March 3rd is International Sex Worker Rights Day. Its history began in 2001 when over 25,000 sex workers gathered for a festival in India. The event was hosted by the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a Calcutta based group, representing the interests of more than 50,000 sex workers and members of their communities. Since that time, March 3 is celebrated all over the world.
But even though the global society is developing as quickly as possible, in many countries sex workers are seen as criminals and “fallen” people, causing “undermining of traditional values”. Alas, the region of Eastern Europe and Central Asia is no exception. Justifying themselves in this way, governments in some countries support the criminalization of sex work and campaigns aimed at discriminating against the rights of this key group. And even where sex work is not subject to any administrative or criminal prosecution, police raids, violence, humiliation, and insults from society and even family members are not uncommon.
The REActors of the EECA region make every effort to constantly monitor and address situations where there is a violation of the rights of sex workers and workers. Today we bring to your attention several publications with an overview of the situations in Moldova, Tajikistan, and Georgia, as well as the support and struggle of paralegals against discrimination against this key group in these countries.
Today and always it is worth remembering that sex work is an activity like any other, which requires acceptance and respect. And its representative – respect for the rights and non-discrimination to himself/herself and his/her choice.
The right to a decent and fulfilling life: the world celebrates Zero Discrimination Day
Moldova provides for administrative liability for engaging in sex work. The article is often applied, and in 2023 there will be a tougher punishment by increasing fines. And while this discrimination and stigmatization of sex workers breed violence, increase the vulnerability of this key group, puts their health at risk, and limits access to justice, girls, and women are willing to take risks to feed their families and survive. Many official salaries are not even enough to pay for the simplest services, so there are more and more sex workers in the country, and law enforcement officials use this article as a means of extortion, control, and punishment of those who refused to pay off.
According to one of Moldova’s national REActors, it is common for a beneficiary to be fined for a different reason, which is much higher than the penalty for sex work. For example, there was a case when a girl was fined, but another administrative violation as indicated in the protocol, since they could not prove that the beneficiary was a sex worker. Therefore, an attack and a conflict with the police were indicated. Sometimes services are not paid for, and if a girl is caught, she will have no reason to close the fine. In this connection, sex workers often try to run away or negotiate “on the spot” with the police. Persecution and violence against girls by law enforcement agencies occur on an ongoing basis, they are discriminated against and humiliated, and they can be beaten, but they refuse to write complaints, knowing that they are being prosecuted by law. And if they are consulted, then only anonymously, as they are afraid of publicity.
The presence of such fines often becomes an excellent reason for discrimination on the part of other employers: a person can be fired without benefits and explanations, or denied pay. However, if it comes to REActors, then the probability of a positive solution to the situation increases significantly. So, in one case, a former sex worker got a job caring for a disabled person. After working for 4 months, she came for a salary, but she was refused – the employer referred to the fact that she had previously provided sex services, but did not mention or warn about this when she was hired. The client turned to REActor, who promptly got in touch with him and threatened to file a complaint. A week later, the due funds were paid to the girl in full.
Even children of sex workers are discriminated against. They are teased on the streets, and sometimes in kindergartens. The REActor recorded a case when the educators asked the mother, a sex worker, to transfer the child to another preschool institution. After the paralegal learned about the situation, a consultation was held with the beneficiary, and a conversation was held with the educator and director of the kindergarten. As a result, the child was simply transferred to another group and the kindergarten did not have to be changed.
The reality is clear: Moldovan legislation regarding key populations remains repressive and discriminatory. But we must remember that for the situation to change, we need to start from the very “top”: the government should abandon the application of laws on administrative violations that punish sex work. It is necessary to stop harassment and violence against representatives of the sex industry by law enforcement agencies and allow everyone to work in safety and inadequate, equal conditions.
Every year on December, 17, sex workers, their advocates, friends, families and allies celebrate the International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers. At first, this date was conceived as a memorial in honor the memory of the victims of the killer from Green River. In the post-Soviet region, it was proposed to celebrate this day by the Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network (SWAN).
REAct will join the Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers events and publish the collected evidence of violations of the rights of this vulnerable group in Kyrgyzstan, the country that managed to record the largest amount of evidence in the EECA region thanks to the effective work of non-governmental organizations and communities. We also publish the story of one of the clients who applied to illustrate the vulnerability and insecurity of sex workers.
Only during the 2020-2022, the REAct system in Kyrgyzstan registered more than 1,300 reports of violations of the rights including representatives of this key group.. More than 50% (668 cases) of registered cases reported violations of rights and discrimination by representatives of law enforcement agencies. Of the 668 cases, 34%of violations were reported by sex workers.
