The Many Consequences of Violence against Sex Workers
By Julia Lukomnik
Every few days, around the same time of night, the police came to extort a bribe from Elina. But this time, she was determined not to pay. After all, she broke no laws by selling sex in Kyrgyzstan.
The police would hear none of it. They beat her, illegally arrested her, and urged her to commit suicide in her cell. After hours of taunting, Elina attempted to end her life and was rushed to the hospital.
As soon as she was discharged, the police threatened to put her daughter into state custody if she filed a complaint.
Sadly, Elina’s story is not unique. Because of stigma, sex workers face high rates of abuse and violence. Where sex work is criminalized, sex workers hide from law enforcement. They must work alone in desolate areas, putting them at greater risk. In such a climate, sexual assault and rape by law enforcement—coupled with the threat of illegal detention or outing—become means of retaliation and control.
Violence like this not only violates national laws and international human rights accords, it harms sex workers’ health. Violence against sex workers in all forms—including abuse by partners and police, and violence that is endured while in detention—is linked to increased HIV/AIDS rates. It harms sex workers’ ability to insist on condom use and choose their sexual partners.
Violence perpetrated by law enforcement is also associated with diminished use of condoms and safe injecting equipment because sex workers fear such items will be used as evidence of criminal activity. In addition, psychological abuse from staff at hospitals, drug treatment services, and shelters dissuades sex workers from seeking services and treatment.
The Sex Workers Advocacy and Rights Network (SWAN), which encompasses 28 sex worker groups in 18 countries across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, researches the incidence and contexts of violence against sex workers. In 2015, SWAN found 280 instances of physical or sexual violence among the sample of 301 sex workers interviewed. Disturbingly, one out of five interviewees also experienced physical violence at the hands of police.
In response to these grave violations, Eastern European and Central Asian organizations are deploying innovative programs to combat violence.
In Kyrgyzstan, female sex workers face high levels of violence from intimate partners, but shelters are few and far between. These shelters receive little if any support from the state, and instead are run by NGOs that routinely deny sex workers access, claiming that they will disturb other residents.
In response, Asteria, an organization that works with women who use drugs—many of whom are also sex workers—started screening its clients for intimate partner violence. The group helps these women develop a safety plan, while also advocating on their behalf with crisis centers. Slowly but surely, Asteria is ensuring that sex workers can access support services to protect themselves.
Shakh-Ayim, a Kyrgyz group run by and for sex workers, trains them to document cases of violence and provide referrals to lawyers and a community-run drop-in center. The records they compile, along with data from Asteria and other community-based organizations, is presented to the UN Committee to End Violence Against Women (CEDAW).
As a result of their work, the committee recently highlighted police violence and discrimination against sex workers as a key problem the Kyrgyz government should address. At CEDAW’s next hearing, the government will have to show what steps it has taken.
In Ukraine, despite the fact that sex work is not illegal, sex workers are often illegally arrested, extorted, or abused by police. To combat this, an organization called Legalife–Ukraine does outreach to educate sex workers about their rights and record accounts of police violence. They present these findings to local ombudsmen’s offices to make authorities aware of violations. A representative of the group sits on the ombudsman’s advisory committee to ensure that cases are thoroughly investigated.
Legalife–Ukraine also works with lawyers to help sex workers receive justice. For example, law enforcement often ask for sex workers to provide sexual services in order to gain release. But if they can access a lawyer upon arrest, they are more likely to be treated with dignity and be afforded due process. Recently, the group created a 24-hour legal hotline to connect sex workers with lawyers the moment they come into contact with police.
As sex workers and their allies across the world recognize today as the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, we recognize the community-based organizations in Eastern Europe and Central Asia that are striving to do just that.
With the help of Shakh-Ayim, Elina’s story now sounds a hopeful note. She was able to engage a lawyer to file a criminal complaint against the police officers who extorted, beat, detained, and psychologically abused her.
The prosecutor’s office is now reviewing her case.
Asteria, Legalife–Ukraine, Shakh-Ayim, and the Sex Workers Advocacy and Rights Network are grantees of the Open Society Foundations.
Until December 2021, Julia Lukomnik was a senior program officer with the Open Society Public Health Program.