Ukraine has always had a problem with the sex trade. Young female Ukrainians have been the victims of sex trafficking and prostitution at least since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, and in earlier periods of Ukrainian history as well. This is a tender subject, not often explored openly in Ukraine, although a number of NGO’s have focused upon the subject and Ukrainian people will discuss the problem openly if you raise it with them. A number of young Ukrainian women moved to the West in the face of economic privations upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, to become sex workers of various kinds; Ukraine also became a destination for sex tourism. The problem reached endemic proportions as Ukraine became home to a series of internet chat centres where, in exchange for various fees, foreign men could chat with what they imagined would be their future Ukrainian brides. They would then be lured to Ukraine only to discover that their imagined bride was not the person with whom they had been talking on the internet and in fact spoke no English at all. Stories of this kind abound.
Ukraine has one of the highest rate of HIV infection in Europe, at approximately 1%. Although prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, it is particularly endemic in Ukraine. Every city or large town will have at least one sauna or parlour, typically being an environment in which sex workers congregate. Protective contraception is not always used and levels of promiscuity are fairly high by European standards. It is not really clear why Ukraine suffers from this problem so much more fundamentally than many other European countries. Russia also has problems with endemic prostitution, but they are arguably not quite so bad. Although HIV rates in Russia are if anything slightly higher than in Ukraine, this may be due to the sharing of needles in intravenous drug use which exists (or used to exist pre-war) in Ukraine but on lower scales than in Russia.
The onset of war did nothing to mitigate the problems of sex work in Ukraine and Ukrainians travelling across borders to engage in sex work. If anything, it enhanced the problem. Soldiers returning from the stresses and dangers of the front line for short leave periods are keen to engage in amorous relations, as has been virtually universally the case with all armies in history. Because they do not know, once they go back to the front line, whether they will return again alive or unharmed, the relationships they seek are inevitably short-term in nature. Hence across the front line in Ukraine, an army of sex workers has emerged to support the army fighting in the trenches. One might view this as a form of patriotism; but it is also desperately sad.
In the short term, there is probably no immediate solution to this problem. While the war continues, young women are short of money and the economy is stagnant (as virtually all war economies are), young women will stand in need of some extra money and soldiers will be prepared to pay it during their brief periods of leave. Hence there will be both supply and demand. One of the few good things to have emerged from the war is that the prevalence of foreign sex tourists travelling to Ukraine has dropped off completely: travelling to a country at war is too dangerous and disconcerting for the vast majority of foreign (male) sex tourists to entertain the prospect. Moreover Ukrainian refugees moving elsewhere in Europe may receive allowances for living from the governments of their host states, or they may be given opportunities for legitimate work. Therefore some aspects of Ukraine’s problem with sex work may have been reduced.
Nevertheless the domestic demand continues, amidst all the toils of bloody conflict and the psychological pressure this imposes upon soldiers and young women alike. The scale of the problem has not been addressed and data or information about it has not been collected. This should be rectified. The issue is not particularly taboo; both male and female Ukrainians will talk about the existence of sex work, and their participation in it, fairly freely if on occasion somewhat circuitously. It is never hard to understand what they are talking about.
If the West is to embrace Ukraine as a modern and thriving European democracy, as is its stated goal and indeed as is an absolute international imperative in the face of the dangers to European peace and stability presented by Russian military aggression, then the international community must face up to the issues presented by the need to preserve women’s rights. Ukrainian women who participate in sex work do so because they have no practical economic choices and because they are disempowered from the workforce and from more constructive roles in the collective national war effort. Because Ukraine does not currently have the civil society infrastructure or government controls necessary to address these problems itself, due to its participation in an agonisingly long war, the international community, and in particular international development institutions, should take the lead.
The first step is to measure the scale of the problem. This has not been undertaken satisfactorily in the past, in large part because Ukrainian government institutions have not been up to the task of measuring the relevant sorts of people movement or to creating regulatory structures for sex workers. From a government policy standpoint, Ukrainian issues with sex work have always been brushed under the proverbial carpet. This ought to change, and it can change with gentle international pressure that explains to the Ukrainian government and Ukraine’s people alike that the economic and social plight of young Ukrainian women is an issue that is of concern to the West. It should be politely but firmly explained that changing the economic misfortunes of Ukraine’s young women, so that this problem may be ameliorated, is a condition of European Union membership and Euro-Atlantic integration. Standards of protection of women’s rights are a fundamental feature of European law and policy, and Ukraine must aspire to meet those standards if she is fully to be integrated with the European community of nations.
Once the war has reached a conclusion, an intensive effort must be made on the part of the international community in reinvigorating the legal and economic rights of Ukraine’s young women so that they can escape this sort of invidious trap. It is a formidable undertaking. Data must be collected on the economic privations of young Ukrainian women that motivate them to participate in the sex industry. The pre-war habits of foreign sex tourists visiting Ukraine and young Ukrainian women travelling abroad for paid sexual encounters with foreign men must not be allowed to re-emerge. To the extent that young Ukrainian women living abroad have been economically empowered by their refugee status, this should be preserved. The domestic Ukrainian sex industry, currently so ubiquitous amidst war, must not be allowed to flourish any further. All this will require a fundamental realignment of the political economic and social relationships between men and women in Ukraine.
Ukraine is a fairly matriarchal society in many respects; women hold a lot of influence in some areas of decision-making, particularly family and the home. In many ways Ukrainians are also conservative people devoted to family life, although this is often not understood by occasional foreign visitors. The position of women is far from totally suppressed in Ukrainian society. Nevertheless the phenomenon of ubiquitous sex work is a challenge that needs to be addressed, war or no war. We are better off starting now in addressing this challenge. There are plenty of Ukrainians who will support such a project, and it is an essential step, in promoting women’s civil rights, to ensure the participation of Ukraine as an equal partner in the community of Western nations: a goal to which all right-thinking people aspire.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.