Sex work itself is not criminalized in Kyrgyzstan. However, everything related to it is connected, including the organization, may fall either under the norm of Art. 166 of the Criminal Code of the country – “involvement in prostitution”, or under Art. 167 – “promoting prostitution and debauchery.” Thus, in fact, sex work is criminalized and highly stigmatized. And alas, first of all, by the girls themselves.
For your help you will be punished
January 2022. Nazgul Baidovletova, public defender, «ZiOM21» Public Foundation, Talas (Kyrgyzstan) was approached by Amina (name changed). She and another girl (both sex workers) were beaten by clients. As it later became known, they wanted to rape her friend – Amina stood up for her, for which she paid such a high price…
Nazgul says that she immediately offered to write a statement and see a doctor, but the client refused. The reason for this was … the rapists themselves – it turned out that they were her acquaintances and the girl did not want to create problems and attract too much attention. Only on the third day, when the pain became unbearable, she again dialed the number of the human rights activist. Amina was immediately taken to a friendly doctor. The condition was terrible: bruises all over the body, eyes filled with blood, abdominal pain – he immediately recommended to go to the hospital. Nazgul began to emphasize again that such a case should not be ignored, and that those responsible men should be punished. But again she was refused – it seemed to the client that everything was not so serious and it was not worth exaggerating.
At the hospital, Amina was first seen by a traumatologist, but did not find anything in her profile and was redirected to a gynecologist. Examination and ultrasound in the women’s department gave a disappointing verdict – an urgent operation due to hemorrhage in the uterus. After it, the situation changed – the girl agreed to write a statement, but at the same time she called the offenders, in the hope that they would answer and help. But to no result.
We pay and the case is closed
According to the law, the gynecologist who took Amina signaled to law enforcement agencies that a patient with such a serious diagnosis was admitted, but they were in no hurry to respond. On the same day, Nazgul also applied to the district department of internal organs, but the request remained unanswered. Only the next day the police arrived and accepted the statement from the victim. But at that moment, the rapists got in touch with Amina. Upon learning that the girl turned to the authorities for help, they offered her to pay the costs of the operation if she wrote a counter statement and the case was closed. They began to put pressure on the fact that they are familiar, that they work in such an area … The girl had doubts – is she doing the right thing? As a result, Amina succumbed to their persuasion, accepted the money (the amount of 20 thousand soms, which is similar to 200 dollars) and the issue was closed.
But everything could be different
Obviously, without the intervention of paralegals, the case would not have reached law enforcement at all. However, the situation could have gone in a different, more significant “scenario”. According to the Istanbul Protocol, Kyrgyzstan has developed and implemented the ”Practical Guidelines for Documenting All Types of Violence”, according to which, when contacting a medical institution, any type of violence must be recorded by a doctor in a special form. And if the police representatives immediately responded to the call from the hospital and the appeal of the defender, took the testimony of the victim – for violators it would be a completely different article. Plus, the harm done to the health of the client has not been fully determined. But alas, the moment has passed.
Aisuluu Sharsheeva, mentor of the Street Lawyers project, comments on the situation: “When considering this and other similar situations where sex worker violence occurs, we should not miss an extremely important point – the self-stigma of our clients. Because of it, they are ready to endure pain, just not to go to the doctor, to forgive aggression and humiliation, because “such a category, they can treat us like that.” That is, instead of upholding the rights – in fact, to depend on violators. Girls are really extremely vulnerable, but they should not give up. This category must firmly change its approach, fight for its rights, otherwise everyone will forget about their existence. SWs should be understood and remembered, despite the cruel and inhuman treatment, everyone has the same rights and must be implemented.”
The Street Lawyers initiative was launched in 2016 in response to actual problems of vulnerable groups. Street lawyers are trained employees of non-governmental organizations in Kyrgyzstan, representing and defending the interests of vulnerable groups, key in the context of curbing the HIV epidemic. In the future, street lawyers were renamed “public defenders”.
This project helps people who are in a difficult life situation. Difficulties in obtaining documents, problems with access to medical services, abuse of authority by law enforcement officers are the main of the many barriers faced by representatives of key populations. A successful case is when a person realizes that his violated rights have been restored. He feels like a full citizen. The problem was solved through negotiations and achieve for the client the restoration of his rights. The main task of street lawyers is mediation. Public defenders act as a conductor between the client and government agencies.