“Every day you think about being okay”. How Moldovan NGOs help sex workers combat the HIV epidemic

In the Republic of Moldova, sex workers remain one of the most stigmatized groups. There is no specialized organization in the country that provides assistance and advocates for the rights of those engaged in the sale of sexual services. Nevertheless, thanks to the collaboration between international organizations and local NGOs, it seems that this issue is making some progress. Elena Derzhanskaya tried to understand why this is important.

Anna* from Balti, located in northern Moldova, became involved in the sex industry a few years ago. The fragile girl with a strong character says she started selling sex due to her family’s challenging financial situation. “I thought that I could support myself here, and that’s why I chose this path. I needed to raise two children and help my mother,” Anna confesses.

She explains that her family had struggled with poverty since her childhood. She married early, and gave birth to children, but separated from her husband after the birth of her second child. Today, her only source of income is the sale of sexual services. According to Anna, her work is associated with numerous health risks. “The most dangerous part of my job is not getting set up, robbed, or harmed. Very often, you agree with a client on one thing, but when you arrive, it turns out to be something completely different. Some of my acquaintances are locked in apartments and not allowed to leave for several days, and no one can help them.”

According to Moldovan statistics, sex workers are at a higher risk of contracting HIV and sexually transmitted infections. Experts estimate that there are approximately 15,800 sex workers in the country, but the exact number is unknown. According to the Moldovan Criminal Code, engaging in prostitution is punishable by a fine of approx. $100 to $150 USD or community services. Because of this, the vast majority involved in this industry keep their source of income hidden and literally lead a double life, fearing to seek help. Oksana is another individual we met who is afraid to reveal her identity.

“At first, it was wild, unpleasant, and unfamiliar.”

Oksana* explains that she engaged in the sex industry ten years ago. A friend led her into this business. “At first, it was wild, unpleasant, and unfamiliar. However, over time, you get used to everything. My friend explained to me what to do and how to do it, and I listened to her. That’s how I ended up here,” Oksana clarifies.

She grew up in a fatherless family, and her mother was a heavy drinker who paid no attention to her daughter. In protest, Oksana often ran away from home. “I didn’t see any prospects for myself; I had no education, and no one cared for me. No one explained to me that there was another life where you are respected, loved, and accepted for who you are.”

After a break in her work, during which Oksana gave birth to a child, she had to return to work. She had separated from her daughter’s father, and her mother had passed away. “Understand, we don’t do this because the life is good. I work to provide everything for my child, to make sure she lacks nothing, to give her everything I didn’t have in my child time,” the young woman explains.

According to Oksana, the fact that selling sex for money is illegal further stigmatizes those involved in this activity. “Girls are afraid to say a word too much; they are afraid to ask for help, often blaming themselves for making mistakes. They have low self-esteem, which hinders them from saying no when it’s really necessary and they feel it. Many of them suffer violence from clients,” Oksana admits.

They don’t ask for help because they don’t know they have the right to it.

Oksanas words are supported by statistics, which indicate that sex workers face a risk of experiencing various forms of violence at work ranging from 45 to 75%. Many cannot resist it because they are unaware of their right to protection.

To increase the awareness of sex workers about HIV prevention and strengthen their knowledge in preventing gender-based violence, the non-governmental organization “Union for Justice and Health” located in Balti has been providing psychological, social, and medical services for several years. Anna and Oksana are among the recipients of such services.

“A friend brought me to this organization. She said they would listen to me here and give advice. And it happened. Sometimes we come here just to cry because we can’t talk about our problems anywhere else. Psychologists work with us here, and we can tell them everything with confidence that it won’t be shared with anyone else. And here, we can always ask for condoms, lubricants, sterile syringes, and wipes. This helps protect ourselves during work,” Anna confesses.

“We want to feel needed too.”

Both girls regularly attend support groups in a safe space where social workers provide information on how to protect themselves at work, how often to visit a doctor and undergo testing, etc. Importantly, they are also taught and supported on how to believe in themselves and their abilities to resist psychological violence and manipulation.

“We want to feel needed too. We are no better, but no worse than anyone else. We are not outcasts; we are just like everyone else. Just like everyone else, we have the right to protection, acceptance, and understanding,” Anna confirms. According to her, talking to a psychologist allowed her to see her future differently. Today, she dreams of having a profession and changing her line of work. “I would like to work as a cook or with children; for me, they are a real relief. I forget about everything that happened to me when I see children’s eyes”, concludes Anna. 

Along with Anna, several dozen girls working in the sex industry regularly attend support groups. They also have an anonymous online social media group where they can discuss current information, share advice, and, importantly, warn of dangers. This group was created as part of a project implemented by the non-governmental organization “Union for Justice and Health.” Entry is only granted after approval by the organization’s administrator, who is also a social worker.

Alla Yatsko, the chairman of the organization “Union for Justice and Health,” notes the positive dynamics of this project, which has already reached over 200 sex workers. “We have noticed that women within the community have come together, paying more attention to the quality and style of their communication with each other. With each project participant meeting, the numbers are increasing, and this pleases us,” says Alla Yatsko. “We teach them not to be mere consumers of life but to find a balance between what they receive and what they give in return. We also teach them to love themselves, their bodies, take care of their health and psychological well-being.”

According to the Moldova Country Director of UNAIDS, Svetlana Plamadeala, nearly 88% of the country’s population does not want to live in the same community as sex workers. This has a profound impact on those engaged in this industry.

“This is why it is essential to support the implementation of such projects, the goal of which is to expand the rights and opportunities of female sex workers by overcoming self-stigma, stigma, and increasing access to HIV prevention services and their rights. These rights include health, education, protection, and the respect of society. Because no one should be left behind,” summarizes Svetlana Plamadeala.

*Note: The names of the heroines have been changed at their request.

Text: Elena Derjanschi

Photos: Ruslan Sholkan