Persecution and Activism of Sex Workers in Kyrgyzstan

Author: Olga Ochneva, Kyrgyzstan

For almost a year and a half, law enforcement agencies have been persecuting sex workers in Kyrgyzstan. During this period, the number of sex workers receiving HIV prevention services in some regions of the country reduced twice. Civil society organisations registered more than 450 cases of sex workers’ rights violations by the police every year.

Extortion, detentions, and threats

In 2017, 81% of all reports of abuse and human rights violations submitted to the Shah-Aiym Sex Workers Network were complaints against police officers on extortion. Shah-Aiym documents such cases with the support of Soros Foundation-Kyrgyzstan and street lawyers of public associations all over Kyrgyzstan within the framework of the Global Fund via Soros Foundation-Kyrgyzstan. Both sources recorded 475 cases of sex workers’ rights violations by law enforcement agencies in 2016 and 459 cases in 2017. Most often, those are cases of extortion, arbitrary detention, threats, blackmailing, pressure and degrading treatment.

“The wave of mass raids started in mid-2016 when City Directorate of Internal Affairs in Bishkek announced that it was going to “clean the city by getting rid of prostitution.” They even asked local people to conduct night raids, make photos of sex workers and pass such photos on to the policemen,” tells Shahnas Islamova, head of NGO Tais Plus. “At first, press service of the Chief Directorate of Internal Affairs was reporting detentions, not even hesitating or not understanding that they were, in fact, announcing unlawful acts of the law enforcement agencies.”

In Kyrgyzstan, sex work is decriminalized, which means that it is neither an administrative nor a criminal offense. To punish sex workers, law enforcers use other provisions of the Administrative Offences Code. Most often, sex workers are detained for alleged disorderly conduct or petty crimes.

“Sex workers try to avoid court proceedings: they buy off. There are some cases when law enforcers know what a girl does to earn her living and start blackmailing her. They threaten to take photos of the girls, tell their relatives about their occupation or take them to a police station, so the girls agree to pay: the standard charge is up to 1,000 soms ($15),” tells Alina (the name is changed), a street lawyer of a civil society organization. “If girls try to defend their rights, law enforcers find other ways to detain them: they draft reports of disorderly conduct or failure to obtain registration. Those who have bad luck or are not able to buy off may be arrested for three to five days.”

According to Alina, many sex workers have gone underground: they often change their rented apartments and phone numbers. Such situation in some regions of the country hinders the access of NGOs to sex workers to conduct HIV prevention interventions: distribute condoms, offer testing, conduct awareness-raising activities, and consultations.

“Since the start of the “purge”, our organization has been monitoring the dynamics in the coverage of sex workers with prevention programmes in Bishkek,” says the head of Tais Plus NGO. “In a year and a half, the coverage has reduced twice, and in the second quarter of 2017 the actual indicator went down to 39% of the planned coverage.”

Activism in the challenging environment

Mass raids of 2016-2017 echoed almost in every region of the country. Groups of people who explained their actions with the “religious motives and interests of the society” helped law enforcers in their “fight” against sex workers. As the end of 2017 approached, things calmed down: sex workers got used to the new conditions, while the pressure from the side of police weakened a bit and the mass raids ended. However, “police marks” stipulating sex workers paying money to the law enforcers for the so-called “protection” and “permit to work” are still there.

“Currently, in most cases pimps are the ones to keep contact with police, while there are almost no girls who work on their own,” says Nadezhda Sharonova, director of the Podruga Charitable Foundation about the situation in Osh. “Recently, our street lawyer has been more and more often reporting complaints of sex workers against their pimps who beat and blackmail the girls.”

Despite the fact that civil society organizations in Kyrgyzstan offer legal support, sex workers rarely report their offenders. Representative of the Tais Plus NGO thinks that this fact is easy to explain: to go through all the legal prosecution process, one needs boldness and strength as well as certain savings – not to cover the legal expenses, but to be able not to work for a while and keep out of the law enforcers’ sight.

At the same time, the sex workers movement is growing and becoming stronger. The Shah-Aiym Network unites sex workers in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia. The network documents human rights violations and provides support to the victims of human rights violations, actively protects the interests of sex workers’ community and publicly campaigns against violence towards sex workers. The network ensures conditions for strengthening activists’ capacity to claim and defend their rights.

“We have seen cases when sex workers defend themselves,” says Shahnas Islamova. “For instance, at the court hearings on administrative offenses some sex workers now openly say that they are engaged into sex work and do not violate any laws, while the police has violated the law when detaining them. As a result, such sex workers have left the courtroom free from any accusations.”

