My name is Natalia Isaeva and I’m 35 years old. I live in Ukraine with my husband and 14-year-old son. I’m now pregnant again and am expecting a new daughter! We don’t choose the life we’re born into, and because of my circumstances I ended up as a sex worker. I started this work in the year 2000 in Russia, staying there a few years before returning to Ukraine.
While working in the sex industry I experienced both violence and violations of my rights. Sex workers in Ukraine, as in Russia, face a lot of stigma and discrimination. And because sex work is criminalised, violence and violations are also often committed by officials, police and the medical profession. For example, rapists are often not held accountable for the crimes they commit.
Adhering to HIV treatment is another challenge for sex workers. Many sex workers don’t have passports, either because they aren’t registered, because they don’t have a permanent residence, or because their passports are stolen. And without these papers it’s almost impossible to access antiretroviral treatment – even if you know your HIV-positive status and have a record of your blood cell count.
Like everyone else, sex workers move around the country to make a living, but if they leave a city for a long time and their stock of medication runs out, getting more supplies can be virtually impossible. And although HIV treatment is free, the treatment of opportunistic infections isn’t, so people living with HIV often have to buy these drugs. Those without money have to go without – so Ukraine has quite a high mortality rate from co-infections like tuberculosis.
Many sex workers don’t have passports, either because they aren’t registered, because they don’t have a permanent residence, or because their passports are stolen. And without these papers it’s almost impossible to access antiretroviral treatment – even if you know your HIV-positive status and have a record of your blood cell count.
When I returned to Ukraine from Russia I began to work for an organisation working to prevent HIV and sexually transmitted infections among sex workers and drug users. I gave these groups advice, as well as handing out condoms and syringes, and making referrals to doctors. I heard a lot of stories about violations by the police and this motivated me to give people advice and to start defending the rights of sex workers.
But I also started getting involved in networks – first for people living with HIV as a social worker, then with the movement of sex workers who wanted to unite and register as an organisation. The result was LEGALIFE which was registered in 2009. I am now elected board chairman and chief executive officer of the Kirovograd regional branch of LEGALIFE! We recently got a small grant from ITPC as part of the Bridging the Gaps programme. We will use the grant to fight stigma, discrimination, drug shortages, human rights abuses, and other barriers that stand in the way of access to HIV treatment for our communities.
Because there can be a prison sentence of up to three years for anyone convicted of knowingly infecting another person, many sex workers living with HIV tend to hide their state of health. My job now is to protect sex workers, try to get their interests represented in government, and increase the access they have to health care and social services across the country.
We work with all different types of sex workers towards the same goal – we want sex work to be recognised work! I like the attitude of sex workers in New Zealand, where sex work is considered to be real work!