work. There are more risks to life and health, less income, and now there are a lot of military and police officers on the streets, so some sex workers leave sex work, fearing arbitrariness on their part.

Sex work is mostly night work, and because of the curfew, it has become impossible to work at night. There are also problems with finding clients, as clubs, restaurants, saunas and other entertainment venues are closed at night (some continue to operate in a "closed mode", but there is a high risk of being raided by police). I know that some of SWs have left the "street" for webcams. But here, too, there are difficulties, such as power cuts, no internet, prolonged shelling - for example, when you have to go to the shelter, and you are in an "image" and in a revealing suit, etc.

That’s why many of SWs were left without income. Some of them had some savings at the beginning, but they were slowly spent. And you have to live for something - pay utility bills, rent, eat, dress, etc.

In addition, constant feelings of fear, anxiety about themselves and their loved ones - all this leads to mental disorders in SWs, many of them become depressed and forced to live one day at a time.

Ruins in Dnipro after rocket strike Dsns.gov.ua, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=127782697

ND: Is there a possibility for the SW to find another job in your city?

NZ: Personally, I know girls who managed to get a job as a salespersons at the market, in a pizzeria, etc. - but these are few. With trans people, everything is much more complicated, including problems with documents. Most of those who managed to get documents went abroad. And for those who don’t have documents, it’s hard to find a job.

ND: Natalia, could you please explain how trans people are connected to sex work and what problems with documents you are talking about?

NZ: Okay, I’ll try to explain it simply. Trans transition is very expensive! Hormone therapy, cosmetologists, hair removal, surgeries, etc. require a lot of money over a long period of time. Trans people are ordinary people, and most of them are not rich. And it is very difficult for them to earn money, because when their appearance does not match their passport data, it is almost impossible to get a job in our country. If someone is hired, it’s for low-paid job, as if to say, "be thankful that you were hired at all!"

That is, they desperately need money for everything I have described above, but there is no way to earn it and nowhere else to get it. These are the circumstances that push many of them into sex work. Because it is the only way to get all the necessary surgeries, get therapy, change documents and complete the transition. After that, many trans people leave sex industry and start a new life. That’s why I started helping people from these communities to change something for them - someone has to do this. And who, if not us?

ND: What is the biggest concern for the SWs now, in the midst of the war? What do they address and what kind of help can they get from you?

NZ: As I said before, many SWs are experiencing financial difficulties. They are unable to provide themselves and their families with the most necessary resources for survival. First of all, it is food, medicines, hygiene products and clothes, as well as utility bills and rent, because most of them do not own their own housing.

Often, they need counselling, legal or psychological, and they ask about state support programs for war victims, where they can get help in cases of violence or violations of their rights. Often they have problems with receiving medical services because of stigma or, for example, because they do not have signed declarations with a doctor, some do not have passports, etc.

Almost from the very first days of the war, we have been providing humanitarian aid from CO “Legalife-Ukraine” to the affected communities, for which many of them are grateful, as this support helps them to survive in these conditions.

Despite the war, we continue to gather as a community, hold information sessions and consultations. Even just meeting, discussing common problems, complaining and receiving support is very important for us. It helps many people to "hold on" in the current situation.

I also collect information about services and services to inform the SWs about where and what kind of support they can get in our city. If necessary, I refer them to friendly NGOs that provide services to them, accompany them to doctors, and help them recover lost documents.

ND: Is there anyone else in Dnipro who helps the community to solve their problems, besides CO “Legalife-Ukraine”?

NZ: Well, trans people who are sex workers can turn to LGBT and trans organizations that provide humanitarian and financial assistance. Therefore, they have more opportunities to get support than other sex workers.

ND: In your opinion, has anything changed in the public attitude towards our communities in recent years? What impact does war have on this process?

NZ: I felt that the level of tolerance in society has been growing in recent years. There were certainly manifestations of hostility, but much less than, for example, in 2012. But this war changes people, it is felt that now people have become somewhat embittered, no one is interested in problems of the communities or their protection. Although many of the LGBT community have been defending Ukraine in the ranks of the Armed Forces since the first days! Those who have the opportunity will donate, collect things, goods for children, etc. Most likely, MSM (men who practice sex with men) and trans people suffer the most. Many of them cannot leave or move freely around the country due to fear of discrimination, for example by the police and the military. Due to the discrepancy between the appearance and the photo in the passport, many trans people are afraid of trouble in case of document verification. Therefore, they try to move around the country less.

ND: Did you encounter aggression, rejection?

NZ: Serious aggression or a threat to life – that never happened. But there were not a few verbal fights with all kinds of scum.  You can’t beat everyone, but I can stand up for myself!

ND: Didn’t you thought about leaving activism and not risking your own health because of this?

NZ: To be honest, more than once. Putting my hand on heart, I often thought about it. The more dangerous time is now, God forbid, - in occupation I will be killed immediately. And health has given up a little, honestly, and I’m not so active as before.

ND: Natalie, in your opinion, what could make the lives of sex workers safer and better? 

NZ: First of all, it’s decrim! It’s time to remove, let me emphasize, “Soviet”articles in legislation - no one needs them! Here are also these markers or plan indicators, also from the Soviet times, that ended up in the reformed police, according to which the police should, figuratively speaking, once a month close 3 brothels and take 5 prostitutes at the crime scene! This is complete absurdity! It’s high time to get rid of this.

ND: And finally, a traditional question for all women leaders: what do SWs dreams about today? What subject is most often talked about in the kitchens?

NZ: Of course it’s about victory! Everyone dreams of peace, so that this horror will end soon. And after that, they hope for the decriminalization of sex work in order to continue to live and work freely.

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