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Sex workers, NGOs, lawyers and doctors debate the pros and cons of legalizing prostitution in the South Caucasus. From Meydan TV.by Gunel Movlud, Edita Badasyan, and Gayane Mkrtchyan 10 February 2017
Despite the traditional mentality prevalent in the Caucasus, sex work is not uncommon, especially for women who find themselves in dead end situations.
Although well known, the rights of sex workers and their issues are rarely discussed in any of the three countries in the South Caucasus.
This is why journalists from Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan decided to gain a better understanding of the topic by directly asking sex workers questions related to their lives. What forces women into sex work? What are the risks? How does society perceive them? What are their rights? The following interviews are the result of their inquiries.
Eka, 30, Georgia
One evening in one of Tbilisi's commuter suburbs, 30-year-old Eka puts on makeup, a brightly-colored coat, jeans and a nice pair of shoes. One might think she is going to a party, or on a date – but she is going to work. Eka has been a sex worker for seven years in one of Tbilisi’s saunas. (The names of sex workers have been changed to protect their privacy.)
“I grew up in a rather small village in western Georgia. When I was 17 years old, a boy from a neighboring town kidnapped me. They call it bride kidnapping. I stayed with him, and bore him two children. My life was not easy, but then again, who has it easy nowadays?” says Eka.
She remembers that they lived without much money, but they did get along. She took care of the children while her husband worked. But there was an accident that turned her life around completely: her husband died in a car crash, leaving her by herself, in debt, and with two small children.
“My parents are retired, so they were unable to help me. Nor were the parents of my late husband. I decided to move to Tbilisi, thinking it would be easier to find work here, and left my kids with my family. I worked as a maid, a saleswoman, but this wasn’t enough to provide for me and my kids. It was so difficult that I thought about killing myself a few times. One of my friends told me that she worked in a sauna, where she offers intimate services to men. I tried getting the thought out of my head, but one day I just went for it.”
Eka would rather not speak about her first days as a sex worker. She does say that she was afraid all the time that someone she knew would walk in.
“Of course, I wasn’t jumping for joy. But I knew that I wasn’t stealing, I wasn’t killing people or hurting anyone but myself. But that also made me able to provide not only for myself but also for my two children, and to even send some money to my parents.
And this New Year’s Eve, I was even able to bring home some presents.”
Eka knows very well that her job involves daily risks.
“I’ve been beaten, intimidated, humiliated. Thank God I’ve never been in the hospital, or taken to the police station after a raid. And thank God I can’t even remember all of it – I’d die if I still remembered all that happened to me. It helps that I work in a sauna and not out on the street. At the sauna, everyone can help you if you need it, but not on the street. Girls who work the streets have it much rougher and often get beaten. And who will hear your complaint? The police think that since you’re a prostitute, they [the clients] can do whatever they want with you. [The police] are always on the side of our clients, who in some cases are rapists and offenders.”
Nare, 35, Armenia
Just like Eka, Nare says that she ended up in the sex business for the sake of her children. Their life stories bear uncanny resemblances in other ways too.
“I didn’t start working in prostitution after living the high life, you know. I got married, became a mother of two children, and my husband died of an illness shortly after. What am I supposed to do, how should I earn my living? I have no higher education. And, by the way, even those who do have an education can't find work very easily.
“I had a friend who gave me some advice. Now I work until six in the morning. Sometimes I earn a lot, sometimes I come home without a single kopek,” says 35-year-old Nare, who has been a sex worker for three years.
Nare does not believe that she is doing something immoral. She simply sees this as her job. She has her own principles and her own morals – she never gets attached to clients, and never engages with more than one at the same time. She says the dangers of practicing prostitution in this region are high.
“You never really know who you’re going with, and how he will treat you. But what can you do about it, this is a risk that comes with the trade. You have to be quick and clever not to end up in the hands of the police, and to avoid a scandal. Even if you know your rights, they will always take the side of the offender, of the client. And that’s because they see you as a ‘fallen woman,’ unworthy of compassion or justice. We don’t have rights in the eyes of society, nor in the eyes of the police,” she says.
