“We are always trying to speak to power,” Elena says. “To find a common language so that we can achieve decriminalisation.”
Elena is a former sex worker and a mother of three, part of Ukrainian sex worker rights organisation, LEGALIFE-Ukraine. “In the past, I had experience of sex work, and often saw violation of the rights of sex workers.” she says. “Many sex workers don’t know they have rights or how to defend them. I always resented those moments, but I didn’t have enough knowledge and skills to defend myself.”
In 2008, Elena met another sex worker who was part of an outreach charity. She began working there too, soaking up information from workshops and sharing the knowledge with other workers. Now, LEGALIFE-Ukraine has members all over Ukraine, with branches in ten regions.
Sex work is illegal in Ukraine. Most sex workers Elena are in contact with work in flats or on the street, some migrate to work abroad. Many tell of violence. “It’s not just the police and clients,” Elena says. “It’s also close relatives.”
“Society continues to pretend that this phenomenon doesn’t happen in Ukraine,” she says. “In most cases, sex workers are treated with condemnation and stigmatisation.”
LEGALIFE-Ukraine is steadily increasing its membership, spreading knowledge around legal rights and bringing together sex workers from across the country. Both current and former sex workers are welcome. “Our hearts and our doors are always open for new members,” Elena says.