A young sex worker looks for clients in the Ukrainian city of Mykolayiv. About 11,000-15,000 adolescents work as prostitutes in Ukraine.
MYKOLAYIV – In her simple, flower-print sundress and plain sandals, 17-year-old Svitlana appears to lead an ordinary teenage life. She recently passed her school exams and plans to enter a medical college. But her night life is much different.
Most evenings Svitlana walks the streets of the southern port city of Mykolayiv, selling sex services. A tall, long-haired and good-looking brunette, Svitlana has been in this line of work for the last nine months, but she still feels extremely sad and uncomfortable when she talks about it.
Many sex workers turn to selling their bodies out of financial need and scant job prospects, while others choose this ancient profession for selfish reasons to buy goods they would not normally afford.
“I had family problems, bitterly needed money. And my friend, who has been doing this job for about seven years, invited me to try this,” she says looking down, refusing to give her last name for fear of hurting her mother, who is unaware of her profession.
“Initially I didn’t want (to work as a prostitute), but then I agreed,” she adds.
Svitlana is one of approximately 11,000-15,000 teenage girls involved in Ukraine’s underground sex business, according to UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s fund. Most of them grew up in boarding schools, come from troubled families or experienced sexual abuse in the past.
“These children are only trying out this kind of behavior,” says Olena Sakovych, youth and adolescent development specialist at UNICEF. “As they don’t know how to protect themselves, they are extremely vulnerable (to sexually transmitted diseases, violence and other dangers).”
Oleksandra, 17, tall and slim with long fair hair, wears a cap over her face to hide as much of it as she can. Although she wouldn’t say whether she’s currently a sex worker, Oleksandra admitted to working on the streets since the age of 14, when she periodically began to run away from her boarding school together with friends.
“We were earning the way we could,” she explains.
Oleksandra was sent to an orphanage at the age of two, after her mother went to Moscow to make a living and never came back, and her grandmother was deprived of parental rights. She never knew her father.
There are more than 94,000 children like her living in various boarding schools in Ukraine while another 100,000 live and work on the streets, UNICEF data shows.
At the boarding school Oleksandra “was living quite a promiscuous life, along with other girls,” and the school administration was supposedly unaware of it. But it was quickly discovered by some social volunteers who visited the school.
The volunteers persuaded Oleksandra to visit UNITUS, a Mykolayiv-based charitable foundation working with sex workers, including about 400 adolescents. There, the teenager was offered medical assistance and psychological support.
Sitting at the UNITUS office, she explains why she is now a regular visitor here. “They are helping me, morally supporting me. They don’t blame me for anything,” she says.
Tetiana Vanenkova, who founded UNITUS in 2000, said the number of adolescents offering sex services for money or other remuneration in Mykolayiv is currently growing. “And this is very scary.”
Unlike Oleksandra, many teenagers coming to UNITUS deny involvement in the sex business, speaking honestly only with psychologists behind closed doors.
“These kids have very low self-esteem, they lack self-confidence, they don’t have the life skills allowing them to stay afloat,” Vanenkova says.
With their risky lifestyle, these adolescents have higher chances of becoming infected with sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. According to UNICEF estimates, in 2011 about 40 percent of adolescent sex workers engaged in unprotected sex, with the number rising to 51 percent for children living on the streets.
For adult sex workers this figure hovers below 10 percent, according to the International HIV/AIDS Alliance in Ukraine.
Adolescent sex workers stand on a dimply lit street in Mykolayiv, a port city in southern Ukraine.
Despite some progress in curbing the HIV epidemic, Ukraine together with Russia remains Europe’s leader in the rate of new infections, with 7,463 new cases of HIV registered in 2013 alone, health ministry data shows.
The rate of HIV/AIDS infections is currently the highest in the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine, including Mykolayiv, once a center of the shipbuilding industry but currently an economically depressed area.
UNITUS social workers encourage regular testing. Galyna Usatenko, a venereal disease doctor at the center, tries to reassure a client as she takes a blood sample from her finger. “Don’t worry, you will not die,” she says.
At night Usatenko also treats patients in a minivan that offers medical services to sex workers on location where they seek clients. But for teenagers, psychological help is even more important, volunteers say.
“Many of them have fears related to the future. They fear dying, fear imprisonment, fear getting pregnant or being infected with HIV,” says Inna Sidko, head of the recently founded Youth Friendly Clinic, supported by UNICEF.
Oleksandra says regular conversations with a psychologist helped her rethink her life and change her behaviour. “They told me how to find ways out from various situations, told me that I shouldn’t be as selfish as I was,” she says.
Oleksandra is now enrolled in a local college and intends to pursue her education in Lviv, in western Ukraine. She adds that she’s had a steady boyfriend for the last 2.5 years and hopes to marry him one day.
With a warm smile Oleksandra remembers a social worker who guided her to UNITUS three years ago. “She saw that I still had a chance to become a decent person,” she says.