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To Advance Rights, Sex Workers Tell Their Stories

Anastasia Bezverkha co-facilitated a storytelling workshop sponsored by the Open Society Foundations in Bodrum, Turkey, for sex workers and advocates. She interviewed workshop attendee Natalya Isaeva, who leads the Kirovograd branch of Legalife, a Ukrainian advocacy group and Open Society grantee that unites sex workers to protect their rights.

How did you become an advocate for sex workers?

I became an advocate after working in harm reduction as a social worker in Kirovograd. After I had my own problems with the police, I sought help and discovered a regional advocacy network of sex workers. In 2007 I became a member of SWAN, the Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network of Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In 2009 I started a branch of Legalife in our city. We currently have about ten members.

What is Legalife?

Our mission is to unite female and male sex workers who want to stand up for their personal dignity, and stand up to violence and human rights violations by law enforcement. In Ukraine, sex work is a civil offense rather than a criminal offense. Nevertheless, police frequently use threats, blackmail, and physical violence against sex workers.

In addition to advocacy, Legalife raises awareness and disseminates information about HIV, hepatitis, and tuberculosis. We also provide legal and medical aid to sex workers in need. We have 10 regional and city branches throughout Ukraine. 

What does your office do?

The Kirovograd branch focuses specifically on the rights of sex workers in the city of Kirovograd and central Ukraine, working with law enforcement bodies and local decision makers. We are currently implementing a documentation project supported by the Open Society Foundations. Our goal is to document the rights violations experienced by female and male sex workers. We use a variety of methods to capture the evidence of abuses. We gather audio and written stories, and in some cases are able to film the police harassing, illegally detaining, and committing violence against sex workers. The power of this documentation cannot be overstated. 

You attended our storytelling workshop last fall, led by the organization Narativ. What did you learn?

I learned that personal stories can be told in many different ways, and that stories can communicate powerful emotions. They enable you to reach people’s hearts, and help others to understand what it is like to be in your shoes.

I was taught during the training that when you tell your personal story, you should focus on what has happened to you, simply telling the facts and trying to avoid interpreting the situation or speaking directly of emotions. I was surprised by the effect this has on the audience.

When I told my own story during the workshop, all the memories and pain became fresh again. I began to cry. But after I finished telling my story, I looked around and I saw how people looked at me. They came up to me, hugged me, and told me they were proud of me. The story was about how several other sex workers and I were held against our will in a dark cold cellar with rats, physically and sexually abused until we finally managed to escape. 

So I decided to continue storytelling. When I came home, I wrote my story and it was published in the Ukrainian newspaper for sex workers, Lilith. Sex workers from all over Ukraine have had the chance to read it.

How have you used storytelling in your advocacy work?

In May we held a roundtable discussion about violations of sex workers’ human rights in Kirovograd. We invited local authorities, police officials, doctors, and the media.

During the discussion a police chief said, “It is their own fault! Sex workers are responsible for their own problems!” I stood up and told the story of a woman who was severely injured by one of the police chief's colleagues while she provided him sexual services. I told this story without judgment, using a lot of detail to describe what happened to her. When I finished, there was dead silence in the room and the chief policeman could not look into people’s eyes.

I now host a regular and informal storytelling circle. Sex workers meet and share their stories and I provide basic coaching. Recently, we held a storytelling session for some of our members who were writing their stories for a local newspaper. 

What are your future storytelling plans?

Legalife hopes to sign a memorandum of cooperation with the Kirovograd police department regarding the treatment of sex workers. I want to become equal partners with them in order to work more efficiently to fight violations of sex workers’ rights. I am strongly convinced that storytelling can become a central tool of persuasion and pressure on local authorities and policemen. Personal stories can influence anyone, from average Ukrainians to members of Parliament.

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