Shalala, 60, Azerbaijan
Shalala is a 60-year-old who is unashamed to speak of her profession. A long time ago, Shalala moved with her young husband and her son from a small provincial town to Sumqayit, the third largest city in Azerbaijan. Her husband found work. But the happy days of the family were numbered. A year later, her husband was arrested for the murder of a colleague and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Shalala had to feed herself and her son, and to provide for her husband in prison. The tall young woman did not give up, but she did not want to find work. She found a different way out of that situation.
“I had no education. I thought to myself, ‘if I got work as a dishwasher or as a maid, I’d get hit on [by my bosses]. If I didn’t give in to them, they’d fire me. I’d just waste my time.’ So I started going to the weddings of friends and relatives. I got all dressed up, put on makeup, wore high-heeled shoes: I was very glamorous. Someone would always get close to me at one point or another during these weddings, and they’d give me their number. I’d call, I’d invite them to my house and I’d name a price.”
Shalala says that from the very first day she retained a cool head about this line of work. She never cried, never suffered because of it.
“I understood that this was a decent line of work. But as with all professions, one needs to be dispassionate and patient."
Shalala always had her clients come to her apartment. All her neighbors knew what she did. From the outset, they complained and asked for explanations, even threatening her with physical violence. But she did not lose her cool, and instead laid bare the facts.
“Every month, I pay district ‘taxes.’ I pay the district boys to protect me as well. If someone talks or raises a fist against me, they will be arrested and found in possession of drugs. Or they’ll be beaten. If everyone stays quiet, however, I promise you will never hear a drunken voice from my apartment, scandals or anything of the sort. I will respect you, but you must respect me as well.”
Shalala never took risks. She always practiced safe sex, and never called clients in order to avoid conflicts with their families. She never went to a client’s home or to a hotel.
“I often don’t know who this person really is, what he will do to me, and whether there will be anyone around to protect me or not. But, despite the neighbors, there are really few risks when I work at home.”
When her husband got out of prison and found out what she had been doing for the past 15 years, he forgave her and said he understood the necessity of her work. But Shalala refused to live with him.
“I got used to working and earning my own living. I am a self-made person. My neighbors have accepted me, and no one says anything bad to me.”
They Think They Deserve Their Fate
But not everyone has been as “lucky” as Shalala. Overall, sex workers have it very hard in all three countries of the South Caucasus. Police raids, beatings, and intimidation are commonplace.
Beka Gadabadze (pictured below), a social worker with Tanadgoma, a Georgian NGO, says women working in this field often have low self-esteem, and see themselves as unworthy of even the most basic rights.
“Many of them feel like they are part of a marginalized group. They think they deserve the negativity they get from others. They don’t even consider defending their rights."
They are often abused and humiliated by their clients, both physically and verbally. They have a hard time receiving proper medical care, and are sometimes even turned away by doctors. Those are the kind of complaints we received from the sex workers who agreed to talk to us.
Because prostitution is illegal in all three countries, many sex workers decide to keep quiet when their rights are violated.
The Gerra 21 association published findings based on interviews with 92 sex workers from across Georgia. Only two of them had dared to defend their rights and file a complaint with the police. One of the appeals was completely ignored.
The Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA) began a new project in 2016 aimed at informing sex workers of their rights.
“We lead trainings not only for sex workers, but also for lawyers, to show that justice is not available for the former only because of their jobs. Sex workers are often victims of rape, and law enforcement bodies turn them away. This is why they have little trust in lawyers or the police. Many are victims of violence at least twice a week … either by their clients, the police, or sometimes even their relatives,” GYLA lawyer Tamar Dekanosidze told us.
Pay a Fine and Carry On
The laws in each South Caucasus country treat prostitution as an administrative offense. In Georgia, sex workers can be fined up to half their minimum monthly earnings. The actual sum is not defined, among other things because of the difficulty of defining the earnings of a sex worker.
According to Dekanosidze, her organization appealed to the Interior Ministry to ask for an approximation of this possible fine.
“We were not given this information. But sex workers that I asked told me that they have to pay about 20 lari,” or about $7.50, the GYLA lawyer says.
In Armenia, prostitution is also punishable by fines. The exact amount is not specified, but interviews with police indicate that first-time violations are punishable by fines of up to 20,000 drams ($41). The fine is doubled for a second offense.
Those found guilty of human trafficking with the intent of sexual exploitation face fines of up to about $565, correctional labor, or a prison term of up to four years.
