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Ukraine: Respect Sex Workers as Citizens

World Policy Journal begins each issue with the Big Question, where we ask a panel of experts to provide insight into the cover theme. The question for the winter 2016/2017 World Policy Interrupted issue is: What do sex workers need to better control their working conditions? Below, Olga Grishina argues sex workers must be treated as citizens with legal protection and a role in political decision-making. 

By Olga Grishina

One of the most important issues facing sex workers today is the decriminalization of sexual services. In Ukraine, sex work is an administrative violation, punished with monetary fines, which leads to the misuse and abuse of sex workers’ rights.

Many difficulties arise in the workplace as a result of this policy. Sex workers are forced to give 50 percent of their pay to pimps and sex business owners in exchange for assistance in dealing with the police. Women who work independently are forced to do so secretly. Unlike the rest of the Ukrainian work force, sex workers are not protected by the law from either police or criminals, making them civilians without rights who cannot rely on the legal system.

This lack of protection is why our sex workers don’t turn to medical treatment or legal assistance when they experience violence from clients, police, sex business owners, or any other person. Police extort money from sex workers on a regular basis by threatening to inform on them to their family, friends, acquaintances, and even co-workers when sex workers have a second job.

In its failure to address the poor treatment of sex workers, the state not only condones but encourages violence and law breaking, facilitating corruption among law enforcement. Violence against sex workers is not limited to police, pimps, “mamas,” or gang members; they may also suffer abuse from family members and sexual partners. Sex workers often treat this violence as routine—a standard price to be paid and a risk of the trade. They take it as given and don’t turn to the police or file complaints, even though their civil liberties are trampled on. The lack of access to the judicial system for sex workers and the lack of punishment of perpetrators trap sex workers in a situation with few options to respond to mistreatment. 

In December 2009, sex workers from several regions of Ukraine founded a charity organization called All Ukrainian League Legalife. One of the organization’s missions is to reform, regularize, and resolve the laws surrounding sex work in a way that will raise sex workers’ quality of life and improve their access to social, medical, and legal services, helping them to develop personally and socially. The organization prints and distributes at no charge a newspaper called Lilit, which deals with health and human rights and provides information and training in issues relevant to sex workers. Members train sex workers, advocate for League Legalife and its work, and reach out to officials by participating in television shows and other forms of media, as well as through participation in a national movement for sex workers’ rights.

It’s important to change the social attitude toward sex workers so that people will see and treat sex workers with tolerance and without prejudice. Sex workers must be respected as citizens, and they must have opportunities to influence and affect political decisions on the local and national levels in order to protect their human rights.

*****

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Olga Grishina is a psychologist and member of League Legalife.

[Photo courtesy of msmornington]

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