Prostitution: An Unwanted Brand Of Contemporary Ukraine – Analysis


After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine in 1991, the Ukrainian government launched efforts to transition the economy from a planned to a market economy. The transition process created serious economic difficulties and misery in the country. In the first decade of Ukrainian independence, almost 80% of the population was pushed into a state of poverty. Unemployment rose at a galloping rate, with female unemployment rising to a staggering 64% in 1997. The economic collapse left the nation vulnerable and forced many women to enter the hellish world of prostitution and human trafficking in order to secure whatever financial income they could.

Over time, as the years passed and Ukraine remained a poor country, prostitution became a kind of unwanted trademark and brand of modern Ukraine. Ukraine as a country has numerous advantages and virtues such as: agriculture (the “granary of Europe”), unique architecture, rich historical and cultural heritage, beautiful landscapes, traditional Ukrainian cuisine, and that is not in doubt. However, the first association of many people in the world with Ukraine is precisely the negative one – prostitution. We must honestly admit that this negative connotation did not appear recently, because even during the Cold War, many poor Ukrainian women fled the USSR and were drawn into the world of prostitution in Western Europe and Yugoslavia.

Prostitution – a problem that is not being solved

In Ukraine, prostitution is formally illegal, but in practice it is widely tolerated and the government mostly ignores it. In January 2005, the Verkhovna Rada voted for tougher penalties for human trafficking and forced prostitution because previous laws criminalizing organized prostitution had little effect. However, the situation did not improve. The results remained weak because the laws were implemented partially and hesitantly, and almost 70% of people convicted of human trafficking were released from serving their prison sentences. As the country opened up to the world, and especially after the UEFA European Football Championship in 2012, which Ukraine organized together with Poland, sex tourism experienced a great upswing.

Ukraine has become a destination visited by many rich foreign tourists from Europe, the USA and elsewhere because of “cheap” and “easy” women. Before the EURO, some politicians advocated the legalization of prostitution in order to bring order to this business in which a lot of money is turned, so that the people involved in it would have better medical care and in order to collect new tax revenues. However, legalization did not happen. In addition, Ukrainian feminist organization Femen held anti-prostitution protests before and during the EURO, which was the subject of a 2013 documentary called Ukraine is not a brothel.

Widespread activity

It was Ukraine that was one of the most popular European destinations for sex tourism before the Russian invasion in 2022. According to the Public Health Center run by the Ukrainian government, prostitution was widespread in the country with about 53,000 sex workers before the invasion. According to the Ukrainian Institute for Social Studies, before the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, the largest number of sex workers were in the Kyiv Oblast (about 10 thousand), Odesa Oblast (about 6 thousand), Dnipropetrovsk Oblast (about 3 thousand), followed by the Donetsk Oblast , Kharkiv and Crimea. Research by the Ukrainian State Institute for Family and Youth shows that for many women, sex work has become the only source of income: more than 50% of them support their children and/or parents.

Often, underage girls are forced into the world of prostitution. Most often, such girls come from the poorest strata of society. Many of them do not have their own families or their families are socially problematic – their parents are addicted to alcohol or drugs. In 2016, about 10% of victims of human trafficking in Ukraine were of adolescent age. About 10% of the teenage population who lived on the streets without their families provided sexual services to other men in exchange for money or food.

Ukrainian women – victims of international human trafficking

Ukraine has become a promised land for international human trafficking networks looking to find local women and girls to take to work for them around the world. Of all the republics of the former USSR, Ukraine is the biggest victim of human trafficking. In 1998, the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs estimated that 400,000 Ukrainian women had been victims of human trafficking during the previous decade, while other non-governmental sources reported higher figures. According to the UN’s International Organization for Migration, more than 500,000 Ukrainian women were involved in human trafficking in the West from 1991 to 1998. According to a 2016 study, Ukrainian citizens make up 80% of the people “trafficked” by human traffickers. 60% of them were women. Victims of sex trafficking are mostly girls between the ages of 17 and 26.

Many Ukrainian prostitutes lived in Poland even before the Russian invasion. It is estimated that their number was between 10 and 20 thousand. A large number of Ukrainian sex workers are present in popular destinations in Europe (Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Greece, Turkey) and elsewhere (UAE, Thailand, South Korea, Japan). Ukrainian sex workers are the largest group of foreign women engaged in prostitution in Turkey and the second largest group of foreign women involved in prostitution outside of US military bases in South Korea. 80% of victims were unemployed before leaving Ukraine.

Traffickers make extensive use of a poor socio-economic image to recruit women into the world of prostitution. Many girls were persuaded by traffickers to leave their homeland and go abroad thanks to the promise of high earnings. Criminals lie to their victims that they will work as masseurs, dancers or shop assistants. Victims usually leave their home country with legal documents such as passport and visa (in 70% of cases). Most of the girls cross the border legally, but that’s why after they arrive at their planned destination, they are deprived of their freedom and captured by pimps who take away their documents and demand that they earn a certain amount of money in order to repay the “debt” and buy their freedom. If they manage to pay off their “debt”, some women become traffickers themselves. Unfortunately, there are many of them. They return to Ukraine and tell their friends that they have made large amounts of money and recruit new victims. Of course, many of the victims never manage to pay off the “debt” and cannot get out of the hell of prostitution and enter the world of drugs and other addictions such as alcoholism.

