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.
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