Hidden sex workers risk violence and disease

Russia, March 7, 2017 – China Post

SAINT PETERSBURG — Vladimir Putin recently quipped that Russian prostitutes are “the best in the world” as he dismissed unsubstantiated rumors that Moscow had incriminating evidence on Donald Trump.

But the reality is that Russian sex workers operate in a hidden world outside the law and out of sight — making them doubly vulnerable to infection and abuse, as AFP journalists found after being granted rare access to an illegal brothel.

In a grand Stalin-era tower block in the northwestern city of Saint Petersburg, a woman in her 30s opens the door of an apartment, introducing herself as Inna, the receptionist of this so-called salon.

“Go into the kitchen. Nadya’s working, but Nastya and Madina are in there,” she says. Nastya, 31, and Madina, 20, are wearing T-shirts over flimsy nighties and are drinking tea in the small kitchen.

The women only agree to speak to AFP because they trust an accompanying activist from the only NGO in Russia for sex workers called Serebryanaya Roza, or Silver Rose.

The activist, Regina Akhmetzyanova, spends her evening going to such clandestine brothels to give out condoms and to offer sex workers an HIV test.

This is particularly important for prostitutes since infection rates in Russia are currently growing, with more than 103,000 new cases identified in 2016, up 5 percent on the previous year, while the real total is likely to be significantly higher.

Prostitutes admit they come under pressure to have unsafe sex.

“They’ve beaten me and threatened me with a knife, forced me to do it without a condom,” said Madina, who is from Uzbekistan and speaks only basic Russian.

“I’ve had difficult situations with clients many times, for sure,” added Nastya, who came to the city from the Urals region. “I’ve learnt not to show my fear.”

‘Absolute pariahs’

“Russian prostitutes are absolute pariahs who have no real way of defending themselves,” says Silver Rose’s founder, Irina Maslova.

Maslova knows what she is talking about. The slim blonde in her 40s says she spent six years selling sex in the city before becoming an activist in 2003 and one of the few public advocates for prostitutes’ rights.

While prostitution is illegal in Russia, it is punishable by a fine of just 1,500 rubles (US$26).

Pimps theoretically face up to three years in jail but are harder to convict since this requires police to track financial flows.

Activists say this legal ban is often used by police as an excuse not to investigate crimes against sex workers.

“We’re told our profession doesn’t exist, that means, we don’t exist for the government on the one hand, but on the other hand, since (prostitution) is an administrative offence, sex workers are totally defenseless and without rights,” complains Maslova.