The Russian invasion gives the problem a new dimension

The Russian-Ukrainian war has greatly reduced the incomes of sex workers and severely damaged aid programs such as drug addiction treatment and HIV treatment. Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine had a large number of people living with HIV, and this was a priority for the country’s health services. About a third of people receiving help for HIV or drug addiction treatment were no longer receiving help by the end of summer 2022. That number further decreased by the end of last year, to about 20% of help recipients. The war reversed years of progress in health care. Most of them are women who work or have worked in prostitution. Despite no longer having adequate health care, many women have no choice but to continue practicing the oldest craft in order to survive. The same applies to men who, albeit in much smaller numbers, do the same job.

In the city of Dnipro, the charity Virtus registered 2,300 sex workers last year, but far more have moved to the city to escape the fighting. Due to disrupted supply chains, social workers have fewer condoms to distribute. The spread of HIV infection is among the biggest concerns of social workers. Treatment with antiretroviral drugs helps reduce transmission from prostitutes to clients, and thus within the wider society. However, over the past year, about 40 Ukrainian HIV treatment centers have ceased operations, about half due to shelling damage. The war significantly reduced the number of foreign clients. Often the number of clients is half of what it was before. Working conditions and from the financial aspect have collapsed compared to the pre-war period. Thus, according to the stories of the prostitutes themselves, labor prices dropped from $12 per hour to $6-7. In addition, their safety is at risk. Often soldiers and other clients do not want to pay the agreed amount and sex workers are raped, robbed or beaten.

Ukrainian refugees in Europe

The Russian invasion triggered the largest wave of refugees in Europe since 1945. An estimated eight million Ukrainians have fled their country, mostly women and children, many of them extremely vulnerable and sought to be exploited by human traffickers.

At least on paper, European countries have been generous to Ukrainian citizens who have flooded their borders, granting them automatic permits to stay in the country for up to three years, as well as work permits. Ukrainian refugees thus have the opportunity to receive housing, health care and access language courses ahead of asylum seekers who fled violence and repression in Middle Eastern countries such as Syria, Afghanistan or Libya.

The cost to Poland, which itself received at least 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees, is $10 billion. Germany, the Czech Republic and other EU countries have also taken on large financial obligations. In theory, Ukrainian refugees have great support and protection from host countries, while in practice this is often not the case.

Ukrainian refugees – victims of foreign predators

Ukrainian refugees who are victims of the Russian invasion become a double victim because they become the target of evil people in the countries that gave them refuge. Security services in European countries need to strengthen the legal framework and implementation on the ground to protect refugees against predators who want to drag them into the criminal world of prostitution. The United Nations warned last April that traffickers would take advantage of girls and women fleeing Ukraine, and some rights groups have highlighted the risks posed by EU-sponsored programmes. These programs offer private individuals the option to accept Ukrainian refugees into their homes. Checking people and checking the safety of those homes often took a backseat to the waves of people fleeing the war.

European countries are waging battles with criminal networks that have persecuted Ukrainian women for decades, and for whom the Ukrainian crisis and the Russian invasion came as gifts from heaven. Now traffickers do not have to go to Ukraine to look for their victims since their countries are full of Ukrainian refugees. As a result, there are many more potential victims. Criminals do not only try to use their victims as classic prostitutes in a brothel or on the street, but also on online platforms. Often, Ukrainian girls, including minors, are shown available for online erotic and pornographic content. Online platforms that offer work to Ukrainian women in nightclubs or on webcams sometimes mention a maximum but not a minimum age, which shows the exposure of minors.

It can be said that the situation has been alarming in recent years. Data from European Internet search engines indicates a huge jump in searches for terms such as “Ukrainian prostitutes”, “Ukrainian escort ladies”, “Ukrainian pornography”, etc. The Irish sex services website, Escort-Ireland, reported an increase in traffic from 250% within a few weeks of the invasion. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the site claimed to offer users a way to live out their “war-inspired fantasies”. About a month after the start of the Russian invasion, the site’s management boasted: “Ukraine is winning on the Escort-Ireland battlefield.” In Sweden – where, like Ireland, the offer is legal but the purchase of sexual services is not, 30 of 38 men were arrested in March for paying sexual services to Ukrainian refugees last year.

Potential solutions

In many European countries, the authorities do not have adequate laws to enable the police to seize electronic evidence for the purpose of prosecuting human traffickers. Existing European Union laws prohibit online content that depicts sex or sexual violence against minors, but have loopholes that allow websites to advertise sex services to under-18s. Thousands of such websites are active in Europe. Site administrators claim that the amount of advertising for sexual services exceeds their ability to verify the legality of such content.

Non-profit organizations across Europe, together with state agencies for social welfare, have intensified information campaigns about the vulnerability of Ukrainian women. More needs to be done to create a safe environment, especially in providing care for children, providing psychophysical support, as well as jobs. In addition, European policy makers and the repressive apparatus should launch a comprehensive prosecution of human traffickers, and especially abusers in the online world. In order to combat the unwanted sexual exploitation of Ukrainian women in Europe, it is important that the EU modifies its legal framework, that the police do their job and expose human traffickers who hide their exploitative business under the guise of masseurs, cleaners, housekeepers or caregivers. In fact, it is a cover for the prostitution of women who most often do not want to engage in it.

In Ukraine itself, new laws should be passed that would either eradicate or legalize prostitution and introduce some order. Everything depends on the worldview of the politician. Ukrainian decision makers need to evaluate and make a decision. They have to decide whether prostitution is an activity that will make Ukraine recognizable in the world like Thailand and whether it will make up the Ukrainian tourist offer. On the other hand, they may decide that prostitution is unacceptable and largely eradicate it. If they decide to do so, they should provide an alternative for women to no longer deal with it through the opening of alternative, moral and legal workplaces. This state of the gray zone, where prostitution is technically illegal but socially acceptable, is the worst and most harmful to Ukrainian women who engage in it often against their will.

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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