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In Conversation With: Legalife, Ukraine
On 24 February 2022, following months of provaction, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Now, one year later, ESWA Comms Officer Marin Scarlett speaks to Legalife Director Nata Isaeva about how their lives have changed and how we can continue to support their work.
Marin: Nata, thank you so much for taking some time to talk to me. I can’t believe it’s been a year since I woke up to the news that Russia had invaded. Can you give us an idea of what the past year has been like for you?
Nata: I myself still can’t imagine how we managed to survive and stay alive, unfortunately not all of us, but most of our team is alive, some were forced to leave for other countries for a safe stay. Everyone reacted differently to the beginning of the full-scale invasion and everyone remembers how early in the morning the bombs started exploding, the drone of planes and a lot of different terrible sounds. Each of us planned the beginning of February 24, 2022 in a completely different way, some were going to take a child to school or kindergarten, some were planning a business trip, and some were planning a wedding or engagement. At the beginning, everyone was confused and didn’t know what to do, we didn’t know how to work further, because there were many plans, there were even agreements regarding the bill on the decriminalisation of sex work, but…everything didn’t go according to plan. It’s good that we already had the experience of working remotely due to COVID-19 and we successfully used this experience, asking how everyone is feeling and whether everyone is alive, who needs support and help in what. We looked for opportunities to support each of our friends as much as we could. It’s been like this for a year, a year.
Marin: I am so sorry to hear that you’ve lost people close to you, Nata. Could you tell me about the history of Legalife? When and how did it start, and how did you become involved?
Nata: The history of the creation and activity of the organisation began in 2006-2007 in Kropyvnytskyi (at that time – the city of Kirovohrad) from my personal history, at that time I joined the work of two local charities that deal with HIV/AIDS prevention. First, as a client, and then as a volunteer. Later, while working together in HIV prevention and treatment projects, I and two more of my friends and colleagues joined an initiative group to protect the rights of sex workers. We worked both with the sex workers themselves and with their clients: we counseled and tested for HIV, distributed condoms, referred for medical help and talked about the basic legal norms that should be known in order to protect one’s rights and preserve one’s health. Further development of the initiative was facilitated by my unjustified detention by the then local police. Once I was free, I decided that I had to do everything to stop these “werewolves” in their tracks and prevent them from doing it again with other sex workers. So I applied to the Prosecutor’s Office and the regional department of the Internal Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. This is how the history of self-organization of sex workers began, and our activism grew into professional activity in the field of protecting the rights of sex workers. We registered our organisation in 2011, and from that moment until now, I am the director of the Legalife Ukraine, which works and has representative offices in various cities of Ukraine.
Marin: Are you able to give us an insight into your daily life now and that of Legalife’s members?
Nata: Despite air raids, bombings, rocket attacks, we continue to work and provide assistance to sex workers with all the resources we have. Yes, it is difficult, but as my colleagues say, it distracts them from all the horror and gives them the inspiration to live on. When a full-scale war began, it was international organisations that supported us, people from other countries simply transferred funds to our bank account and we were able to support our friends. And this is great strength in unity and support, thank you all!
Marin: We hope we can continue to do so with our fundraiser for Legalife on March 5th. What is Legalife’s current work, and how will this money help support you?
Nata: We have support in the form of a national project from the Global Fund for HIV, TB and Malaria, but it is strict about the use of funds, we can only operate according to the approved budget, and other donors have changed their emphasis. It is difficult for us to find money to support sex workers by ourselves: buy food, pay for housing or temporary shelter, buy train or bus tickets to reach a safer city. These are the simple things that a fundraiser will really help us to do.
Marin: I really hope that we can raise a lot of funds for Legalife. Nata, what are your hopes for the future?
Nata: Hope and faith in the Victory of Ukraine, in peace and a peaceful sky above, changes in public opinion about sex work and sex workers and giving us the right to decide our lifestyle and giving us a loud voice in decision making. And of course decriminalisation of sex work! We believe in this and do not stop at achieving a goal that is important to us.
Marin: Thank you again so much for giving me your time. Is there anything else that you would like to say?
Nata: To say only one thing: Believe in yourself, unite and don’t stop even when you think you have no strength anymore. You and we are strong and you don’t even imagine how great this strength is!
If you would like to donate to Legalife, you can do so via our website.
Please then send an email to Marin Scarlett at email@example.com and let us know your donation is for Legalife.
Text Written by Marin Scarlett
February 24, 2023