The situation is similar in Azerbaijan. Here, the standard penalty for sex work is a 100 manat ($53) fine.
People who provide space for the purpose of prostitution face far steeper punishment in all three countries. They can be charged with a criminal offense and face several years in prison or fines if convicted.
Lawyer Tigran Sargsyan believes that fines don’t work: the police round up sex workers, fine them and then let them go. And the case ends there.
“Both sex workers and sex dens operate on the quiet, under the table, so to speak,” says lawyer Fariz Namazli. “They pay fines and continue working. No one looks after the health or defense of sex workers. I’m not even talking about preventive measures.”
Yet another sphere in which the rights of sex workers are often violated concerns their health. Sex workers don’t benefit from special health services in any of the countries.
It is also not unheard of for doctors to completely deny them access to medical services. This is but one of many medical issues surrounding workers in the trade.
Tanadgoma is one of few organizations in the South Caucasus that works with this marginalized group. It provides medical services and information on reproductive and sexual health, and its social workers hand out condoms.
Sex workers “can come to our health corner to seek medical attention – we have contracts with several doctors. Sex workers can do HIV and other tests for free. We have two gynecologists, who have received sensitivity training and understand how to work with patients,” Gadabadze says.
“If a sex worker has an infection and has been provided with housing, then this would help us diagnose and treat her quicker. However, having a housing arrangement will not stop the infection of other clients or herself. The client generally plays a large role in deciding whether to use a condom or not. ... Maybe if they [sex workers] were forced to undergo medical examinations on a regular basis, their health would improve, but the potential for infection would not decrease,” Ohannesyan says.
Legalization Pros and Cons
Would the decriminalization or even legalization of prostitution in the South Caucasus be a solution for this problem?
Ohannesyan is a supporter of legalizing sex work and creating a framework for legally offering intimate services. However, he doubts that this will come about in the region, because the political climate is not ready for it.
Dekanosidze believes that decriminalization would be a step in the right direction: “If prostitution is not decriminalized, sex workers will continue to be afraid of asking the police for help.”
She believes that the criminal status of renting space for prostitution is putting a brake on the recognition of sex workers’ rights.
“We are for the cancellation of all administrative and criminal offenses [with regards to prostitution],” she says.
However, according to Namazli, neither decriminalization nor legalization would get to the root of the matter.
“Even if prostitution was legalized, people would hide, and not take mandatory medical checks, because they will always be ashamed of their profession. However, if legalization comes into being, it could solve the issues of taxes and medical insurance.”
Shalala says she is not interested in other people’s opinions, or the laws and rights granted by the state.
“I understood one thing about this country – whoever you are and whatever you do, you have to be able to defend yourself, and you have to be able to force people to respect you. I made my neighbors do just this, and that’s why I’m strong.
“When I see girls in this business who are bruised or drunk and act vulgarly, I feel pity for them. I never drank more than one glass, didn’t dress vulgarly, didn’t smoke and didn’t behave provokingly. We have different morals. People get angry when you go against their traditions, their lifestyle. But when you show your best side, they accept you. Like my neighbors, my clients have always respected me. Besides payment, they often gave me gold, diamonds, fixed my apartment.”
Is What We Do Immoral?
“When you explain to them the benefits of decriminalization, or for that matter, legalization, they usually answer, ‘Georgia isn’t the kind of country where this would be possible. And, actually, it isn’t needed – what we do isn’t all that great to begin with,’ ” Gadabadze says.
Lawyer Sargsyan argues that a better legal and regulatory framework would cut the link between sex work and crime.
“If the state doesn’t regulate the process, criminal gangs take prostitution into their own hands. If the appropriate legislation was passed, and if the industry was better regulated ... then the situation could improve. And if instead of walking the streets prostitutes would receive their clients in specific locations, all of this would happen in a bit more civilized way,” he says.
A representative of the United Nations Population Fund in Armenia, Garik Ayrapetyan, stresses that although many countries have legalized prostitution, the South Caucasus needs to more forward carefully.
“In more developed countries, sex workers go through mandatory medical checks to prevent the spreading of infectious diseases. With legalization, we also hope that violence against sex workers will decrease,” Ayrapetyan says.
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