Compass Centre in Kharkiv, Ukraine: when Policeman Becomes an Uncle

img_0039“I come here often,” Senior Inspector of the Juvenile Prevention Department of National Police of Kharkiv region, Ukraine, Andrii Stadnik is sitting by the table in the centre Compass of Kharkiv City Charitable Foundation Blago. He is smiling and pointing at the table. “Look, here I even have my own cup to drink from…”

Andrii Stadnik started to work in police in 1998. He says he is very happy with his job now. In Compass he meets many children who are grateful for not being send to prison, and he likes to be able to help them. The regulars of the centre even call him uncle Andrii, and this shows very good relations between people in the Ukrainian culture.

18 years old Oleksandr (Sasha) is sitting in front of Andrii, at the same table. Sasha is one of the main characters in the film that was made about the centre Compass a few years ago. Once he was detained by Andrii Stadnik and stayed under police control for some time. Now, after the client management program at Compass, Olexandr is doing much better. He even found a job as a security guard. “Now I somehow feel as Andrii’s colleague,” Sasha smiles.

“The criminal juvenile cases decreased tremendously last years, due to the approach when juvenile police is collaborating with a youth centre that offers client management. These alternative supporting ways are more constructive and more effective,” Senior Inspector of the Juvenile Prevention Department is telling us. “Previously there were 2000 cases per year, and now it is 362. The formulas of substances that circulate on the streets change so fast that young people can often not be prosecuted, but by giving youth an option and an alternative for other options, young people have less problems and also cause less problems for the society they live in.”

img_0036There are 492.000 children in the region in total. 897 families are under juvenile department control in Kharkiv region in Ukraine. The Juvenile Police checks these families, sees how they are doing, and if there are cases of child abuse, financial problems, and so on. Kharkiv Juvenile police is also inviting colleagues from other smaller cities or villages, and teaches them how to work with the Centre Compass. Through this cooperation they found out that young people from the region have difficulties with coming to the Centre since Kharkiv is too far for them. That is why now once a week a social worker of the Centre travels to the villages to counsel young people in need there.

Kharkiv City Charitable Foundation Blago has a long history of working with key populations, including people who use drugs, sex workers, men having sex with men and street children. The organisation started to work with adolescents using drugs since 2012 within the framework of “Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights of Key Populations” project, through ICF “AIDS Foundation East-West” (AFEW-Ukraine.) Bridging the Gaps project supported the opening of the centre Compass that specifically serves vulnerable adolescents and young people, focusing on youth using drugs. The centre offers psychological counseling services, medical help, testing for HIV, hepatitis B and C. It is a daycare facility with social workers, psychologists and medical workers. The centre is providing case management services to youth using drugs, and also works with youth in prisons, and vocational schools.

2016 International Consultation: Policing, Public Health and Vulnerable Populations is Announced

LEPH2016-DL-FlyerThe 2016 International Consultation: Policing, Public Health and Vulnerable Populations will take place on 1 October 2016 in Amsterdam. It will focus on police work with sex workers, injecting drug users, homeless people, sexual minorities, and trafficked persons. The registration for the event will be opened in August.

The Consultation will be held prior to the 3rd International Conference on Law Enforcement and Public Health 2-5 October, Amsterdam. Participants of the event will consider and endorse principles to guide the greater participation of vulnerable populations in building safe, secure and healthy communities in partnerships with police.

The purpose of the Consultation is to promote best practices in policing and inter-sectoral partnerships to ensure healthy lives and wellbeing of vulnerable and marginalized populations (SDG3), and promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies (SDG16). Police and other law enforcement agencies, community organizations and representatives of vulnerable populations, government agencies, United Nations agencies and other international development organizations are expected to participate in the event.

The 2016 Consultation follows consultations on police and HIV held at the LEPH2012 and LEPH2014 Conferences. There is an increasing need to integrate HIV prevention programs with programs addressing other harms with the same populations. Further, HIV vulnerability is often secondary to other harms – such as gender-based violence, inequalities in wealth distribution, social exclusion, lack of job opportunities and education access, or being an undocumented migrant. A key principle of this integration is the involvement of vulnerable communities in the design and implementation of these programs.

Participation in the Consultation is open to registered participants at the 3rd International Conference on Law Enforcement and Public Health (LEPH2016). Places are limited. Registrations will open around August through the Conference website: www.leph2016.com. For further information about the Consultation, write to leahn@leahn.org

Click to read the full details of the event